March 2, 2013

Industry encouraged by tar sands pipeline study

The State Department report voices no major objections, but does not recommend it either.

The Associated Press

The State Department on Friday raised no major objections to the Keystone XL oil pipeline and said other options to get the oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries are worse for climate change.

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Mining trucks move massive loads of oil-laden sand at the Albian Sands project in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are found in an area almost half the size of Colorado spread across central Alberta.

The Associated Press

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Hundreds of people march to the Maine State Pier in Portland in January to attend a rally protesting the possible use of the Portland-to-Montreal pipeline to send tar sands crude oil to Casco Bay.

Press Herald file photo


In addition to shipping tar sands oil across the American West, officials have expressed interest in sending the crude oil east – likely through Maine to refineries in New Brunswick.

Portland Pipe Line is exploring the idea of moving the crude oil from Montreal to its facility in South Portland via existing pipelines that pass through northern Vermont and New Hampshire. The crude would then be shipped to refineries in the Canadian Maritimes.

The idea has sparked an intense lobbying campaign on both sides. Groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environment Maine and the Sierra Club decry tar sands oil as even dirtier than conventional crude both in terms of sheer grit and the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases generated during extraction. They also contend crude from tar sands oil is more corrosive, raising the risks of pipeline spills.

More than 1,400 people marched from Monument Square to the Maine State Pier in January to protest the possible use of the Portland-to-Montreal oil pipeline to transport tar sands crude oil to Casco Bay.

Billed by organizers as the largest rally against tar sands oil in the Northeast, the protest featured more than a dozen speakers, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Oil executives say tar sands oil is no more likely to spill and that the company is well prepared for accidents.

– Staff and news services

But the latest environmental review stops short of recommending whether the project should be approved. State Department approval of the 1,700-mile pipeline is needed because it crosses a U.S. border.

The lengthy report says Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed, regardless of whether the U.S. approves Keystone XL, which would carry oil from western Canada to refineries in Texas. The pipeline would also travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The report acknowledges that development of tar sands in Alberta would create greenhouse gases but makes clear that other methods to transport the oil -- including rail, trucks and barges -- also pose a risk to the environment.

The State Department analysis for the first time evaluated two options using rail: shipping the oil on trains to existing pipelines or to oil tankers.

The report shows that those other methods would release more greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming than the pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline, according to the report, would release annually the same amount of global warming pollution as 626,000 passenger cars. A scenario that would move the oil on trains to mostly existing pipelines would release 8 percent more greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide than Keystone XL. That scenario would not require State Department approval because any new pipelines would not cross the U.S border. Another alternative that relies mostly on rail to move the oil to the Canadian west coast, where it would be loaded onto oil tankers to the U.S. Gulf Coast, would result in 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, the report said.

In both alternatives, the oil would be shipped in rail cars as bitumen, a thick, tar-like substance, rather than as a liquid.

The State Department was required to conduct a new environmental analysis after the pipeline's operator, Calgary-based TransCanada, changed the project's route though Nebraska. The Obama administration blocked the project last year because of concerns that the original route would have jeopardized environmentally sensitive land in the Sand Hills region. The administration later approved a southern section of the pipeline, from Cushing, Okla., to the Texas coast, as part of what President Obama has called an "all of the above" energy policy that embraces a wide range of sources, from oil and gas to renewables such as wind and solar.

The pipeline plan has become a flashpoint in the U.S. debate over climate change. Republicans and business and labor groups have urged the Obama administration to approve the pipeline as a source of much-needed jobs and a step toward North American energy independence.

Environmental groups have been pressuring the president to reject the pipeline, saying it would carry "dirty oil" that contributes to global warming. They also worry about a spill.

Industry groups and Republicans hailed the report, saying the Obama administration was moving closer to approving Keystone XL, which has been under consideration since 2008.

"No matter how many times KXL is reviewed, the result is the same: no significant environmental impact," said Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry. The report "puts this important, job-creating project one step closer to reality," Durbin said.

Environmentalists blasted the report. "This analysis fails in its review of climate impacts, threats to endangered wildlife like whooping cranes and woodland caribou, and the concerns of tribal communities," said Jim Lyon, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.

If Keystone XL would not speed tar sands development, "why are oil companies pouring millions into lobbying and political contributions to build it?" Lyon asked. "By rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, President Obama can keep billions of tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution locked safely in the ground."

The draft report begins a 45-day comment period, after which the State Department will issue a final environmental report before Secretary of State John Kerry makes a recommendation about whether the pipeline is in the national interest.


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