Sunday, November 06, 2011


Keystone XL: A Horse Already Out of the Barn?

In light of the news about the major protest today outside the White House over the Keystone XL pipeline I decided to do a little research. I was surprised to learn that there are already at least two major new pipelines carrying Alberta tar sands oil into the US.

First, there is the Enbridge corporation's Alberta Clipper pipeline. This 36-inch pipeline (same diameter as the proposed Keystone XL) links Hardisty, Alberta with Superior, Wisconsin. The American terminus is on the shores of Lake Superior, the most pristine lake of the North American Great Lakes system, a system which has the second-largest volume of freshwater in the world. According to an analysis by the Polaris Institute (pp. 49-50), from 1999 to 2009 Enbridge reported 713 hydrocarbon spills totaling 5.6 million gallons. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline spilled an estimated at 819,000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The Alberta Clipper pipeline received final approval from the Obama adminstration in August 2009 and "was ready for service on April 1, 2010". It has already netted Enbridge and its partners tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars for tar sands oil pumped across the border.

A second major pipeline bringing Alberta tar sands oil into the US is the TransCanada corporation's Keystone pipeline which also begins in Hardisty, Alberta but ends in Patoka, Illinois. This 30-inch diameter pipeline "began commercial operation in June 2010". A 36-inch extension of the Keystone pipeline from Steele City, Nebraska, to Cushing, Oklahoma "commenced commercial operation in February 2011". The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed extension/expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline. It would follow a more direct route to Steele City using 36-inch diameter pipe and include an extension from Cushing to Nederland, Texas.

Given that there are already two operational major, cross-border Alberta tar sands oil pipelines, I wonder how realistic it is to expect Obama to do an about-face on Keystone XL especially when four major US labor unions, representing 2.6 million workers, are aggressively lobbying for the project to be approved. I wonder too about the dynamics that led to a showdown over Keystone XL while the Alberta Clipper and Keystone pipelines both went operational in the last nineteen months seemingly unnoticed.

Last revised: 08 November 2011

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