Tar sands is not your Granddaddy's oil: Southern segment of Keystone XL tar sands pipeline puts Oklahoma and Texas lands and waters at risk

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President Obama is speaking about energy this week. He has a lot of important things to say about the very real need to move forward with renewable energy and fuel efficiency, and he has committed to ending subsidies to the oil industry. However, he will also be promoting new oil pipeline infrastructure in the US and there is one proposed pipeline that needs to be called out as different from the others. The Canadian company TransCanada has split its reapplication for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in two. The proposed southern segment of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is one of the possible pipelines to bring oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast. But in the long-term, the oil that it will bring is likely to be mostly tar sands oil from Canada, not U.S. oil. This means additional health and safety concerns from pipeline oil spills, as well as concerns for additional pollution in refining communities in the Gulf. Don’t be fooled – tar sands is not your Granddaddy’s oil.

Splitting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline doesn’t make it any better – not for our energy independence, not for oil prices and certainly not for our health and our environment. Keystone XL in any form would actually undermine national security and increase oil prices by reducing the amount of oil in the Midwest and sending tar sands oil overseas, as this NRDC report shows.  Similarly, a report just out from Cornell University shows that the potential environmental and economic risks from a tar sands pipeline spill – regardless of whether it happens in the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer in Texas or in the Red River and its tributaries along the Texas-Oklahoma border.

As for what will actually be moving on Keystone XL's southern route: TransCanada has made commitments to transport approximately 600,000 barrels a day (bpd) of crude on the full Keystone XL pipeline. Of this, TransCanada has said that 380,000 bpd is for Canadian crude to Texas - most if not all of which will likely be tar sands. At the same time, the on-ramp for domestic oil in Cushing seems to only allow a maximum of 150,000 bpd on the Keystone system. For more detail on TransCanada’s commitments for Keystone XL see the final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL project, pages 2-4.     

If the southern segment is built before the northern segment is completed, TransCanada’s proposed infrastructure would physically limit U.S. domestic crude shipments to 150,000 bpd, less than 20% of the pipeline’s capacity. The only other source for crude oil would be from Canada. TransCanada's first Keystone pipeline carrying raw tar sands ends in Cushing, Oklahoma where the southern segment of Keystone XL takes up.  There is no infrastructure that allows injection of U.S. oil between the border with Canada and Cushing.  Moreover, TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline is not being fully utilized and that excess capacity could end up being used to ship tar sands oil to the Gulf. In addition, we could see diversion of tar sands from Midwestern refineries to the Gulf Coast refineries.

What is clear is that review of a Keystone XL tar sands pipeline southern segment needs to take the potential for tar sands oil spills into account – since all available information points to the fact that the southern segment will not just be for US domestic oil.

Americans have resoundingly said they don’t want another tar sands pipeline. Not in the northern half of our country; not in the southern half of our country. During a single day in February, for instance, Americans sent more than 800,000 messages to their members of Congress condemning the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project. 

And President Obama said about the decision to conduct additional review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline back in November 2011: “Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood.” This statement should hold true equally for the ranchers and landowners along the northern part of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, as for those in Oklahoma and Texas.