Great Plains oil pipeline plan sparks grass-roots activism, high-stakes lobbying

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 10:59 PM

A massive feat of engineering by any measure, the Keystone pipeline expansion project would transport crude oil close to 1,700 miles from "oil sands" in the icy reaches of Hardisty, Alberta, down through the Great Plains to the refineries of Port Arthur, Tex. In doing so, the giant pipe also promises to allay some fears about U.S. energy security: The oil will come from a trusted ally, and its cross-continental path avoids visions of another deep-sea drilling disaster.

But the decision on whether to issue a permit to the project, opposed by environmental groups, rests with the State Department, which has little expertise in engineering or environmental matters. And reflecting the chaos of U.S. energy and environmental policy, the proposed pipeline is pitting Montana landowners against pipe fitters in Nebraska and creating unlikely allies of Nebraska ranchers and chieftains from Alberta's indigenous communities.

On one hand the move to extend TransCanada's existing pipeline - which runs from Hardisty to the Illinois towns of Wood River and Patoka and has a daily capacity of 435,000 barrels - offers obvious benefits. The extension will generate 13,000 construction and 7,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States over roughly two years, according to the company, and could transport as much as 500,000 additional barrels of oil a day. It also could help stabilize electricity prices for several rural co-ops along the route.

"Everyone's saying we've got to get less dependent on Middle East oil, and this is a perfect opportunity to bring this oil in," said William Hite, general president of the United Association, the union for plumbers and pipe fitters.

But the crude comes from an area known as "tar sands" or "oil sands," where operators extract a viscous oil called "bitumen" from formations of sand, clay and water. The process consumes more energy and water than most conventional drilling methods, can require clear-cuts of forests and creates tailings that can pollute nearby waterways. Canada has the world's third-largest reserve of heavy crude after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and accounts for 20 percent of U.S. crude imports.

At least 65 lawmakers - nearly all Democrats - have written the State Department raising questions about the pipeline, while 40 Republicans have written letters backing it.

"When I think of the State Department I think of many things they do well," said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). "But I would tell you, siting pipelines is not anything I would think of when I think of State Department expertise."

Environmental issues

The National Wildlife Federation's senior vice president, Jeremy Symons, said the Obama administration cannot claim to be fighting global warming while signing off on oil imports from such an energy-intensive operation. "What does it mean when the U.S. bellies up to the trough and says, 'Give me your dirty energy?' " Symons said.

Symons also noted that TransCanada submitted a 2009 market assessment in its Canadian permit application suggesting the extension will raise heavy crude prices in the United States by removing the "oversupply" in the Midwest, where the price has been discounted. The analysis said that by extending the pipeline to the Gulf Coast, with many more refineries and buyers, the Canadian heavy crude price could be expected to increase by around $3 a barrel, giving the Canadian oil industry at least $2 billion in additional revenue each year.

But the pipeline will traverse environmentally sensitive areas such as Nebraska's Sand Hills and the Ogalalla Aquifer, which provides drinking water for 2 million people. Local ranchers and farmers have questioned why the pipeline needs to pass through an area where the aquifer runs just a few feet below the ground and the sandy soil makes it harder for vegetation to regrow once it's been disturbed.

"We know what it takes to try to maintain the land in a productive state," said Teri Taylor, who runs a cow-calf operation with her husband and son that would have miles of pipeline laid across it. "We are unable to even fathom what it would take to reclaim the land."

Oil pipelines are not uncommon in the United States. There are nearly 147,000 miles of them already, according to the Transportation Department's 2008 statistics, with 50,000 miles devoted to transporting crude.

An Energy Department-commissioned analysis, which has not been released but has been obtained by The Washington Post, provides some fodder to both sides' arguments. The report says the United States can obtain the Canadian crude it needs for the next decade without the Keystone extension, but it suggests that increasing oil-sands imports and reducing overall U.S. oil demand would "have the potential to very substantially reduce U.S. dependency on non-Canadian foreign oil, including from the Middle East." It also concludes that a decision to block the pipeline would not affect Canadian oil sands production, since the heavy crude would go to Asia instead.

TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling said his company "has done a rigorous review of the rerouting to make sure that it has the least environmental impact," adding that "we will leave the environment in exactly the same condition where we found it."

The Nebraska Farmers Union has passed a resolution demanding the pipeline project be relocated or blocked. Relocation would entail the running the pipeline through more populated areas as well as wetlands, and it could delay the process by another six months.

TransCanada said it will employ extra precautions that are usually reserved for a high-pressure operation. But Nebraska state Sen. Tony Fulton (R), a former engineer who chairs the legislative sportsmen's forum, said he would be more comfortable with the pipeline if another Canadian company, Enbridge, could explain why its pipeline in Michigan ruptured and released more than 800,000 gallons of oil last summer into the and a nearby creek.

"Why are we so hellbent on moving this so quickly?" Fulton said.

At the State Department

The State Department is under pressure to reach a conclusion this year on the permit application, which was filed in September 2008. The draft Environmental Impact Statement it issued in April sparked an unusually high number of comments. The Environmental Protection Agency sharply criticized it, saying it did not fully explore the potential environmental impact or the prospect of a more rapid transition to alternative energy that would make the imports unnecessary.

Daniel Clune, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said State Department officials have "been engaged in very serious discussions with" the EPA and other relevant agencies.

Lobbying on both sides has been intense. TransCanada has run television and radio ads in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., and Laborers' Local 1140 in Nebraska has made more than 600,000 robo-calls to Nebraskans. More than 100 activists demonstrated outside Nebraska's capitol early this month, and the Texas-based Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines has gotten local politicians to demand a more-detailed environmental analysis.

Opponents such as Bold Nebraska director Jane Kleeb are using e-mail, Facebook and monthly conference calls to strategize with others along the pipeline's route - in states including Montana, South Dakota, Kansas and Texas. They have also forged connections with Canadian First Nations activists through the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has sent speakers to Nebraska to help mobilize opposition there.

While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prompted an uproar in mid-October when she declared that the department was "inclined" to grant the permit, officials now say they will not release a final environmental analysis before next month. Once that process is complete, the state has another 90 days to make a "national interest determination" that focuses on economic and security considerations.

"All other things being equal, there would be an advantage in getting our oil from a close ally like Canada," Clune said. "What we're trying to do is make the best decision for the country."

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