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Senate should not approve defunct Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

Anthony Swift

Posted March 7, 2012

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Many Senate Republicans are pushing yet another bill to approve the already rejected TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The bill, proposed by Senator Hoeven, would require the approval of a complex dirty energy project without necessary environmental review or a process to determine if the project is in the national interest. The Hoeven bill would attach a partisan, unrelated rider to the Senate Transportation bill – legislation which historically has been a bastion of bipartisanship. The vote to amend the Transportation bill with a rider require the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is likely to happen this week.  Congress is not a permitting body and should not pass laws to circumvent a process designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being. Overriding that process to approve a tar sands pipeline that will worsen climate change, have  high chance of oil spills, and raise oil prices – all so that tar sands companies can get a higher price for their product on the international market is not in the public interest. Make no mistake, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the Hoeven bill requiring its approval are in the oil industry’s interest, not that of the American public.  

As we have written before, the Keystone XL pipeline is a proposal by TransCanada to bring tar sands from Alberta across the farms and rivers of America’s heartland to Texas from where the oil industry has said that much of it would be exported. In doing this, the pipeline will divert oil from the Midwest – raising oil prices as that region suddenly has access to less oil.

Tar sands crude also has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil and presents additional risks of spills when moved on pipelines. Once spilled, tar sands crude is significantly more difficult to clean up. Federal regulators have yet to evaluate the safety risks of tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL – in fact, the Senate recently passed a law instructing the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA) to determine the risks of tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL and evaluate new regulations to address those risks. Needless to say, it would be unwise to remove additional environmental protections from a project with significant risks that are not fully understood.

Let’s take a closer look at the proposal that many Senate Republicans are pushing. The Hoeven bill would use Congressional authority to permit the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This will circumvent the Presidential Permitting process established by President George W. Bush in Executive Order 13337 to ensure that international pipelines are only built if they are in the U.S. national interest and maintain safety, public health and environmental protections. There are obvious reasons why Congress does not engage in permitting decisions that require objective technical, economic and scientific analysis.

In addition, the Hoeven bill would exempt the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from further federal environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Remember, a route for the pipeline through Nebraska hasn’t been even proposed, much less evaluated for its impacts. The route originally proposed for Keystone XL took it through Nebraska’s Sandhills, a critical source of fresh ground water for the United States. After strong bi-partisan opposition in Nebraska, the company is now looking for alternative routes – but these still have to be assessed as they would all cross important farmland and waters.  The Hoeven bill would exempt the new Nebraska route from federal review.

In fact, the Hoeven bill would allow TransCanada to begin building Keystone XL before Nebraska has finished its consideration of routes through the state. This would put enormous amounts of pressure on Nebraska as it conducts its review. Last November, as Nebraska’s Senators considered enacting a pipeline routing law in a special session, TransCanada’s attorneys threatened the state with expensive lawsuits if it did anything to interfere with the company’s plans or timeline. President Obama’s decision to delay the process relieved much of the pressure that Nebraska was under. By suspending further federal review, the Hoeven bill would put the pressure back on Nebraska.

This is not the first time Keystone XL proponents in the Senate have tried to interfere with the Presidential Permitting process. In December, Senators Lugar, Hoeven and Vitter authored legislation placing an arbitrary sixty day deadline for a decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and attached it as a rider to the payroll taxcut bill – putting tax relief for millions in danger.

With only 60 days to conduct a review that would take at least a year, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Attempting to exempt Keystone XL from adequate review and oversight was a bad idea then and is a bad idea now.

The United States has a rigorous permitting process for international pipelines designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being. A project like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is exactly the type of project that needs careful consideration and not a rubber-stamp.  The Senate should vote “no” to any attempt to attach approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to the Transportation bill.

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Justin WoodallMar 9 2012 02:03 AM

Anthony, it's clear you are in opposition of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. As an American citizen you are entitled to your own opinion. However, you are not entitled to your own facts. I understand your disagreement with the project, myself being an Alumni of Texas A&M's Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences where I specializing in Wildlife Ecology & Management. But many of the statements supporting your position are factual incorrect, in particular the following; "the pipeline will divert oil from the Midwest – raising oil prices as that region suddenly has access to less oil." & "a tar sands pipeline that will worsen climate change, have high chance of oil spills, and raise oil prices – all so that tar sands companies can get a higher price for their product" As for the former, in no way will the Keystone XL Pipeline divert oil from the midwest, in fact the exact opposite is true. The oil is being produced in Canada & will traveling directly though the midwest on its way to be refined in Texas. A pipeline is not one single solid pipe consisting of one inlet & one outlet. Oil can be diverted from the main line & discharged at any point along its route, in this case the midwest. I also find it interesting that you subscribe to the theory of supply & demand in this case, but later you reject it buy saying the pipeline will raise prices. In response to the latter, the Keystone XL Pipeline will not worsen so called Global Climate Change since the oil will be burned regardless. Once again, the opposite of your statement is true since the Chinese are next in line to purchase the oil & their air quality standards are deplorable. To your second point, the pipeline would have no inherent risk of failure resulting in a spill, since the development of a protective coating that lines the interior of the pipe. This new coating prevents the friction that some fear might lead to the erosion of the pipe over time. Again, if the Keystone XL Pipeline is not approved & the Chinese purchase the oil, it will be shipped across the Pacific Ocean on an enormous Oil Tanker, which is far more dangerous. The last thing our sensitive ocean ecosystems needs is another Exxon Valdez or Deep Water Horizon type incident. Not to mention that the 1,000 foot Oil Tankers which will be continuously transporting the oil across the Pacific Ocean are powered by diesel engines roughly the size of an average American home. This risky process will emit tons of carbon into the atmosphere. As for the last portion of your above statement, it is impossible to successfully argue that bringing more of any product to market in a faster, more cost efficient manner will result in a price increase. This is simple supply & demand. Earlier you attempted to illustrated this simple principle when you mistakenly stated that oil will be diverted from the midwest & will result in higher prices. However there are no local exchanges for oil, it is traded on a world wide market. The price is the same everywhere, regardless of location. Therefore, the more product on the market the lower the prices for everyone. Now, most reasonable people with an open mind would upon hearing the above stated arguements at least have to consider the merits of approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that the the facts of the matter are beside the point, in particular to those on the left. And that in fact, the opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline purely political & has little to do with protecting the environment. Also, here are some other facts that will help hide your ignorance when writing on this topic in the future, tar sands are a type of geologic formation which hold oil & other hydrocarbons, it is not a specific type of hydrocarbon. So, it is incorrect to say "an tar sands pipeline". Try this, a pipeline transporting oil extracted from a tar sands formation. Additionally, your statement "as Nebraska’s Senate considered enacting a pipeline routing law" is incorrect. Nebraska does not have a Senate, or a House of Representatives for that matter. Nebraska is the only state which has a single legislative body known as the Unicameral. Although representatives elected to the Unicameral are called Senators. I enjoy intelligent debate & challenge you to write me an email & attempt to disprove any of my above statements.

