18 December 2011

Pipelines Galore: The Keystone XL Controversy

Posted by John Freeland

The proposed Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL Pipeline has become a political football. The Republican-led House of Representatives insists the pipeline be “fast-tracked.” The Obama administration wants time to study alternative routes and make a final decision in 2013. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) generally has authority over interstate pipeline projects, however, given the pipeline crosses an international border, the Department of State has to sign off. In addition to sending products from Canadian tar sands, the Keystone XL would also pick up domestic oil from Montana and North Dakota’s Bakken formation at a pipeline intersection in Baker, MT.

In August, Nebraska Republican Governor Dave Heineman wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton and President Obama urging them to reject the pipeline’s permit application, citing concern for protecting the Ogallala aquifer (map). In November, in response to resistance from Heineman and environmental advocates, the administration announced the delay.

Extensive Pipeline Network
Those who hope to protect the Ogallala Aquifer from potential contamination by oil pipelines are too late. There are already numerous pipelines crossing it, especially in Oklahoma and Texas. This map (click for larger view) shows pipelines carrying oil (green), natural gas (red), and “products” (blue) such as gasoline, propane, and ethylene. Two petroleum pipelines, C18 and C19, already cross east-west through Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer.

Is the Pipeline Necessary?
Aside from the groundwater protection concern, many oppose additional oil infrastructure and advocate for cleaner energy. Natural Gas Vehicles for America is a trade organization that aggressively advocates for fueling vehicles with natural gas or hydrogen. According to their website, there are currently 112,000 natural gas vehicles (NGV) in the US and over 13 million worldwide.

The excellent energy blog The Oil Drum ran an interesting article in 2009 on the feasibility of converting all our vehicles to natural gas. The prospects are good, but installing conversion equipment on cars and trucks is expensive. It turns out one of the pricey aspects of the process is an outrageous permit fee the EPA imposes, allegedly at the behest of the “gasoline lobby,” on mechanic shops that would retrofit vehicles to burn natural gas. The permit fees greatly add to the cost.

Nebraska Going Green?
This year, Nebraska opened a new compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station in Omaha, the only CNG station between Denver and Chicago. Two more CNG stations are planned, one in Lincoln and another in Omaha. One will be operated by Omaha’s public utility, Metropolitan Utility Division, which is a co-sponsor of ngvc.org’s website.

Other Transport Options
Other options exist for moving oil and bitumen (the stuff from tar sands) to refineries. New rail terminals are getting built in North Dakota and barges are carrying crude down the Missouri River. With oil at about $100 per barrel, folks will find ways to get it to market.