TransCanada to work with Nebraska on new pipeline route

November 14, 2011

TransCanada said Monday that it will work with Nebraska on a new route for its controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would avoid the Nebraska Sandhills, a unique area of sand dunes, grasslands and wetlands.

Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president of energy and oil pipelines, said he expects that the new route would stay as close as possible to the previous proposed route while avoiding the Sandhills, and in return he expects that Nebraska officials will back the project.

“We will now work with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality on a route that avoids the Sandhills, while making as much use of the existing right of way as possible,” he said.

Pourbaix said that staying close to the proposed line would be better than moving the new pipeline close to an existing Keystone pipeline. Moving it near the existing route “would waste all that existing right of way that we have already procured with agreements in place. And it would add well over 100 miles of pipeline, which would have a larger environmental impact than just jogging around the Sandhills.”

On Thursday, the State Department delayed a decision about whether to issue a permit for the TransCanada pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico coast. The State Department said it would look at new routes, and TransCanada said it would work with the State Department to come up with a new route.

“Nothing has changed in the process since Thursday’s announcement,” the State Department said after Pourbaix’s offer.

“Any new proposed routes will be subject to the thorough, rigorous and transparent review process we have undertaken throughout,” deputy spokesman Mark Toner said late Monday.

Nebraska’s Republican governor and state legislature have opposed the pipeline because of concern about the Sandhills region and the possibility of leaks contaminating the vast Ogallala aquifer that provides drinking and irrigation water.

Environmentalists oppose the pipeline regardless of its route because it would facilitate the expansion of operations at the oil sands, where oil extraction requires large amounts of energy in a process that is closer to strip mining than oil drilling.

“We think it’s good the Sandhills are safe, and now we just need to make sure the atmosphere is, too,” said Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and an organizer of the rally against the pipeline that took place outside the White House on Nov. 6.

The oil produced there ends up emitting 17 percent more greenhouse gases than the average barrel of oil now consumed in the United States, according to a recent State Department environmental assessment. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated it to be higher than that.

Activists had made the pipeline permit a test of President Obama’s commitment to environmental and climate-change issues. The State Department’s delay was seen by many as a defeat for the pipeline, but officially it sets up a final decision in early 2013 — after the presidential election.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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