LINCOLN — The Canadian company behind the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline has pledged that it will be the safest, most technically advanced project of its kind.
Critics say engineers simply can't devise a way to safely transport the same type of heavy, tar-sands oil that leaked from pipelines in Arkansas and Michigan.
Both contentions are among the many sure to be raised Thursday when the U.S. State Department takes 7½ hours of public comment on the Keystone XL at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island. The event will mark the only public hearing on the department's draft environmental impact statement.
The hearing represents the next step in a federal process to decide whether it's in the national interest to allow a pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast.
President Barack Obama is expected to make a decision late this summer, although he is under heavy pressure from many in Congress to act sooner.
Over the five years since it was first proposed, the pipeline has evolved into an epic struggle between environmentalists and petroleum backers. The sides have typically framed the issue as the risk of groundwater contamination and greater greenhouse gas emissions versus the jobs created to bring a new supply of oil to market.
Under pressure from Nebraskans and others concerned about threats to water supplies beneath the fragile soils of the Sand Hills, the State Department required the original pipeline route to be changed in late 2011.
Earlier this year, after a state analysis of the new 274-mile route through Nebraska indicated minimal threat of widespread contamination, Gov. Dave Heineman green-lighted the project and sent it back to federal officials. The State Department followed up with the release of its draft environmental analysis on March 1.
But the March 29 pipeline rupture that sent a slick of heavy Canadian crude through a residential subdivision in Mayflower, Ark., has opened another front in the battle.
Opponents say the roughly 5,000 barrels of oil released from the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline would represent just a fraction of what would be released by a similar rupture of the Keystone XL pipeline. That's because the proposed line by TransCanada would carry nearly 10 times the volume of the Exxon line.
“It's not a question of whether it will spill, it's a matter of where and when and how much,” said Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
John Stoody, spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipelines, said environmentalists are trying to make it look like the industry has little experience with the heavy tar-sands crude known as bitumen. In fact, shippers have been piping the oil for 25 years in the United States, and it has not been directly blamed for causing a spill, he said.
“We have a long history of doing this and doing it safely,” he said.
The latest dispute centers on the physical properties of bitumen, mined and extracted from the tar-sands region of Canada. Bitumen is many times thicker than lighter crude oils traditionally shipped by pipelines. Some have compared its consistency to that of peanut butter.
To make it flow, bitumen is diluted with chemicals. Yet the heavier crude still creates friction against the pipeline walls, which. in turn. generates heat. Some suspect that the heat could trigger other reactions that lead to greater corrosion and pipeline failures.
Swift pointed to a regulatory review of a pipeline network in Southern California that moves heavier crude at temperatures above 130 degrees. That review found corrosion failures at rates eight to 23 times higher per mile than in other pipelines.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the branch of the federal government that enforces pipeline safety, does not publish data to compare the safety of diluted bitumen lines versus conventional oil lines. But the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, conducted its own analysis of spills over the past three years. It found that diluted bitumen ruptures released 3.6 times more oil than conventional crude lines.
The worst example of such a spill was the 2010 rupture of the Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Mich., which released an estimated 24,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. Now approaching $1 billion in clean-up expenses, the Michigan incident ranks as the most costly on-shore spill in the country.
But comparing the Keystone XL proposal with ruptures from older pipelines isn't as clear-cut as it might seem, based on the State Department's draft environmental assessment. The department said the California review should be “evaluated with caution.”
Leak rates were highest, the State Department concluded, on the smallest-diameter California pipelines that are at least 50 years old. What's more, newer pipelines include coatings and other measures intended to reduce corrosion.
“A direct cause-and-effect relationship between operating temperature and leak rate is not conclusive,” the department's report stated, referring to the California study.
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for pipeline builder TransCanada, said Keystone XL would be manufactured and maintained under 57 special conditions that exceed federal safety standards. Those conditions include external coating and other requirements to make the pipe more resistant to corrosion.
Under Canadian tariff requirements, the delivery temperature of the product moved by the pipeline can range between 66 degrees and 113 degrees, Howard said. He said the average temperature of the crude will be 98 degrees.
But the question of whether diluted bitumen oil is more corrosive, and therefore more prone to cause pipeline leaks, remains unsettled. A committee of the National Academies of Science is studying the question and is expected to file a report with the federal government sometime in July.
By then, a final environmental impact statement by the State Department should be complete and other federal agencies will be weighing in on whether the project falls within the national interest. After that, the State Department will make its recommendation, which would likely end up on the president's desk.
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