KEYSTONE XL:

Neb. agency hits TransCanada with host of questions about new route

The Nebraska environmental agency accused by Keystone XL opponents of preparing to rubber-stamp a new route for the $5.3 billion pipeline yesterday sought a lengthy list of politically volatile data from its operator, including the identity of chemicals used to dilute the heavy Canadian oil sands crude that it would carry to the Gulf Coast.

The Cornhusker State's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in April began reviewing a new path for Keystone XL that aims to avoid the permeable soil and high water tables of the Sand Hills region. The same green activists and skeptical Nebraskans who helped press TransCanada Corp. into changing its pipeline's route objected when DEQ -- whose leader is named by the pro-XL governor -- was given the limited authority to recommend an up-or-down approval of the company's new route after its review.

While DEQ is not empowered to suggest an alternate corridor for the controversial pipeline, the "feedback report" it submitted to TransCanada yesterday suggests the agency plans to press the company on environmental objections that have opened a dramatic rift in otherwise conservative Nebraska.

DEQ asked TransCanada for material safety data sheets listing basic information about the chemicals that the pipeline would carry, including diluting agents mixed with thick oil sands crude to help it flow that companies typically shield as proprietary information. The agency also asked Keystone XL's operators to describe the impacts of a Canadian fuel leak "compared to a spill of crude oil from sources other than oil sands," a query that references concern among environmentalists that the heavier components of the oil could more easily penetrate the porous rock of the state's vast Ogallala Aquifer.

The agency also advised the pipeline company to "carefully consider route alterations" within its chosen corridor that would minimize areas where standing water seeps through sandy soil, reflecting concerns among landowners along the new route that their soil -- while not characterized by the state as Sand Hills -- is just as delicate as any in Nebraska.

The DEQ review is intended to inform the State Department's separate analysis of the new route, which is expected to be concluded by the first quarter of next year at the earliest. The final environmental review the Obama administration released last year said the Canadian crude would "initially float on water if spilled," though over time lighter "fractions of the crude oil would evaporate and water-soluble components could enter the groundwater" (Greenwire, Aug. 26, 2011).

That final review also addressed what opponents of Keystone XL and oil sands development say are dangerously high levels of carbon emissions generated by the thick fuel's extraction from western Canada as well as its processing and refining. Ten climate scientists, including vocal advocates for emissions limits such as Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and James Hansen of Columbia University, released a letter yesterday urging the administration to consider greenhouse gases as part of its new review of the pipeline.

A State Department official responded by pointing to the 2011 review's consideration of the issue, adding that "the department will consider any new and significant information relevant to climate change concerns in preparing" its next Keystone XL analysis.

Click here to read the Nebraska DEQ's feedback report.

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