In the three weeks since the State Department decided to re-evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed route of Transcanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, the focus of the pipeline debate has shifted from Nebraska, where a broad coalition of activists, landowners, and politicians from both parties effectively stopped construction of the pipeline over the state’s sensitve Sand Hills region and forced the Obama administration to reconsider its approval of the project in general, to Texas, where Transcanda (and a competitor, Enbridge) are trying to rush construction of the southern section of the pipeline.
The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline is split up in to two major segments. The northern portion begins in the tarsands region of northern Alberta, crosses the international border in Montana, then through South Dakota and Nebraska where it would merge with an existing Transcanada pipeline on its way to Cushing, Oklahoma. Cushing is a major oil shipping and storage hub, and is the price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate crude, which makes Cushing a critically important link in the chain that brings oil products from the Gulf coast north to consumers. There is a huge stockpile of diluted bitumen oil (the tarsands oil variety) at Cushing, but no capacity there to refine it into usuable vehicle fuels. Unrefined bitumen is used in road construction and roofing, but the huge volume flowing out of Alberta has collapsed the price for unrefined bitumen. In order to get the tarsands oil to market, Transcanada and Enridge hope to connect their stockpiles in Cushing to the major refinery complexes on the Texas gulf coast in Houston and Port Arthur. This section of pipeline would primarily pass through east Texas, taking over sensitive areas such as the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer recharge zone, and the Neches River.
Transcanada believes that the Cushing to Texas segment would not require State Department approval since it does not cross an international border, and is rushing to begin construction on the line. It is not altogether clear whether it is legal for Transcanada to consider the southern segment as a separate entity from the northern portion, and several groups in Texas are already considering lawsuits if Transcanada does attempt to move forward with this plan.
While Transcanada’s pipeline is stalled for the moment, a competing company, Enbridge, is trying to move forward with its own plans to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline. In its current state, the Seaway Pipeline brings crude oil from the gulf north to Cushing, but Enbridge proposes to use Seaway to bring tarsands oil south from Cushing to the gulf where it can be refined and exported. Now, Enbridge has a horrible safety record on lines it manages including, but not limited to, a 2010 spill of 840,000 gallons of bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that has cost at least $700 million to clean up, and a 2003 natural gas pipeline explosion in Ontario that killed 7. Enbridge is also trying to build its own tarsands pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia, a prospect so atrocious to Canadians it does not seem likely to be built.
The primary concern with these pipelines is the odious nature of the diluted bitumen(PDF) that they contain. Bitumen is nearly solid at room temperature, so it has to be heated to over 158 degrees farenheit in order to be transported (conventional crude transportation temperatures are approximately 100 degrees farenheit). Bitumen contains 10 times more sulfur, is three times more acidic, and is subject to almost 3 times more pressure inside the pipeline than conventional crude. Each one of these factors increases the risk of pipeline corrosion, and thereby spills, considerably. That the tarsands oil would have a three times greater flow of abrasive quartz and silica than a commercial grade sandblaster ensures that these pipelines would be extremely stressed. A study released by Alberta’s provincial government disputes these findings, but remember that Alberta is basically run as a personal fiefdom of the tarsands industry, and its findings have to be taken about as seriously as cigarette manufacturers’ “evidence” that tobacco isn’t harmful.
Here in Texas, non-idealogical groups such as local volunteer fire departments and landowners along the proposed route are simply trying to figure out what the results of a spill in the east Texas woods would mean for their communties. Given the unprecedented drought and wildfire season we have experienced, it would seem as if these are legitimate concerns. A number of chemicals are used to dilute the bitumen, some of them might be flamable or hazardous to residents living near a spill, but Transcanda and Enbridge refuse to disclose the chemicals used, considering them to be “proprietary.” Chief George Bostok of the Gallatin, Texas fire department estimates that it would take the nearest hazmat team (from either Tyler or Longview) over an hour to respond if there was a leak in his jurisdiction.