Sailing smoothly toward approval just last spring, TransCanada's major new pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands crude into the U.S. encountered unexpected delays. Storms of controversy generated by two oil industry disasters suddenly created heavy going.
One was BP's catastrophic Gulf oil well blowout. The other hit closer to home. Enbridge, another Alberta-based energy firm, suffered a breach in an oil sands pipeline that gushed more than 800,000 gallons of crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River system.
Environmental groups and legislators pointed to the high-profile accidents to question the wisdom of TransCanada's 1,959-mile planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport as many as 510,000 barrels of bitumen per day across six U.S. states and over a vital underground aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico.
Concern over the environmental security of the proposed pipeline created a backlash in America's generally oil-friendly heartland, delaying approval by the State Department of a presidential permit needed by TransCanada to break ground for the international oil artery.
So for a week in mid-December, 60-year-old TransCanada launched its first-ever big advertising campaign to drum up support for a single project. TV and radio spots ran in Washington, D.C. to tout the line's safety technology and jobs potential. The firm says it was intended to directly combat the No Tar Sands Oil Coalition, whose ads protesting the line ran from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 in the same market.
Has the mounting opposition diminished the pipeline's odds, or is it rallying Big Oil's base? The powerful American Petroleum Institute has joined with TransCanada to protect Canadian crude imports with a unified front in Washington, while indigenous peoples from Canada and the U.S. have made the rounds on Capitol Hill, voicing their concerns to lawmakers.
SolveClimate News spoke with James Millar, spokesperson for TransCanada, to get his perspective on the scrutiny and heightened opposition the pipeline has attracted.
'We Have a Safe Project'
"I'm not surprised by it. I think I respect that — that individuals have concerns after seeing those two incidents. But concerns are one thing; realities are another. And we're confident that we have a safe project."
TransCanada, which owns 37,000 miles of pipelines, says the 36-inch Keystone XL line "incorporates proven design features and construction methods" to limit leaks. In August, the firm removed its request to operate the pipe under higher pressures because of concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency and the public — and the need to protect its commercial interests in the post-BP spill world.
The $7 billion Keystone XL makes up one-third of TransCanada's $21 billion basket of projects, which includes the biggest wind power plant in New England, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear facilities and other liquid fuel pipelines. Keystone XL is the firm's largest project under development, though if the company's $32 to $41 billion Alaska gas pipeline is successful it would eclipse Keystone XL by a factor of five or more. TransCanada's assets total $43.8 billion.
"Is [Keystone XL] important to our bottom line? It is. But all our projects in that $21 billion suite of projects are important to the bottom line." However, Millar added flatly, "not for any of those projects have we felt we’ve had to institute a sort of [advertising] campaign."
Will TransCanada revive last month's campaign in the face of ongoing pressure?
More Pro-Pipeline Ads Coming
"There is a very strong likelihood that we will," Millar said, adding that it could go live as soon as this month as part of a "more comprehensive" push.
Originally, about 100 spots ran on MSNBC, CNN, The Daily Show, Fox, ESPN and radio. The updated campaign will add online news sites, blogs and print publications.
"Advertising in this sort of a realm is not something that our company normally does," Millar explained. "But we felt ... with some of the misinformation that was being put out we needed to offer a counter point of view. We wanted to give [decisionmakers] essentially our side of the story."
That story is one of energy and economic security. The pipeline would replace oil from places like Venezuela with fuel from a "safe, friendly, U.S. neighbor" and create 20,000 manufacturing and construction jobs, the firm says.
Millar would not disclose the campaign's price tag. "We made an investment that we felt was necessary to get our information out there."