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 Research is spotty and outdated; there have been no independent scientific studies exploring the relationship between dilbit and pipeline corrosion.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.
Five weeks ago, Cindy Myers stood in a high school gymnasium before a crowd of 1,000 and said, "These words could be some of the most important of my life."
Myers was speaking at the Keystone XL oil pipeline hearing in Atkinson, Neb., but her statement could have applied to any of the thousands of people who attended hearings in five other states. Many took a day off work to get in line early; others drove for hours to reach the meetings or spent weeks polishing their testimony. They spoke with passion about jobs and energy security, their fears of water contamination and the risk of an oil spill.
But do their opinions really matter? Will any of their comments reach the State Department officials who will decide whether to approve the 1,700-mile pipeline through the nation's heartland?
To try to answer those questions, InsideClimate News asked the State Department how the public comments are being processed and who is responsible for reading them.
After two weeks of e-mail exchanges and phone calls, however, the two agency spokeswomen we dealt with couldn't explain how or when the comments will be processed, or whether any of the actual decision-makers are obligated to review them. The spokeswomen said only that all agency staff working on the pipeline review will "have access to the comments." When we asked for the names and job titles of those who might be expected to read the comments, we were told that information was not available.
WASHINGTON—Any day now, the EPA will be weighing in with an analysis of the State Department's final environmental evaluation of the controversial oil sands Keystone XL pipeline.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said Friday that authorities from her agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will be responding to the document, which was released Aug. 26, within "the next week or so."
WASHINGTON—To hard-core environmentalists, the Obama administration's upcoming decision on the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is black and white. Say no to the Canada-to-Gulf Coast pipeline, they insist, or they won't support Obama's re-election bid.
But judging the president's performance through such a narrow prism could backfire and make these pipeline hardliners politically irrelevant, analysts say, especially when the economy is tanking.
"All you hear about now is jobs, jobs, jobs," Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren told InsideClimate News. "And this pipeline is going to be painted as a jobs creation issue. It doesn't matter how many jobs will actually be created. In politics, it's about perception. And you're going to get blasted for not allowing it to be built."
Obama came into office as genuinely pro-environment and promising progress, said Warren, a political analyst and pollster for more than three decades.
"Now the greens are putting the squeeze on him," Warren said, "and Obama is saying, 'I know, I know, I know but I can't do what you want me to do with this pipeline. Don't you understand?'"
Evidently not. Claiming it should be a simple decision for Obama, hard-core greens frame the issue like this. Approving the $7 billion project would open a spigot to unneeded dirty fuel and reward the president's bitterest Big Oil enemies, who are intent on limiting him to one term. Rejecting it, on the other hand, would defuse a "carbon bomb" and reignite the devotion of an increasingly demoralized environmental community that raised piles of money and rounded up disengaged voters to help elect him in 2008.
That black and white clarity blurs to a murky gray hue, however, for a president up for re-election in less than 13 months saddled with sagging approval ratings, an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 9.1 percent and a sluggish economy on the verge of slumping back into a recession.
In recent months Koch Industries Inc., the business conglomerate run by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has repeatedly told a U.S. Congressional committee and the news media that the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline has "nothing to do with any of our businesses."
But the company has told Canadian energy regulators a different story.
In 2009, Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, an Alberta-based subsidiary of Koch Industries, applied for—and won—"intervenor status" in the National Energy Board hearings that led to Canada's 2010 approval of its 327-mile portion of the pipeline. The controversial project would carry heavy crude 1,700 miles from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.
In the form it submitted to the Energy Board, Flint Hills wrote that it "is among Canada's largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters. Consequently, Flint Hills has a direct and substantial interest in the application" for the pipeline under consideration.
To be approved as an intervenor, Flint Hills had to have some degree of "business interest" in Keystone XL, Carole Léger-Kubeczek, a National Energy Board spokeswoman, told InsideClimate News. Intervenors are granted the highest level of access in hearings, with the option to ask questions. The Energy Board approved Canada's segment of the pipeline with little opposition, and Flint Hills did not exercise its right to speak.
