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Keystone XL Primer: Secrecy Still Shrouds Diluted Bitumen Risks

Many questions but few answers about the substance that would flow through the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

By Marie C. Baca, InsideClimate News

Nov 2, 2011
A handful of Canadian oil sands

The Canadian crude oil that would flow through the Keystone XL pipeline is either the lynchpin of U.S. energy security or the path to certain environmental destruction, depending on whom you talk to. Advocates say there is no evidence that it is any more harmful than other types of oil; critics say there is insufficient evidence that it is safe. There is little information to support either side.

The oil that would flow through the pipeline is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit, and it has become a lighting rod for controversy in the debate over the pipeline, which would send as much as 830,000 barrels every day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries as far as Texas. The pipeline would cross six states, sometimes passing through environmentally sensitive terrain where spills would be of special concern.

While bitumen has long been refined into oil, regulation of diluted bitumen has been slow to follow. Federal safety officials, for example, don't know precisely which chemicals shippers mix with bitumen to create dilbit. And even industry groups can't say exactly how corrosive dilbit is. Research is spotty and outdated; there have been no independent scientific studies exploring the relationship between dilbit and pipeline corrosion.

Here's a primer on what is—and isn't—known about dilbit.

U.S. May Miss Year-End Goal for Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

By Arshad Mohammed, Reuters

Oct 26, 2011
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

The State Department may miss a year-end target to approve TransCanada Corp's Canada-to-Texas Keystone oil sands pipeline, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday, risking a further delay to the most important new crude oil conduit in decades.  

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the State Department still hoped to make a decision by the end of this year, which has been its target, but that its highest priority was to carry out a thorough, rigorous review. The decision has already been pushed back once.

A further delay would not only be a blow to TransCanada, it could also prolong a massive gap between U.S. and global oil prices because oil traders are counting on Keystone's 700,000 barrel-per-day capacity to relieve a build-up of crude in the Midwest, which doesn't have enough pipelines to ship growing Canadian output to Gulf Coast refineries for use around the United States.

The ruling, which falls to the State Department because the line crosses national borders, is forcing President Barack Obama into a decision that effectively pits environmental safety against job creation and energy security.

"While we still hope to make a decision by the end of the year, we are first and foremost committed to a thorough, transparent and rigorous review process," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"So we're carefully reviewing all of the information we've received, including the many comments from the public, and will make a decision only after we have weighed all of the facts," the official added.

Nebraska Governor to Call Special Session on Keystone XL Pipeline

The session could lead to a change in the pipeline's route away from Nebraska's Sand Hills region and the Ogallala Aquifer.

By Timothy Gardner, Reuters

Oct 24, 2011
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman

Nebraska's governor will call a special session of the state's legislature over TransCanada Corp's proposed oil sands pipeline that would cross ecologically sensitive areas in his state, an aide said.

Governor Dave Heineman does not oppose the Canada-to-Texas pipeline outright but wants TransCanada to change the route away from Nebraska's Sand Hills region, which sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest sources of water for farms in the central United States.

If Nebraska succeeds in changing the route for the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, it could add delays for the project. The pipeline would take oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries, and potentially to its ports for export.

New Analysis of Global Temperature Record Confirms the World Is Warming

The key issues that skeptics claim are exaggerating the evidence of global warming are shown to have no effect on world temperature trends.

By Ian Sample, Guardian

Oct 20, 2011
Map from Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study

Climate skeptics' criticisms of the evidence for global warming make no difference to the emerging picture of a warming world, according to the most comprehensive, independent review of historical temperature records to date.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, investigated several key issues that skeptics claim can skew global warming figures and found they had no meaningful effect on world temperature trends.

Researchers at the Berkeley Earth project compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world and found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the mid-1950s.

This figure agrees with the estimate of global warming arrived at by major groups that maintain official records on the world's climate, including NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Met Office's Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

"My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly skeptical," Richard Muller, a physicist and head of the Berkeley Earth project, told the Guardian.

TransCanada Offers Nebraska Concessions for Pipeline

by Reuters

Oct 18, 2011
Nebraska State Capitol

OMAHA, Nebraska—TransCanada Corp has offered a $100 million performance bond and other oil spill protection measures to Nebraska legislators in an attempt to reduce opposition to the company's proposed $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline.

State lawmakers want TransCanada to move the pipeline route from Nebraska's Sandhills region, which sits atop a massive aquifer from which a large portion of the agriculture-heavy central United States gets its water.

In a letter to the speaker of the legislature on Tuesday, TransCanada executive Alex Pourbaix said the company cannot make changes to the right-of-way so late in the review process, but is prepared to offer a host of other protections for the environmentally sensitive area.

TransCanada would put up a $100 million performance bond it would make available to the state if the company does not clean up a spill in the Sandhills area.

Among other measures, it would build a concrete containment structure at a pump station to stop any oil from mixing with surface water in the event of a spill, as well as install a pipe coating made of concrete or other materials in areas where the water table is close to the surface.

TransCanada Says Keystone XL Pipeline Route Unlikely to Change

A TransCanada official said a different route is likely out of the question because it would delay the pipeline for several years.

By Reuters

Oct 12, 2011
The proposed route of the Keystone XL

The controversial proposed path of the TransCanada Keystone XL oil pipeline across Nebraska is unlikely to change, company officials said Tuesday.

Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president of energy and oil pipelines, and Robert Jones, a TransCanada vice president who would be in charge of constructing the pipeline, met in Norfolk, Nebraska with four Nebraska state senators.

"We understand that the best solution from your perspective is to move the route. We don't believe that is an option for us," Pourbaix said.

