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House Passes Pipeline Oversight Bill, First Nations Reps "Educate" D.C.

Fourth in a series exploring the plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas

By Elizabeth McGowan

Oct 6, 2010

Editor's Note: In late September, SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Nebraska to find out more about the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada plans to build to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. This is the fourth in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

LINCOLN, Neb.—Even though TransCanada is vowing that its Alberta–to-Gulf Coast Keystone XL oil pipeline will be unparalleled on the safety front, that promise still makes opponents wince after reviewing the arithmetic.

How can anybody guarantee that a 36-inch diameter, 1,702-mile pipeline buried four feet deep and delivering up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude per day won’t leak, environmental organizations keep asking?

And they are not alone.

Although Congress doesn’t have ultimate “yea” or “nay” power on this particular $7 billion tar sands project, Keystone XL is on their radar screens as federal legislators try to figure out if and how they should strengthen the pipeline regulatory agency. Officially, congressional authorization over the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) expired Sept. 30.

A series of summertime, headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation’s 2.3 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines—most notably in California and Michigan—has prompted legislators such as Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Mich., and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, to promote pipeline safety measures. The House passed Schauer’s bipartisan bill Sept. 28, just before representatives adjourned to return home to campaign for the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

PHMSA was created in 2004. In 2006, Congress granted it greater oversight powers and the authority to hand out stricter penalties after an oil pipeline spill on Alaska’s North Slope.

The agency’s administrator is Cynthia Quarterman. Before being appointed to head up PHMSA in November 2009, she directed the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) from 1995 to 1999. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reorganized and renamed the scandal-plagued MMS earlier this year after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. For PHMSA, Quarterman manages a staff of about 400 in Washington, D.C., and regional offices.

Due to the Keystone XL’s international nature, the fate of the controversial pipeline is in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Landowners, environmental organizations and several legislators, including Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., have questioned the State Department’s ability to execute environmental oversight and asked why PHMSA doesn’t have primary authority.

The Keystone XL pipeline will stretch close to 300 miles through 14 counties of Johanns’s home state.

Even the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement (EIA) on the Keystone XL notes that “transportation of crude oil by pipeline involves risk to the public and the environment in the event of an accident or an unauthorized action, and subsequent release of oil” and that “releases of crude oil from the project…could occur.” However, the document also recognizes that “there would be a very limited potential for an operational pipeline spill of sufficient magnitude to significantly affect natural resources and human uses of the environment.”

Anti-pipeline activists are expecting significant revisions to that environmental impact statement ever since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the document “inadequate” in July. EPA officials cited shortcomings that included accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, safety and spill-response planning and the impact on indigenous communities.

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