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Tar sands oil, $5 billion and the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on May 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm with No Comments »
May 4, 2012 5:01 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

In an ideal, green-hued world, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline would accomplish what many of the project’s opponents believe it will accomplish.

The sludgy crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands would stay in the ground because there would be no way to get it to refineries and beyond. Ecosystems would be spared. Much less carbon would be burned, and there would be that much less global warming.

The problem is, that’s among the least likely alternatives to the Keystone project. Among the most likely is that Pacific Northwest waters will be put at a much higher risk of oil spills – a scenario that now has $5 billion behind it.
Barack Obama’s Republican opponents have been doing their utmost to politically embarrass him over this issue. In January, they used a legislative deadline to maneuver him into a corner, forcing his hand and crowding him into overriding the endorsement the State Department had given the Keystone project.

Obama himself is hardly above playing politics. Many expect him to let the pipeline move forward – after he wins re-election. The issue won’t conveniently go away. TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL, has come up with a new plan that would route the line around the Sandhills region and Ogallala reservoir in Alaska; opponents had focused much of their rhetoric on the threat of spills in those areas.

Get beyond the politics, though, and the issue is much more complex than saving the environment by stopping the pipeline.

When the Canadian government and Alberta’s oil industry saw their energy export plans being batted around in a game of election-year ping-pong, they immediately looked west to pipeline routes protected from American politics.

One such route would carry Alberta’s crude to a small port nearly 400 miles north of Vancouver, B.C. Another would carry the oil to Vancouver itself. These are not remote hypotheticals: Three weeks ago, Kinder Morgan Energy announced plans to balloon the capacity of the pipeline it already operates between Alberta and Vancouver.

The route now carries 300,000 barrels a day; Kinder Morgan proposes to expand that to 850,000 barrels a day by 2017 at a cost of $5 billion. The Alberta oil would be loaded on tankers and shipped through the Strait of Juan de Fuca across the Pacific, much of it to China.

Although critics have dramatized the risks of spills from the Keystone project, pipelines are a much more benign way to transport crude than tankers. They can leak, but they also have automatic cutoff valves and other technologies that prevent and shut down leaks.

There’s little controversy over the petroleum already flowing through more than 50,000 miles of pipelines in the United States. But when a big tanker goes down – as the Exxon Valdez did in 1989 – the results can be cataclysmic.

The Canadian government is dead serious about getting the Alberta oil to market. The real choice is likely to come down to crude oil on ships skirting Washington waters vs. crude oil that stays in thick-walled, corrosion-protected, high-tech pipes.

The latter option should be giving pause to Keystone XL opponents in the Pacific Northwest.

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