TransCanada Announces it Will Change Route of Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to Avoid Nebraska Sand Hills Region

TransCanada announced yesterday that it will seek an alternative routing for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline in order to avoid the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.  TransCanada seeks to build the pipeline to transport petroleum from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.  The route previously proposed by TransCanada would have passed through the Sand Hills area, which contains a large number of wetlands.  That routing drew opposition, and the United States Department of State announced last week that it was delaying a decision on whether to approve the pipeline in order to consider alternative routes (the pipeline needs State Department approval because it crosses the border with Canada).  TransCanada stated that it will work with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to determine a new route.

U.S. State Department Postpones Decision on Keystone XL Pipeline

The United States State Department announced today that it is postponing a decision on whether to grant approval to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would be used to transport oil from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.  The State Department stated that the purpose of the delay is to allow the Department to consider alternative routes for the pipeline to avoid the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a region which contains a number of wetland areas.  The Department stated that environmental assessments of alternative routes would not be complete until 2013.  Thus, a decision on the Keystone XL effectively is being postponed until after the next Presidential election.

State Department approval is required for the pipeline because the pipeline would cross the country's border with Canada.  Environmentalists have opposed the pipeline.  Many have raised concerns about potential pipeline leaks, which they assert could affect the Ogallala Aquifer and sensitive wetlands areas.  But much of the opposition is driven by many environmentalists' opposition to the development of oil sands (also known as "tar sands").   

As explained in the Oil & Gas Law Brief on May 2, 2011, oil sands are a solid-like mix of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a black, viscous oil).  To commercially develop this energy source, the oil sands are mined, often in a pit mining process.  The solid material can then be transported to a plant where the oil sands are heated by being mixing with hot water.  This separates the bitumen from the sand and clay.  In addition, it makes the bitumen less viscous, in much the same way that heating syrup will make it less viscous so that it flows more easily.  In an alternative method of production, steam is used to heat the oil sands while they still are in the ground. 

Environmentalists object to the mining process and the consumption of the energy required to heat the oil sands.  Also, they raise objections relating to water use.  In the heating process, several barrels of water are needed for every barrel of liquid bitumen that is produced.  After the process is complete, the water contains hydrocarbons and tailings (fine solid materials).  The small solids require a significant time to settle out of the water, which sometimes is held in large settling ponds called tailings ponds.

Supporters of oil sands development note that much of the world's petroleum resources are contained in oil sands.  If society avoids developing those, it is putting a large portion of the world's oil off-limits.  Further, Canada, a friendly neighbor to our immediate north, has large reserves of oil sands.  Many argue that it is better to import oil from Canada than from some of the other countries that export oil.  Moreover, building and maintenance of the pipeline would produce jobs.  In addition, as noted in the Oil & Gas Law Brief on August 26, 2011, the State Department's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) concluded that the impact of the pipeline would not be severe if it is built along the currently proposed route.  

The Summary of Findings section of the full EIS states that "most resources would not experience significant impacts" from the proposed pipeline.  The same section states that there would be "adverse effects to certain cultural resources along the proposed Project corridor," but that "mitigation measures have been developed ... to address these adverse impacts."  The Summary of Findings also states that there would be adverse effect to the American burying beetle, raising Endangered Species Act issues, but that Keystone has offered to provide money to acquire habitat area for the beetle, and that Keystone and various government agencies have discussed conservation measures that could minimize potential impacts to the American burying beetle.

Finally, some supporters of the pipeline project have noted that developing any source of energy has some environmental impact.  As reported in the Oil & Gas Law Brief on April 4, 2011, some environmentalists even complain about adverse impacts of renewable energy sources such as windmills, hydroelectric generators, and large solar arrays.

A spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed disappointment with the delay, and stated that he hopes the pipeline eventually will be approved.

 

U.S. State Deparment Issues Study of Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline

Earlier today, the United States Department of State issued its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.  Because the pipeline would cross the border, the State Department must give its approval for the project.  Issuance of EIS does not constitute approval of the project, but it does put the proposed project one step closer to potential approval bcause an EIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act before the project can be approved.

