It's imperative, she emphasized, that the United States and Canada not compromise on pipeline safety. Construction and maintenance standards are of the utmost importance, she added, because diluted bitumen and other heavier types of crude oil, which cause more wear and tear on pipelines, are becoming more common.
"When we look at the Keystone XL pipeline, I don't think safety is something you want to leave in the hands of any company," she concluded, adding that environmental organizations are going to continue to push for TransCanada to answer to the highest standards. "It's our responsibility as a government to hold those companies responsible."
Howard of TransCanada acknowledged that "incidents like the leak in northern Alberta do cause the public to raise questions" but said Keystone XL is a very different animal.
He noted that the proposed pipeline would have 16,000 data sensors in place to monitor oil flow and pressure in the new line. The company also has plans to add about 30 percent more shutdown valves in sensitive areas and waterway crossings.
Where Do Things Stand?
Keystone XL, the final phase of the $12 billion, 3,800-mile Keystone pipeline system, would carry Canadian crude from Alberta's oil sands operations to Gulf Coast refineries, crisscrossing six U.S. states and the Ogallala Aquifer, the country's largest underground source for drinking water and crop irrigation.
It would have the capacity to pump up to 900,000 barrels a day. In 2009, the U.S. imported roughly 950,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude from the Alberta oil patch.
Because the line crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department is charged with granting a thumbs up or down on the 1,375-mile U.S. proposed pathway of the pipeline.
Last month, the agency released a revised . It was roundly criticized by conservationists for not considering alternate pipeline routes and fully addressing safety and spill-response planning, and for rejecting their pleas to extend the public comment period from 45 to 120 days and to hold public hearings in states along the route.
The redone analysis was a response to U.S. EPA, which gave the State Department's first draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible ranking last summer, labeling the document "inadequate" and creating an inter-agency tussle that has delayed action.
The pipeline permit became a focus of attention in Washington after the BP Gulf catastrophe heightened concern over environmental security. The Enbridge oil sands spill in Michigan, which poured about 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River system, has also fueled unease over the proposed pipeline.
Advocates to Hold Own Hearings
The State Department's 45-day comment period will officially begin April 22 and wrap up June 6, after which the agency will roll out a final environmental impact statement. There will then be a 90-day review with the Department of Energy, the EPA and other agencies to decide if the project is in the country's national interest.
A final decision is expected by year's end.
In the meantime, frustrated advocates announced this week they would hold their own town hall meetings on Thursday in four of the states on Keystone XL's route — South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas — to air concerns about TransCanada's North Dakota accident.
The testimony will be recorded and sent to Secretary Clinton, said David Daniel, an East Texas landowner. "If Sec. Clinton won't come to us, we'll take our concerns to her."