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No greasing these wheels

Why even Obama can’t hurry approval for the long-delayed oil pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast


 
No greasing these wheels

Nati Harnik/AP

Asked his views about “tar sands” at a town hall in Pennsylvania last week, U.S. President Barack Obama said that importing from Canada is a “good thing,” but added there are “some environmental questions about how destructive” the oil sands are. That comment, along with the prolonged permit process for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, has raised hackles in Canada and on Capitol Hill, where Republicans held a hearing on March 31 to proclaim the “Urgent Case for Canadian Oil.”

The $7-billion pipeline, which would increase by 50 per cent the exports of oil sands crude to the U.S., was raised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his meeting with Obama in January. The Obama administration has been studying the project since December 2008. Alberta’s energy minister, Ron Liepert, let it be known he’s fed up with the delays. “I just wish he’d sign the bloody order and get on with it,” Liepert told the Calgary Herald last week. Yet that’s the last thing Alberta should want Obama to do.

It was the U.S. Congress that passed a law requiring a multi-step review process by the State Department before the permit can be issued. Under the Environmental Protection Act, the State Department, which is in charge of international pipelines, must issue an “environmental impact statement” and then a “national interest determination” of all pipelines crossing the U.S. border. Last July, the Environmental Protection Agency said State’s draft environmental impact statement on Keystone XL was inadequate, and asked State to study potential impacts on everything from greenhouse gas emissions, spill response and impacts on wetlands and birds. If State had refused, “they would open themselves to litigation,” says Danielle Droitsch, director of U.S. policy for the Pembina Institute, an Alberta environmental think tank. Such lawsuits, she adds, happen “a lot.”

So it grinds on. State is working on a “supplemental” statement due this month, and two more government-commissioned studies are expected: one on pipeline safety and another on greenhouse gas emissions. After more consultation and a decision on the “national interest,” a final permit decision is expected by the end of the year.

Permit decisions are made by a deputy secretary and passed to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Only if there is a major dispute between State and the EPA would the issue land on the President’s desk. At this stage, Obama is not entitled to intervene. “It is a legal impossibility for the President or the State Department to sign the order today,” explains David Goldwyn, a former senior State Department energy official. “All this is prescribed by Congress and there is not much discretion there,” he says, agreeing that a decision would be “subject to litigation if the people have not followed the process meticulously.”

The approval process for this pipeline has already been much more extensive than for TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline, which took only 22 months. There are several reasons why. In Washington, where Democrats failed to pass a climate-change bill through Congress, the pipeline debate has become a proxy for the dispute over greenhouse gas emissions and the future of energy policy. Keystone XL represents a long-term commitment to American reliance on oil sands crude. “Once the infrastructure happens, the dependence gets locked in,” says Droitsch. The Department of Energy commissioned a study that said the Canadian crude would merely displace imports from elsewhere, but environmentalists disagree.

And the tables have turned on Canada’s image. Where once Canada lectured the U.S. on climate-change inaction, environmentalists now view Canada’s climate policy as “almost non-existent,” Droitsch says. Safety concerns also loom large in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Enbridge pipeline spill in 2010 that leaked 800,000 gallons of oil in Michigan. In Nebraska, there is concern that the pipeline would cross a major aquifer.

Whatever the outcome, the process has had an impact. TransCanada spokesman Sean Howard says 57 changes were made to safety procedures that go beyond regulatory requirements. Provincial regulators increased scrutiny of the oil sands, too. “I think the U.S. process had a very significant impact on the tempo of those changes, and that is good for Canadians and Americans,” says Goldwyn, who has testified in favour of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Obama said in Pennsylvania that he won’t put his “fingers on the scale before the science is done,” or else people “might question” the merits of the final decision. TransCanada doesn’t mind. Says Howard: “There was nothing he said that we disagree with.”


 

No greasing these wheels

  1. No energy source is clean, No energy source is without consequence. Shall we go back an live in caves and sleep where we fall and eat when something runs across our path?

    I live in Alberta and I love Alberta. I am not employed by the energy industry in any way. The tar sands were out of sight, out of mind when they were first conceived and were treated as such. This is not unusual for industries of any kind. Now granted, we have a mess and it is a big mess and it is going to be dammed hard to clean up if it ever does get cleaned up totally.