The principal purpose of the proposed 1711-mile long, 36-inch diameter pipeline would be to transport oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Production of heavy crude from oil sands (also called tar sands) found in Alberta is increasing rapidly at the same time that refineries in parts of the U.S. need alternative supplies of of heavy crude.  Although it is anticipated that the pipeline, if constructed, would mainly transport oil from Alberta, it also could transport oil produced in the northern U.S., included oil from the Bakken Shale in Montana and North Dakota, and oil from near Cushing, Oklahoma.  Oil could be delivered to Cushing, as well as to Nederland, Texas and Moore Junction, Texas.

Critics of the proposal voice concerns about the possibility of spills and about the footprint of the pipeline itself.  Also, many environmentalists oppose expanded production of oil from oil sands, arguing that too much energy is used in producing such oil, that too much water is used in the production process, and that production from oil sands causes too much surface disturbance (usually a process similar to strip mining is used in the production of oil from oil sands, though companies are required to restore the surface).  See the May 2, 2011 post of the Oil & Gas Law Brief for a discussion of oil sands.

Supporters argue that oil sands provide a bountiful supply of petroleum from a nearby, stable, friendly country, and that most "easy" sources of oil already have been developed.

The Summary of Findings section of the full EIS states that "most resources would not experience significant impacts" from the proposed pipeline.  The same section states that there would be "adverse effects to certain cultural resources along the proposed Project corridor," but that "mitigation measures have been developed ... to address these adverse impacts."  The Summary of Findings also states that there would be adverse effect to the American burying beetle, raising Endangered Species Act issues, but that Keystone has offered to provide money to acquire habitat area for the beetle, and that Keystone and various government agencies have discussed conservation measures that could minimize potential impacts to the American burying beetle.

The Department of State issued an announcement of its release of the Environmental Impact Statement, and provided a web page where readers can find a "fact sheet" regarding the EIS, an Executive Summary of the EIS, a listing of upcoming public meetings on the subject, and a copy of the full EIS, as well as other documents relating to the proposed project.  The fact sheet includes a map of the proposed route for the pipeline.

Tar sands a/k/a oil sands

In a recent post, I noted that the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management recently announced that BLM will "take a fresh look at commercial oil shale and tar sands plans issued under the prior administration."  I then tried to answer the question, "What is oil shale?"  In today's post, I try to answer the question -- What are tar sands?

Tar sands also are called "oil sands."  They are a solid-like mix of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a black, viscous oil).  To commercially develop this energy source, the oil sands are mined, often in a pit mining process.  The solid material can then be transported to a plant where the oil sands are heated by being mixing with hot water.  This separates the bitumen from the sand and clay.  In addition, it makes the bitumen less viscous, in much the same way that heating syrup will make it less viscous so that it flows more easily.  In an alternative method of production, steam is used to heat the oil sands while they still are in the ground.   

Some people criticize the development of oil sands on environmental grounds.  They object to the mining process and the consumption of the energy required to heat the oil sands.  Also, they raise objections relating to water use.  In the heating process, several barrels of water are needed for every barrel of liquid bitumen that is produced.  After the process is complete, the water contains hydrocarbons and tailings (fine solid materials).  The small solids require a significant time to settle out of the water, which sometimes is held in large settling ponds called tailings ponds. 

Most of the world's petroleum is located in oil sands.  Several oil sands deposits are located in eastern Utah.  It is estimated that these deposits contain 12 to 19 billion barrels of oil.  Large deposits also are fond in Venezuela and parts of the Middle East.  One of the largest deposits of oil sands is located in Alberta, Canada.  Oil produced from the oil sands in Alberta are partly responsible for Canada becoming the largest exporter of oil to the United States. 

Plans also are underway for a pipeline to transport oil from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in Texas.  But environmentalists have attacked the proposed pipeline, largely because they object to the development of oil sands, but also in part because they object to the pipeline itself (they raise the possibility of leaks, and also object to the footprint of the pipeline).  The proposed pipeline, the Keystone XL project, would require approval from the United States Department of State, and both proponents and opponents are lobbying the Obama administration, as has been reported in stories by Elisabeth Rosenthal, Sheldon Alberts, and others.