A 1,700-mile proposed pipeline that cuts through the heart of cattle country has stirred a controversy from the High Plains to Washington, D.C. In fact, last month the U.S. State Department put the whole project on hold while alternative routes are studied.
The controversy comes from TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline which was planned to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. Proponents claim America needs the oil and the jobs the pipeline construction project would create. Opponents believe the environmental risks are just too great.
Catching arrows from both directions, the Obama administration delayed the project but was then criticized because the delay appeared politically motivated. That’s because the study of alternative routes could take 12 to 18 months, which would push the final decision on the pipeline until after President Obama’s re-election bid in November 2012. In a release announcing the delay, the State Department said the study “could be completed as early as the first quarter of 2013.”
The delay is called a victory for environmentalists who oppose the pipeline and a setback for TransCanada Corp., whose $7 billion Keystone XL project is seen by supporters as the most important North American oil pipeline plan for decades.
If the administration explores a new route, “it’s a huge victory, and it would probably be the biggest environmental gift that President Barack Obama has given us,” Tony Iallonardo, a spokesman at the National Wildlife Federation, told Reuters.
Many of Obama’s supporters have strongly opposed the project, and delaying the decision could allow Obama to avoid antagonizing environmentalists disillusioned with his progress on climate change. Republicans are likely to argue that any delay in the pipeline project will slow job growth.
At the center of the controversy is the Sandhills region of Nebraska, which the 1,700-mile pipeline would dissect from north to south. Underneath the Sandhills is the Ogallala Aquifer, which pipeline opponents believe would be greatly damaged should an oil spill from the pipeline occur. And despite assurances to the contrary, pipeline opponents claim a spill is a matter of “when” not “if.”
Opposition to the Keystone XL project is also fueling debate in Lincoln, the Nebraska capital, where the state legislature opened a special session to consider changes that would give the state more control over the pipeline and other major oil lines. TransCanada says it will file court challenges if Nebraska tries to intervene, saying the decision is a federal issue.
Robert Jones, TransCanada’s vice president for pipelines, told the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee that attempts to block the project were “fundamentally unfair,” given his company’s cooperation with state and federal authorities.
A bill by Sen. Ken Haar, of Malcolm, Neb., would create “exclusion zones” where pipes larger than 8 inches in diameter could not run. If approved, the measure would prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from running through the Sandhills, certain cold-water streams or other regions where the groundwater is near the surface.
Supporters of Haar’s bill say it would help protect the state’s natural resources, including economic and agricultural interests.
The proposed pipeline would run through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. The objective is to carry oil derived from tar sands in Alberta to refineries on Texas’ Gulf Coast. The new pipeline would double the capacity of an existing pipeline that opened last year.
In addition to concerns over the sensitive environment of the Sandhills, opponents claim extracting petroleum from the tar sands is an inefficient process and creates far more greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional oil production.
For now, it’s a controversy on hold. But this is one controversy that’s likely to return soon after the election — regardless of the winner.