"But there are things we can do together to improve the situation and add to your comfort level."

The project would cut across a corner of Nebraska's environmentally fragile Sandhills and the water-rich Ogallala Aquifer. Opposition to the route has swelled in recent months. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman asked the U.S. State Department last week whether the state can pass and enforce its own pipeline siting law.

New Zealand Oil Spill Seen as Potential Environmental Catastrophe

Oil leaking into the sea off the Tauranga coast has increased by as much as ten-fold, raising fears that New Zealand could face an environmental crisis.

By Toby Manhire, Guardian

Oct 11, 2011
Tauranga Coast

AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Fears that New Zealand could face a large-scale environmental crisis have escalated as the oil leaking from the container ship Rena into the sea off the Tauranga coast increased by as much as ten-fold.

The news came as the vessel's remaining crew were evacuated following a mayday alarm amid heavy swells.

The New Zealand environment minister, Nick Smith, said the fresh release of oil into the sea meant the Rena spill was the country's most serious ever maritime environmental disaster.

Speaking at a media conference on Tuesday afternoon, he said the consequences had been "inevitable" since the ship ploughed into the Astrolabe reef in calm waters in the North Island Bay of Plenty last Wednesday morning.

A new rupture to one of the ship's main fuel tanks released between 130 and 350 tons of heavy oil into the water, according to officials who conducted a flyover of the freighter. More than 1,600 tons of fuel remain aboard. The fresh damage was caused after the ship's hull dragged in heavy winds and swells of up to four meters.

The continuing movement of the hull has raised fears that the 47,000-ton vessel could break up, triggering an environmental and ecological catastrophe. The mayday alarm and evacuation by helicopter of the remaining crew early on Wednesday added to speculation that the vessel might be close to fracture.

U.S. Venture Aims to Improve Wind Energy Forecasting and Save Billions

NOAA and DOE have deployed more than a dozen wind detection instruments across the Midwest to measure the economic value of improved forecasting.

By Dan Haugen, Midwest Energy News

Oct 7, 2011

If the weather report says it's supposed to be sunny and breezy tomorrow, do you trust that forecast enough to plan a picnic or hike?

Probably.

But what if instead of a soggy lunch or wet boots, the efficiency and reliability of the region's electricity grid was at risk?

Those are the stakes that grid operators face around the clock as they incorporate wind power into the system.

Wind is a variable energy source, which means, unlike coal or gas plants, grid operators never know precisely how much power wind farms will generate at a given time. They depend on weather forecasts to estimate how much power turbines will produce in the hours and days ahead.

Those forecasts are critical for getting the most value—economic and environmental—out of wind energy. A grid operator needs to trust a forecast before it will shut down or reduce generation at more expensive and polluting fossil fuel plants.

"If grid operators have more confidence in our weather forecasts, they'll be able to avoid burning excessive fossil fuels," says Melinda Marquis, a renewable energy program manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That's why NOAA recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy on a study called the Wind Forecast Improvement Project, which will attempt to measure the economic value of improved forecasting to the energy industry.

Environmental Groups Sue to Stop 'Illegal' Work on Keystone XL Oil Sands Pipeline

Groups say the State Dept. and the Fish and Wildlife Service have allowed TransCanada to begin clearing part of the line's route in the Nebraska sandhills.

By Timothy Gardner, Reuters

Oct 5, 2011
Nebraska Sandhills

Green groups sued the U.S. government on Wednesday to stop the clearing of grasslands and other work on a pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands crude to Texas, opposed by environmentalists for the petroleum's high greenhouse gas emissions.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth sued the U.S. State Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop work they called "illegal construction" on the 1,700 mile pipeline.

Backers of the $7 billion TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline say it will provide jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on oil from countries that are unfriendly to Washington.

Environmentalists oppose the line, however, because crude produced from oil sands releases large volumes of gases blamed for warming the planet and because it would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive source of water in the heartland of the country. There have been several small leaks on an existing Keystone pipeline in recent months and environmentalists say a larger leak could damage the aquifer.

The suit, the first of many legal and regulatory hurdles the pipeline could face, was filed in the U.S. District Court in Nebraska. The complaint can be seen here: link.reuters.com/gad34s.

Union Claims Keystone XL Pipeline's Canadian Permit Expired

The National Energy Board has given TransCanada until Oct. 14 to respond to claims by a major union that its Canadian permit for the pipeline has expired.

By Jeffrey Jones, Reuters

Sep 30, 2011
Syncrude Mildred Lake mine

CALGARY, Alberta—Canada's energy regulator said on Wednesday it is looking into a complaint that TransCanada Corp's permit to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline within its own borders has expired, adding the prospect of more delays to a project environmentalists hope to block.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which opposes the $7 billion oil pipeline to Texas from Alberta, contends TransCanada had not begun construction of the project by March 11, 2011, as spelled out in the permit the National Energy Board granted in March 2010.

Start-up of Keystone XL has been delayed by about a year by an extended review by the U.S. State Department amid a growing political debate in the United States on the pipeline's merits. The State Department is not expected to release its decision until the end of 2011.

The NEB has requested that TransCanada respond by October 14. The union—the largest for Canadian energy workers—will then have until October 21 to react.

"Essentially the board is looking at it, asking for comments from TransCanada and CEP. Once they have that in front of them they will look at it and decide the next steps," board spokeswoman Tara O'Donovan said.

The CEP contends the pipeline, which would ship up to 700,000 barrels of oil sands-derived crude to Texas from Alberta, will prevent the creation of jobs that would come with building oil sands processing facilities within Canada.

It is also critical of the impact of tar sands development on the environment and aboriginal communities, its president, Dave Coles, said.