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TransCanada Takes Oil Sands Heat In Stride

TransCanada's first big advertising program drums up support for planned Keystone XL oil sands pipeline

By Stacy Feldman

Jan 11, 2011
an oil pipeline in Alaska

Sailing smoothly toward approval just last spring, TransCanada's major new pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands crude into the U.S. encountered unexpected delays. Storms of controversy generated by two oil industry disasters suddenly created heavy going.

One was BP's catastrophic Gulf oil well blowout. The other hit closer to home. Enbridge, another Alberta-based energy firm, suffered a breach in an oil sands pipeline that gushed more than 800,000 gallons of crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River system.

Environmental groups and legislators pointed to the high-profile accidents to question the wisdom of TransCanada's 1,959-mile planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport as many as 510,000 barrels of bitumen per day across six U.S. states and over a vital underground aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico.

Concern over the environmental security of the proposed pipeline created a backlash in America's generally oil-friendly heartland, delaying approval by the State Department of a presidential permit needed by TransCanada to break ground for the international oil artery.

So for a week in mid-December, 60-year-old TransCanada launched its first-ever big advertising campaign to drum up support for a single project. TV and radio spots ran in Washington, D.C. to tout the line's safety technology and jobs potential.  The firm says it was intended to directly combat the No Tar Sands Oil Coalition, whose ads protesting the line ran from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 in the same market.

Has the mounting opposition diminished the pipeline's odds, or is it rallying Big Oil's base? The powerful  American Petroleum Institute has joined with TransCanada to protect Canadian crude imports with a unified front in Washington, while indigenous peoples from Canada and the U.S. have made the rounds on Capitol Hill, voicing their concerns to lawmakers.

SolveClimate News spoke with James Millar, spokesperson for TransCanada, to get his perspective on the scrutiny and heightened opposition the pipeline has attracted.

'We Have a Safe Project'

"I'm not surprised by it. I think I respect that — that individuals have concerns after seeing those two incidents. But concerns are one thing; realities are another. And we're confident that we have a safe project."

TransCanada, which owns 37,000 miles of pipelines, says the 36-inch Keystone XL line "incorporates proven design features and construction methods" to limit leaks. In August, the firm removed its request to operate the pipe under higher pressures because of concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency and the public — and the need to protect its commercial interests in the post-BP spill world.

The $7 billion Keystone XL makes up one-third of TransCanada's $21 billion basket of projects, which includes the biggest wind power plant in New England, natural gas,  hydroelectric and nuclear facilities and other liquid fuel pipelines. Keystone XL is the firm's largest project under development, though if the company's $32 to $41 billion Alaska gas pipeline is successful it would eclipse Keystone XL by a factor of five or more. TransCanada's assets total $43.8 billion.

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