In the Wake of Spills, the EPA is Urging Tighter Review of the Proposed Keystone Pipeline

Back in March, the Keystone XL pipeline's approval looked practically assured. Construction of the 1,179-mile leviathan, connecting Alberta's tar sand mines with Texas Gulf Coast refiners, was already well underway in Texas. The State Department said Canadian tar sands production would proceed apace, with or without the pipeline. By rail or by barge, the stuff would get to market, the draft environmental report concluded, so why not by pipeline? Why not to the Gulf?

Well, there's the lunar landscape tar sands mining has created in Alberta's boreal forests. There's 81 percent more greenhouse gas created by tar sands on a well-to-tank basis than by conventional crude. Theres the grassroots opposition from landowners who don't want their land seized for an oil pipeline.

And then there are the spills: 819,000 gallons of diluted bitumen (lightly processed tar sands) ruptured from a pipeline in Michigan in 2010; 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen flowing through a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, from an ExxonMobil line in March.

In other words, there is no shortage of reasons to deny the project, and the industry keeps supplying the opposition with new ones.

The EPA, which has remained uniformly unimpressed by the State Department's environmental reports on the project, has once again expressed its misgivings in a letter replete with reasons to deny.

The agency says the State Department is still glossing over the troublesome physical properties of diluted bitumen and what a pain it is to clean up once it spills, pointing out that, three years later, Enbridge still hasn't fully cleaned its Michigan spill. It would also like further study of the toxicological distinctions between diluted bitumen and conventional crude and for TransCanada, the pipeline company, to install monitoring wells along the line's path to prevent slow leaks from becoming massive releases.

The most disruptive recommendation from EPA is one that would require alternative pipeline routes. At the request of Nebraska, TransCanada routed its pipeline around the sensitive Sand Hills. EPA wants the company to further reduce its presence over the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies much of the country's irrigation water.

If the State Department doesn't address EPA's concerns, that could mean opposition from the agency. Opposition means State can't sign off on the project on its own. And that means President Barack Obama would have to weigh in directly -- something he may not be eager to do.

He told some donors at a recent fundraiser that "the politics of this are tough."

Understatement of the year.

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Brantley Hargrove