This was the year the Canadian oil sands registered for the first time on the political and public radar in the U.S. — beyond the circle of green activists in the know.
Congressional members from both parties, farmers and ranchers fought a proposed Alberta-to-Texas pipeline that would double U.S. consumption of the crude. Federal agencies met with First Nations who urged against depending on the "dirty oil." The prestigious U.S. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an analysis on the toxic effects of the tarry sands.
Anti-oil sands groups campaigned with billboards to convince would-be tourists to "rethink" visiting Alberta. Hollywood mogul James Cameron used his star power to raise awareness of the industry's environmental costs.
"The U.S. has been somewhat of a breakthrough in terms of awareness in 2010," said Simon Dyer, policy director and former head of the oil sands program at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank.
(Includes correction, 1/7/2011)
Perhaps it was only a matter of time. America is Canada's largest customer of the relatively high-carbon fuel. By 2030, it is projected to supply up to 36 percent of U.S. needs, up from 8 percent in 2009, according to estimates.
But most observers agree the BP PLC oil leak triggered the sudden attention. The worst accidental oil spill in history sent environmental security concerns soaring up the national energy agenda.
Keystone XL at Center of Post-BP Debate
"The BP disaster has catalyzed a lot of interest and concern around the whole idea of energy and oil in general," Dyer told SolveClimate News.
Along with the offshore drilling industry, the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that Calgary-based TransCanada wants to build became a focal point in the effort to protect America from future oil accidents.
The 35-inch petroleum pipeline would carry up to 900,000 barrels of crude per day from Alberta across six states to tankers off the Gulf Coast. It would cut through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to refineries in Texas, and crisscross the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 78 percent of the water supply and 83 percent of the water for irrigation in Nebraska.
Because the pipeline would cross an international border, the U.S. Department of State must either approve or reject the project.
Once a shoo-in for approval, the $7 billion pipeline found itself under increasing scrutiny after the BP oil spill.
In June, 50 House Democrats raised alarm over poor safety protocols proposed in the design. In October, Mike Johanns, Nebraska's junior Republican senator, urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reroute the pipe around the vulnerable aquifer.
Ben Nelson, the state's senior Democratic senator, echoed the sentiment in a separate letter that also voiced deep concerns over Clinton's seeming basis towards okaying the oil artery.
Around that time, 11 Democratic senators warned against a pipeline that would "significantly increase our dependence on this oil for decades."
All the while, environmental groups helped to rally a grassroots effort of farm groups, ranchers and indigenous people in Nebraska, Texas and other states the pipeline would cross. (See our series of articles here.)
Interest is "exploding," said Rachele Huennekens, a grassroots coordinator for Sierra Club. The group opened a hotline for landowners in Nebraska and Texas and is planning townhall meetings across the American heartland.
For some, the broad fight came as a surprise. "I don't think that I came into 2010 expecting there to be a huge grassroots group in East Texas called 'Stop Tar Sands Oil Pipelines,'" said Alex Moore, Friends of the Earth dirty fuel campaigner.
State Dept. Decision Any Day
A decision by the State Department is expected any day now. The agency will either fast-track approval with a final environmental impact statement (EIS) or release a supplemental draft EIS that would require a new public comment period.
Even if a final review is issued, federal agencies would have 90 days to weigh in.