The Environmental Protection Agency will miss an end-of-month target for proposing greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, the head of the EPA said on Wednesday.
The administration of President Barack Obama is under pressure from business to cut environmental regulation that critics say is hurting the economy, and last week Obama backtracked on smog plans.
The EPA is working on plans to limit greenhouse gases from power plants and oil refineries, and it had been targeting releasing some utility-focused proposals on September 30.
"Greenhouse gases for power plants is first on the docket," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said on the sidelines of an event in San Francisco. "Although we are not going to make the date at the end of the month, we are still working and will be shortly announcing a new schedule."
The ecologically sensitive Nebraska sandhills have become a flashpoint in the debate over whether the 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline should be built to transport tar sands crude oil in Canada across five Midwestern states to Texas. Ninety-two miles of the pipeline would pass through the sandhills, where an oil spill could be devastating.
TransCanada, the Canadian company that hopes to build the pipeline, says its sophisticated safety systems will protect the sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer that lies beneath them from contamination. TransCanada often points out, as spokesman Terry Cunha did in a recent email to SolveClimate News, that there are already "21,000 miles of pipelines crossing Nebraska, including 3,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Many miles of these pipelines co-exist within the Ogallala aquifer."
We decided to check out those figures and dig a little deeper into how Nebraska regulates its pipelines. We found that while Cunha's numbers are accurate, there is more to the story. Here's a guide to help you sort it all out.
How Many Oil Pipelines Currently Run Through the Sandhills?
Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline in the Nebraska sandhills. It would cross through three counties within the sandhills—Boone, Holt and Rock. The only pipelines in those counties are 234 miles of natural gas pipelines.
An Iowa town with the worst air quality in the state is again under EPA scrutiny after years of maintaining allowable air pollution levels.
But plans to clean up emissions from burning coal won't be adopted for several years, leaving residents in a haze of regulation and red tape.
Last month, the EPA declared Iowa's pollution-fighting plans "substantially inadequate" for maintaining fine particulate matter standards in Muscatine, an industrial town on the Mississippi River.
The state has 18 months to craft new plans for EPA approval, and then local industry will have another two years to install equipment or decrease production and reduce emissions. Not meeting pollution standards can lead to withheld federal funding and, eventually, a federal implementation plan that comes directly from the EPA instead of the state.
Farmers fed up with climate change-induced heat waves, droughts and flooding may one day get to reap rewards of a unique U.S. government experiment that aims to understand how crops will adapt to even harsher conditions.
In a field in Maricopa, Arizona, about 35 miles south of Phoenix, a group of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are simulating high temperatures anticipated to occur in 2050, using infrared heaters suspended above wheat plants.
The results of these experiments, they say, might tamp down future food crises by helping growers and ranchers manage their crops and livestock as temperatures change.
BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is commonly referred to as the Gulf oil spill, but liquid oil wasn't the only hydrocarbon that gushed out of the Macondo well for 84 days.
Up to 40 percent of the leak was gas, mostly methane invisible to the naked eye, reported scientists who published their findings last month in the research journal Nature Geoscience.
The study authors — Samantha Joye, Ian MacDonald, Ira Leifer and Vernon Asper — calculate the total volume of discharged gas as between 260,000 to 520,000 tons. That is enough, if burned, to supply the same amount of energy as 1.6 to 3.1 million barrels of crude oil.
Gas and oil occur together in deep ocean deposits, so it should come as no surprise that the Macondo well released large amounts of gas.
"Natural gas was a huge fraction of the hydrocarbon discharge ... and we don't know what happened to it," said lead author Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia.
The impact of the gas on marine ecosystems is largely unknown, and it has reignited a scientific debate about the behavior and whereabouts of hundreds of thousands of tons of natural gas. The discussions will have consequences for both the energy industry and climate change research and policy.