Anthony SwiftMar 9 2012 08:02 AM

Hi Justin,

Here’s a few points to consider.

1. Keystone XL is designed as a bullet line from Canada to the Gulf Coast. While most pipelines do have many off-ramps, Keystone XL does not. It has three on ramps – in Alberta for Canadian crude, in Bakersfield, Montana for a maximum of 100,000 bpd of Bakken crude, and in Cushing, Oklahoma for 150,000 barrels of crude. There is no means of diverting oil on Keystone XL to Midwestern refineries. Take a look at the project description in Keystone XL’s final Environmental Impact Statement. ( )

2. Currently, oil in the Midwest and Rockies region is sold at a discount of about $10 a barrel. Take a look at the EIA data and compare the Gulf to the Midwest and Rocky refinery districts ( ). While you’re right that oil is generally a global commodity, right now the United States doesn’t have to compete with the international market for oil brought into the Midwest because there isn’t a route to get it to an international port. That has lowered the price much of the U.S. pays for oil relative to the rest of the world. Keystone XL would change that – in fact, TransCanada itself told Canadian regulators that the pipeline would tag billions of dollars to the costs of the Canadian crude that’ currently being sold in the Midwest.

It is still a supply and demand issue – it’s just that Keystone XL will be taking supply that is currently locked in the U.S. Midwest (bringing down prices) and take it where it can be traded internationally in the Gulf (and it’s impacts on raising supply in the much larger international market would be relatively small).

3. I agree that tanker traffic off the British Columbian coast would be a disaster. But it’s not correct to assume that if Keystone XL isn’t built, a pipeline to Canada’s west Coast will be. There is significant public opposition to proposals to do so. First Nations in Canada have real constitutional powers – one community was offered over a billion dollars by Enbridge, the company trying to push on proposal, for easement. They turned Enbridge down. Meanwhile, over seventy percent of British Columbians oppose these pipelines. Take a look at this publication for additional challenges ( )

It’s also incorrect to assume that Keystone XL and Canadian pipelines are either or propositions. Pipelines to Canada’s west coast were proposed and are being considered concurrently with Keystone XL… frankly, all these projects have run into problems – but building Keystone XL doesn’t prevent Canada from building pipelines west and sending it to China.

4. There are inherent risks with any pipeline project – TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline had 14 spills in its first year of operation. The issue with tar sands pipelines is that their risks and implications for the long term safety have not been evaluated. In addition to their physical and chemical different, tar sands pipelines operate at higher pressures and temperatures than pipelines carrying conventional crude. Some of these issues led to Congress requiring federal regulators to investigate this issue in the Pipeline Safety Law that passed in December.

5. I do agree with you that tanker traffic off the British Columbian coast would be a disaster.

6. Tar sands does come from a particular type of formation, but it also has characteristics that distinguish it from conventional crude. It’s composed of the largest, heaviest hydrocarbons. Tar sands bitumen is a class of hydrocarbons and is referred to as such by industry and often in law (tar sands is taxed differently that crude oil in the U.S. and has standalone provisions in NAFTA).

7. You got me on the Nebraska unicameral – a slip on my part and I’ll correct it.

BSMar 9 2012 10:36 AM


Your response to Justin was far from comprehensive. You also never wrote that article dedicated to addressing all the factual inaccuracies I pointed out a number of weeks ago.

You know full well that you are communicating falsehoods and misleading statements to your readers.

Please stop doing so.

Anthony SwiftMar 9 2012 02:04 PM

I haven't had time to blog much period - we've been working very hard on getting this headline this morning.

But to be fair, I did respond to questions you raised in the comment section of the following blogs:

Unfortunately, the comments above that you refer to are as comprehensive as I will ever have time to be. I'd like to spend more time discussing these issues in comments, but I simply don't have the capacity.

BSMar 11 2012 12:32 PM

So what you are saying is that you don't have enough time to ensure that all the claims coming out of the NRDC are factual. Understood.

Comments are closed for this post.


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