    The mess is created and there is no evidence at all that it is going to get worse. New technology is promising, some already being used and certified clean and forward thinking.

    The tailing ponds are made up of clay, caustic soda, oil and bitumen dribbles plus water. In this mix is heavy metals like arsenic and mercury to name only 2 of the soup.

    It is nice to think comforting thoughts about bacteria cleanup but such an intervention would only be piece meal at best. Perhaps to clean one or possible two items at a time and forget about the majority. Bacteria work well in oil environments.

    There is a huge test going on at Syncrude's Mildred Lake, the largest of the settling ponds. One big puddle out of 100,000 or more puddles to be worked before the century is out.

    This clean up test is made up of the largest centrifuges in Alberta. They are hooked to giant conveyor belts which collect and drop the residue into separate bins to be annualized.

    This is an exercise to gauge the technology with a view to putting it into a larger scale operation. If a good cleanup is devised it will take 70 years or more for it to be competed, if it ever is.

    This is totally paid for by the Alberta Government, the taxpayer. Multi millions of dollars (billions) of which Syncrude pays zilch. Now consider the billions in new roads to new production sites and new power lines to new production sites paid for by the taxpayer, you will have no doubt that we are being hooped by this Government in so many ways.

    When you couple things like this with the Governments new 5% Canadian dollar royalty rate on Conventional oil and about 10% Canadian on the tar sands it will be apparent we are paying the resource companies to take it from the province! The oil industry is 60 on Alberta's list of employers, they are not number 1 as they would have you believe.

    Now, lets talk about the people who are totally and mindlessly against the tar sands.
    NIMBY applies. They don't like the looks of a pipeline; its unsightly or whatever. They invent doom and gloom scenarios to support their views. Most however will look at a mine picture and make a judgment about something they know nothing about and pursue this brain fart forward to the detriment of their country and neighbors.

    I see this same thing in ongoing debates on buried power lines vs overhead power lines where the safest lines are overhead (EMF, magnetism cannot be insulated, distance will reduce any effects think here cell phones) yet this same NIMBY group is claiming the health of their kids is in jeopardy playing near power lines and studiously ignore they are only 6 feet away from the power lines when they are buried.

    The bad publicity on Keystone is just that, Bad. Bad in content, bad in research and bad in intent.

  2. A recent article done for the The Tyee on shale gas drilling in the west fills in the empty spaces missed on reports.

    What we don't know hurts us the most.

  3. Shale gas drilling in my mind is right in there with Coal Bed Methane drilling, most at risk being our water supplies in the aquifers.

    Both use multiple holes in their process. Both puncture the water aquifer for each hole. The cement used in earlier wells in Alberta is deteriorating. This allows migration of the harsh heavy metals and other noxious stuff into the water table. It could be monitored by placing sampling devices downstream from the holes. This could be remote sensing.

    However the initiative is not present and the outcome of such monitoring is safe to say a bad picture.

    The Conventional drilling people some 4 years ago now, said they would undertake to replace all the old cement. Millions of holes; I can't imagine it. Since that announcement there have been no reports

    What is wrong with our industry is the politics; the industry is fine.

  4. Shale gas drilling in my mind is right in there with Coal Bed Methane drilling, most at risk being our water supplies in the aquifers.

    Both use multiple holes in their process. Both puncture the water aquifer for each hole. The cement used in earlier wells in Alberta is deteriorating. This allows migration of the harsh heavy metals and other noxious stuff into the water table. It could be monitored by placing sampling devices downstream from the holes. This could be remote sensing.

    However the initiative is not present and the outcome of such monitoring is safe to say a bad picture.

    The Conventional drilling people some 4 years ago now, said they would undertake to replace all the old cement. Millions of holes; I can't imagine it. Since that announcement there have been no reports

    What is wrong with our industry is the politics; the industry is fine.

  5. The hypocrites all drive to the protests in their SUV's. Historians are gonna go crazy wondering what happened to the perverted intellect of so many people today.

    • Sorry to disappoint you but i ride a bike ! Who can afford to drive a car ?

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