Keystone XL Pipeline: A Fluid Situation
Faced With Delay, Company Will Move Route
By Samar Fay
Published: Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
The news on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been moving fast for the last couple of weeks. After a slow three years of environmental assessments and public meetings, the 1,700-mile Alberta-to-Texas tar sands oil pipeline was thought to be a done deal, a slam-dunk. Approval by the president, through the State Department, required because the pipeline crosses an international border, was expected by the end of this year.
The pipeline would cross 284 miles in six Montana counties, including 63 miles in Valley County, before going on through five more states to refineries in Texas.
Then environmental activists, decrying the destructive extraction process in Canada, allied with the landowners on the pipeline’s route in Nebraska, who are worried about spills into the huge Ogallala aquifer under the scenic and fragile Sand Hills, and the protest movement got hot. Pipeline opponents circled the White House Nov. 6 in a big demonstration, while business and labor unions were linked in support of pipeline because of the 20,000 jobs it promised and the energy from a friendly source.
With two important segments of his support base pulling in opposite directions, President Obama took what is widely seen as a delaying tactic. Last Thursday, Nov. 10, the State Department announced that it was considering moving the Nebraska section of the pipeline away from the Sand Hills and the Ogallala aquifer. A new route would require a new environmental impact statement, which would be completed early in 2013 – safely past the election.
Environmentalists welcomed the announcement, although it does not satisfy groups protesting the pipeline because extracting tar sands oil releases more carbon dioxide than traditional methods.
“It’s good the State Department is going to take more time to evaluate a better, safer route in Nebraska,” said Don Brown, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council and a Fort Peck landowner whose land is crossed by the proposed route of the pipeline, in a statement. “We urge the State Department to use this time to fix other problems with its reviews and proposed measures to ensure pipeline safety and protect water, land and residents along the pipeline route with in-place emergency response plans, identification of high consequence areas and other public safety issues.”
Pipeline proponents blasted the decision and the Montana congressional delegation expressed disappointment. Some officials in Valley County, who have been anticipating surging tax revenues from the pipeline, were disappointed too.
“Obviously we would like to have gone forward with this,” said Valley County Commissioner Bruce Peterson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “Before, we wouldn’t see any tax benefit until 2013. If it is approved now, we won’t see any until 2014.”
He said TransCanada, the company trying to build the $7 billion pipeline, has been documenting the conditions of the 100 miles of county roads it would be using and promising to leave them as good as they found them. He said he is confident that as years go by, technology will get better and better to control pollution where tar sands oil is mined. As far as safety on the pipeline, he said he can’t see Keystone taking any shortcuts that might result in a spill.
TransCanada publicly maintained optimism.
“We remain confident Keystone XL will ultimately be approved,” said Russ Girling, the president and CEO of TransCanada. “This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed.”
Then TransCanada turned on a dime and changed the game on Monday, announcing that it will take another route around the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The new route is not final, but one guess has it shifting farther east, where there is a 200-foot barrier of clay to protect the aquifer.
The move has the support of the Nebraska politicians; it broke up the anti-pipeline coalition of Nebraskans and environmentalists; and it put the president back in the hot seat.
TransCanada has studied 14 different routes for Keystone XL, eight of them affecting Nebraska. The company said it hopes this work will serve as a starting point for the additional review and help expedite the process.
TransCanada has already spent about $1.9 billion on this project, and it reportedly stands to lose $1 million for every day of delay.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner, however, said on Monday that any new route would require a supplemental environmental impact statement that would likely take more than a year to complete.
In a written statement, Toner said, “Based on the total mileage of potential alternative routes that would need to be reviewed, we anticipate the evaluation could conclude as early as the first quarter of 2013.”
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