Nebraska’s Big Dance

The Keystone XL debate returns to Nebraska with more project supporters and fewer substantive points to deny it.

Top line points:

–       Recent federal and state environmental impact reviews of the Keystone XL pipeline have found the project to be safe and fit for construction.

–       According to the State Department, Keystone XL will not increase life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions or the rate of oil sands development.

–       Millions of barrels of crude oil are already being safely produced and transported across the Ogallala Aquifer by existing pipelines.

–       The northern leg of the project is necessary to connect additional domestic production and Canadian oil supplies to our state of the art Gulf coast refineries while creating thousands of American jobs along the way.

After completing its own environmental assessment and gaining the support of the governor, Nebraska may have thought it was out of the Keystone XL spotlight. But this week, all eyes will focus again on a state that has served as a prominent battleground over this project.

On April 18, Grand Island, Nebraska will host a public hearing on the State Department’s fourth environmental review of Keystone XL before a final report is issued and the national interest determination period begins. As OSFC previously noted, the State Department’s latest review didn’t change much from one completed in August 2011: both reports concluded that the project would have a minimal environmental impact. Thus, after four years of conjuring false claims about the project, pipeline opponents are clinging to the Nebraska hearing as their last hope.

Arguments against Keystone XL have morphed from one form to another over the years and, according to a recent Associated Press report, have been reduced to a handful of points outlined below. OSFC examined the old Keystone XL playbook to explain how those points aren’t likely to be part of the final report for President Obama’s review:

Claim #1: The pipeline will undercut the fight against global warming.

According to the State Department’s latest review, life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of oil sands crudes are similar to other heavy crude oils, falling in the same range as heavy Venezuelan crude oil and California heavy oil. Additionally, experts have explained time and again that Keystone XL won’t have a substantial impact on the rate of oil sands development in Canada and therefore, on GHG emissions.

But this claim underscores a big hitch in the anti-KXL crowd’s thinking: the pipeline isn’t what they’re after. As President Obama himself recently said, Keystone XL is “more of a symbolic issue.” And as UC Berkeley Prof. Severin Borenstein put it:

“Let’s face it. The opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t about dirty oil. It’s about oil.” (05/02/13)

Claim #2: The project still puts the Ogallala Aquifer at risk.

As James Goeke, hydrologist and Sand Hills expert, told the Washington Post, “many people have the wrong impression about the danger a pipeline leak would pose to the Ogallala. He said people ‘were concerned that any spill would contaminate and ruin the water in the entire aquifer, and that’s just practically impossible.’”

Millions of barrels of crude oil are already being safely produced and transported across the Ogallala Aquifer by existing pipelines, as retired USDA biologist C. Michael Cowen explains:

“The pipeline is just a red herring. If the pipeline really were their main concern, they also would be protesting all the other pipelines that crisscross the Ogallala Aquifer, including the gasoline pipeline between Geneva and Yankton, S.D.” (02/07/13)

Claim #3: TransCanada already got the Gulf Coast Project and doesn’t need to put other areas of the country at risk for the construction of the northern leg.

According to a new report from Wood Mackenzie, pipeline capacity remains tight as production from the oil sands and the Bakken shale continues to increase, making each new pipeline project that much more important. Skip York, a principal analyst for Wood Mack, explains the dynamics between the two legs of Keystone XL:

“[A] continued delay will result in Keystone XL’s southern leg [Gulf Coast Project] acting as a clearing mechanism for light oil from Cushing until the northern leg is approved and constructed.” (3/27/13)

In other words, while the Gulf Coast project can immediately impact the flow of domestically produced light oil, it’s the northern leg that will play a critical role in not only transporting safe and reliable crude from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, but also generating another 9,000 construction and support jobs along the way.

Claim #4: The Arkansas spill “has raised new concerns about pipeline safety and the specific risks associated with transporting corrosive tar sands.”

Oil sands crudes are not more corrosive than other crude oils. In a 2011 report, Canadian research group Alberta Innovates found that acid and sulfur compounds found in oil sands crudes “are too stable to be corrosive and some may even decrease corrosion.” Recent testing and studies by ASTM International and Penspen support this conclusion.

The fact is that oil sands crudes have been transported safely in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Accident reports from the Pipeline & Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) from 2002 through mid-2012 show zero internal corrosion-related releases from pipelines carrying diluted bitumen.

Further, after four years of review, the State Department continues to come to the same conclusion: Keystone XL is a state-of-the-art pipeline that will have “a minimal environmental impact.” In fact, Keystone XL adopted 57 extra safety measures, leading the State Department to declare that the project would “have a degree of safety over any other.” Pipeline technology continues to improve, making older pipelines more secure and new pipelines safer.

For all the reasons we mention above, the real risk involved with this project is in continuing to delay it.

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