With global attention focused on the unstoppable oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. must soon rule on a permit for a big pipeline project that would carry a thick, heavy type of crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf coast. The State Department is now giving the public extra time to weigh in.
Environmentalists, concerned about a host of issues associated with the pipeline, are especially worried about its route over a major fresh water aquifer crucial to the Midwest. An accident there could contaminate the water supply of 2 million people and the region's agricultural economy. The rupture of a Chevron pipeline in Utah over the weekend, which a company manager called a "one-in-a-million event," has only added to their concerns.
The State Department agreed last week to extend the public comment period by two weeks on a draft environmental impact statement, until July 2. It also added two public hearings, one in Houston on June 18 and a second in Washington D.C. on June 29.
A spokesman for TransCanada said he still expects the project will be approved in 2010, allowing construction to begin in 2011.
The Keystone Gulfcoast Expansion project, if approved, would cross six states and carry as much as half a million barrels a day of crude for processing in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The expansion would connect to two previously approved Keystone pipelines. One of them has already been completed- from Alberta to Wood River and Patoka, Illinois. The fully completed pipeline would move 1.1 million barrels a day.
Environmental groups credit the delay and the additional public hearings to pressure from nongovernmental organizations, landowners, Congress, Mayor Annise D. Parker of Houston, and government agencies concerned about the project.
“The State Department has been hearing from many sectors and voices,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the National Resource Defense Council. “What you’re seeing is heightened awareness and concern, to make sure people have time to get their comments in.”
Terry Cunha, a spokesman for TransCanada, says the delay “is indicating that the Department of State is making every effort to be as inclusive as possible to allow a variety of stakeholders to offer some comments on this project.”
The Keystone Gulfcoast Expansion, also known as Keystone XL, includes the last two phases in a multi-part project to bring crude oil from the oil sands into the U.S. The first phase of the project, extending from Hardisty, Alberta Illinois, was approved by the Bush administration and is now completed. The second phase, from Steel City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma, was approved 2008 and should be operational in 2011, according to TransCanada (http://www.transcanada.com/keystone/pdfs/keystone_may_2010.pdf).
Variety of Concerns
The pipeline concerns groups worried about a host of environmental consequences, from increased reliance on a carbon intensive fuel to destruction of the Boreal forest in Canada. Oil sands are a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen, a tar-like gooey substance that is converted to a synthetic crude oil before it’s transported by pipeline. Its extraction from beneath the forest can involve mining, extensive water and energy use, and the production of tailings ponds filled with toxic chemicals.
Environmentalists are also concerned about a high-pressure pipeline crossing through miles of environmentally sensitive areas of the U.S., including the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. Ogallala, which supplies water to about two million people and is critical to Midwestern agriculture, has some sections “so close to the surface that any pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water,” the National Wildlife Federation says in a recent report “Staying Hooked on a Dirty Fuel: Why Canadian Tar Sands are a Bad Bet for the United States”.
Environmentalists have reason to worry. Over the weekend a Chevron Corp. pipeline in Utah broke, sending an estimated 33,000 gallons of crude into a creek that ultimately flows into the Great Salt Lake. According to the NWF report, Enbridge, a Canadian company responsible for 8,500 miles of pipelines in the U.S. and Canada, admits it has spilled close to 1.3 million gallons of heavy crude in 400 separate incidents between 2003-2008.
The industry argues it’s moving toward less environmentally disruptive means of extraction, and TransCanada stresses that it monitors its 37,000 miles of pipeline around the clock and can stop a leak quickly, should it occur.
“We have a system that continually monitors flow and pressure,” says Cunha of TransCanada. “If at any time it detected a drop in pressure, our network can immediately isolate the area and isolate that section of pipeline and stop the leak.”
Cunha adds that TransCanada also has emergency plans in place should a spill occur. “We do regular training annually where our staff are continually doing field exercises to make sure they are prepared,” he says.
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