Environmental groups are ramping up their efforts to persuade the Obama administration to halt a $7 billion pipeline that would carry carbon-intensive crude from Canadian oil sands across six U.S. states.
The State Department is not expected to make a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until next year, but green groups girded for battle after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month that she was "inclined to" approve the proposed pipeline.
The result: two new reports in the past two weeks aimed at generating questions and fresh public skepticism about the pipeline. The Sierra Club took an outside-game approach, profiling 13 grass-roots opponents of the pipeline who live in affected regions, while the pipeline-safety advocacy firm Plains Justice sought to invoke raw memories of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by criticizing the emergency response plans of Keystone XL's sponsor, Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp.
The Plains Justice report raps TransCanada's response plan as paying "only lip service to" the thorny questions of how adequately to prepare emergency equipment and personnel for a possible pipeline leak along remote, cold-weather segments of Keystone XL's 1,700-plus-mile route.
The Michigan pipeline rupture that spewed an estimated 800,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River in July "was an expensive disaster," Plains Justice wrote, "but the Keystone Pipeline System is higher volume, the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is significantly larger in diameter, and much of the system is very far from existing stockpiles of spill response equipment."
The pipeline-safety group based its research not on TransCanada's response plan for the Keystone XL line, slated to begin operations in early 2013, but on previously obtained response plans from companies near the Keystone line. Current federal policy allows pipeline operators to avoid public disclosure of their response plans unless landowners file a Freedom of Information Act request, despite Obama administration endorsements of a more transparent system.
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha defended the computerized leak-detection system in the works for Keystone XL, which he said would monitor the pipeline from 16,000 data points along its route. If any risk to the line's integrity were discovered, Cunha said, that section of Keystone XL could be isolated and shut down to mitigate the spread of a spill.
"We think we're going above and beyond to make sure we can respond faster," Cunha said, adding that TransCanada expects to be able to beat federal regulators' required response time frame by two hours.
Asked about the company's strategy of shielding its response plans for a potential leak, Cunha contended that sharing the information could pose a pipeline security risk. TransCanada's public awareness and emergency management programs "ensure all landowners and stakeholders along the route know where it is, what's in the pipeline, and who to contact if they see something," he said.
Of course, the public safety argument is only half of environmentalists' one-two punch against the proposed pipeline.
In its challenge to the State Department's draft environmental impact statement on Keystone XL, U.S. EPA estimated that crude from Canada's oil sands would produce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent greater than conventional oil -- added pollution that lies at the heart of green groups' case against Keystone XL, which is expected to nearly double U.S. oil imports from its northern neighbor (ClimateWire, July 22).
The Sierra Club's newest effort, titled "Faces of Tar Sands," bids to spotlight workaday critics of the pipeline rather than the political climate facing the project. However, one of the opponents profiled by the group, Houston-based green activist Juan Parras, published an op-ed Saturday in the Houston Chronicle that leaned directly on Clinton to reject Keystone XL.
'Intermediate' step or dependence?
At the heart of the escalating political battle are starkly contrasting views of what the pipeline represents.
Environmental groups see Keystone XL as a leap backward in U.S. clean-energy development. But for the oil and gas industry, as well as four major labor unions that have agreed to provide workers for the project, the pipeline represents job creation and stable energy resources from the United States' secure ally to the north.
TransCanada is also touting what it describes as a relative efficiency boost to be gleaned from using electric motors produced by Siemens AG at the pipeline's 38 pumping stations.
Using electric motors rather than gas "will reduce the energy intensity of the overall operation and thus the greenhouse gas emissions when compared to pipeline projects that use gas turbines located at each pump station," Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens' U.S. arm, wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to Clinton.
Spiegel's letter also nodded to the Obama administration's difficulties in marshaling congressional support for a sweeping greenhouse gas emissions-cutting plan, calling Keystone XL "a valuable intermediate step" on the way to "a comprehensive energy and environmental policy that addresses climate concerns."
But whether or not the Obama administration can move forward on broad energy policy next year, Keystone XL is certain to remain a flash point on Capitol Hill.
Even as environmentalists escalate their entreaties to reject the pipeline, Republicans -- such as Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the front-runner for taking over the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2011 -- are cheerleading for the project (E&ENews PM, Nov. 10).