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Friday, May 21, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Boost or Bane for Keystone XL?

Newly rechristened Great Plains Tar Sands Pipelines directs our attention to New York Times coverage on the Canadian tar sands and TransCanada's Keystone pipelines. The report notes that BP's Deepwater Horizon mess in the Gulf of Mexico could work both for and against TransCanada's plans.

On the pro side, Canadian officials are making the case that transporting their dirty oil across the Great Plains is safer than pumping oil out of the Gulf, since pipeline leaks would be "easier to detect and control." Now you might look at the 5,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil burbling out of the wrecked BP well each day, then look at the eventual 590,000 barrels of oil that will blast across East River each day in the Keystone pipeline each day, and think, "Holy crap!" But I can see the Canadians' point: if the Keystone pipeline were to explode near Britton or Carthage, TransCanada could probably shut down the flow at the last good pump station up-pipe. We wouldn't have oil pouring out for a whole month. We wouldn't end up with a ten-county oil slick like that depicted in Scott Meyer's nonetheless informative graphic in The Post yesterday.

On the con side, the BP explosion and spill highlight the need for stronger safety oversight over petroleum extraction and transport... and make TransCanada's requests for less safety and oversight look really, really bad. TransCanada wants to use thinner pipe on Keystone XL, just as it did on Keystone.

But Cesar de Leon, a former deputy administrator of the pipeline and safety administration who is now an independent pipeline safety engineer, said the thinner standard is appropriate only if pipelines are being aggressively monitored for deterioration. Although the safety administration required such monitoring in the Keystone permits, it “didn’t have the people to monitor compliance,” he said.

In a report in March on the agency’s broader permitting practices, the Transportation Department’s inspector general found that, in many cases, the agency had failed to check the safety records of permit applicants and had not checked to verify that permit terms were being followed.

Officials of the safety administration did not respond to interview requests. But in written testimony to a House committee in April, the agency’s new administrator, Cynthia L. Quarterman, acknowledged problems and promised to improve. “As you know,” she said, “we inherited a program that suffered from almost a decade of neglect and was seriously adrift.”

Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, said the whole situation was alarmingly reminiscent of the permit waivers that were routinely granted to offshore oil wells, including the BP well leaking in the gulf. “I think it is incumbent on myself as a policy maker to say ‘hold it,’ ” Mr. Tester said [Clifford Krauss and Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Reliance on Oil Sands Grows Despite Environmental Risks," New York Times, 2010.05.18].

Senator Jon Tester can connect the dots between Gulf oil rigs and the big pipeline that will run across his state. Why don't we hear that dot-connecting from South Dakota's Congressional delegation?

There are all sorts of reasons we should tell TransCanada to take a hike (bad business case, unneighborly behavior, genocide...). But if Keystone XL is inevitable and even preferable to oil from the sheiks and Chavez, we should at least learn our lessons about safety and regulation from the catastrophe off the Louisiana coast.


  1. Exactly, Cory.

    We have been talking about this for nearly a year; yet another scary notion is the spouse of South Dakota's At-large Representative, Mr. Oil and Gas, himself (not that I think that Kristi Noem wouldn't bend over for these ecoterrorists, either).

    The Journal's Randy Rasmussen tried to divert South Dakotans will this tome: http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/news/opinion/columnists/local/article_370e4f18-5fa9-11df-8827-001cc4c002e0.html

    My piece of snark: Fascinating insight, Mr. Rasmussen.

    "Perhaps we can revisit your perspective after an early-season Cat5 Hurricane accelerated by the Anthropocene aerosolizes petroleum released by BPs ecoterrorist attack on the Gulf of Mexico and inundates the GMO-engineered tomato crops already leaching surfactants into estuaries in the name of human progress."

    Jim Kent has a fine piece today, too: http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/news/opinion/columnists/local/article_70167fce-639b-11df-a9c5-001cc4c002e0.html

    Good pressure, Mr. Heidelberger, keep it up!

  2. Roger Beranek5/21/2010 11:14 AM

    On those numbers: unlikely to be anything like 100,000 in the Gulf leak. Most likely end up being closer to 20-25,000. NPR's numbers are just ludicrous.

    Getting on cheap renewable energy is a great idea. Do you have any idea how to do that without systematicly destroying the carbon energy industry? I'd like to keep the free market.

  3. Something folks should know about things here in South Dakota: there is no opportunity for citizens to have input into the emergency response plan for the Keystone XL pipeline. There was also no opportunity for the Keystone I pipeline. Landowners and the public are just supposed to trust the oil industry and the feds to write adequate plans.

    Kelly Fuller
    Communications Director
    Plains Justice

  4. Was South Dakota using eminent domain on landowners for the pipeline? Otherwise I would think any owner would be able to dictate the terms to somebody coming to them, including cleanup and liability for any spills etc.

  5. What's more ludicrous, Roger: NPR citing experts who look at the data and suggest a possible upper bound of 100,000 barrels per day, or BP's effort to lowball and obfuscate?

    None of what you growl about the free market changes the fact that BPO screwed up and is trying to avoid responsibility for the disaster it created. The free market depends on personal and corporate responsibility.

  6. Yes, and when corporate responsibility fails there are consequences for the damage they inflict through their negligence, just as with personal responsibility. That is what civil liability is all about, a company's irresponsibility is not license for any and every regulation and control by the government of the entire industry any more than one person pouring old anti-freeze down the storm drains justifies creating a law that makes people get their cars serviced professionally. Fine the morons and let everyone else be.
    I have no problem with dealing with BP severely as the information becomes available but I dislike the feeling that I get that this will be used to further hamstring oil development.

  7. Roger, the landowners do not control what happens on their property in regard to the pipeline, and yes, eminent domain may be used. The SD Public Utilities Commission has put some conditions on its approval of the Keystone I and Keystone XL pipelines, but a lot of the legal authority lies with the federal government, which hasn't exactly been responsive to landowner concerns. Talk to some of the Keystone I property owners in northern South Dakota about what happened during construction last summer if you want to get a sense of how bad this situation can be.

    Kelly Fuller
    Communications Director
    Plains Justice

  8. Eminent domain should not be able to be used for what is not a public use. Didn't South Dakota do anything after the Kelo case? I couldn't find anything about landowner concerns or about an incident during Keystone I construction last summer. I don't know anyone up there to call so you will need to fill me in.

    Kelly, your site has some horrific pictures about tar sands environmental impact, but none on the reclamation of these sites. here ya go


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