Will a new pipeline spill affect the administration’s Keystone XL decision?

Will Friday's Exxon pipeline oil spill affect President Obama's decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline extension? Right now, the White House isn't saying.

HARDISTY, ALBERTA - JUNE 21: Bryan Templeton is facilities manager at the Keystone facility. The pipes at left are literally the ones that will connect the existing Keystone operation with the new expanded Keystone XL (AKA Keystone B) which is under construction. A massive construction project is well underway on what is known as Keystone B, (AKA Keystone XL) the expansion of the existing Keystone oil pipeline. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post
The Keystone XL construction site in Hardisty in Alberta, Canada. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Exxon Mobil is in the process of cleaning up what it describes as “a few thousand” barrels of Canadian heavy crude oil which spilled near Mayflower, Ark., about 25 miles north of Little Rock. The breach from the 95,000-barrel-a-day Pegasus pipeline, which originates in Patoka, Ill., and carries crude oil to the Texas Gulf Coast, has prompted the evacuation of 22 homes and underscores the concern some opponents have raised about the nearly 800,000-barrel-a-day pipeline TransCanada has proposed building between Hardisty, Alberta and Gulf Coast refineries.

When White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked Monday about what the president thought of the incident — which the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a major spill — in relation to the Keystone permitting process, Carney spoke cautiously.

"I haven't spoken about this incident with the president," he told reporters at the briefing. "We obviously have a system in place where the EPA in this case is the federal on-scene coordinator when you have a spill, an event like this, and they are working with and have been working with state and local officials, as well as the responsible party, as they respond to this incident. In this case, the responsible party is ExxonMobil."

"You know, we obviously take the safety of our many pipelines in this country very seriously," Carney added. "And we have an agency that is dedicated to the task of making sure that those pipelines operate safety and in cases like these that — and investigations are undertaken and steps taken to both mitigate the damage and hopefully avoid them in the future."

Environmentalists cited the incident as one more reason why Obama should reject TransCanada's permit. "What the people of Arkansas are enduring today is a reminder of why approving KXL, a pipeline ten times as large and running across the Oglalla Aquifer, defines a bad idea," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org.

Additionally, the accident comes just as climate activists are gearing up for two high-profile protests on the issue this month. One group, led by CREDO Mobile, will rally outside of a fundraiser for congressional Democrats Obama will headline Wednesday in San Francisco; the second will take place when the State Department holds a public hearing in Nebraska this month on its draft environmental assessment of the project.

"We are not going to let the president forget this is in his hands," wrote BOLD Nebraska executive director Jane Kleeb in an e-mail. "He has the ability, with a stroke of a pen, to stop a massive tarsands pipeline from risking our land and water."

The final decision on Keystone lies more than three months away, a point Carney emphasized to reporters Monday. "I can promise you, there is nothing on the president's schedule that relates to that question at this time," he said.

 

RELATED: 8 things you should know about the Keystone XL pipeline

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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Aaron Blake · April 1, 2013