Hearings Begin on Controversial Canada-Texas Oil Pipeline

As the U.S. State Department convenes hearings in Texas this week on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring tar sands crude from Canada to Texas, environmentalists are revving up their opposition.

Trevor Lovell speaks to the public about the XL pipeline on 24th September 2011.
Trevor Lovell speaks to the public about the XL pipeline on 24th September 2011.  Muliadi Soenaryo

The U.S. Department of State is convening public hearings in Texas this week on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas refineries. Environmentalists are revving up their opposition, while groups that favor the pipeline are arguing their case.

Already this week, a "massive crowd" showed up at Port Arthur, where hearings were held Monday. Many of these, according to the Beaumont Enterprise, hoped for jobs constructing the pipeline. Jim Prescott, a spokesman for TransCanada, the company applying to build the Keystone XL, says the pipeline could bring 13,000 construction jobs to the U.S. 

In Austin, where hearings will be held at the University of Texas on Wednesday afternoon, a group called Texas Interfaith Power and Light is holding a prayer vigil before the hearing starts to protest the pipeline. Another rally against the pipeline took place near the Capitol last weekend.

“Texas is the linchpin that could stop the pipeline,” said Ian Davis, field manager for the Sierra Club.

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TransCanada needs approval to build the pipeline from the U.S. State Department, which is holding a series of public hearings in the states the pipeline will run through – Montana, the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. If TransCanada receives the necessary permits, it hopes to begin construction of the 17,000-mile long pipeline in 2013,  according to the State Department website.

In drought-gripped Texas, the opposition has focused increasingly on the water needs of the pipeline.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the pipeline operator has applied to use 264 acre-feet of water, equivalent to 86 million gallons, over periods of up to 21 months. That's not quite 0.2 percent of what the city of Austin uses in a year.

The pipeline needs water for "hydrostatic testing," a process that floods water through the pipeline before it begins operating to check for leaks, and also for dust control and drilling mud, according to Terry Clawson, the TCEQ's spokesman.

TransCanada has applied for six temporary water permits with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to Clawson. Three of these permits are for the Neches River Basin — which includes the city of Port Arthur — and the others are for the Sulphur River Basin, the Sabine River Basin and the Red River Basin.

Clawson said that the company said it plans to return all water used for hydrostatic testing to the streams, but the TCEQ doesn’t know what percentage of the water will be used for testing.

The TCEQ is currently reviewing the permits.

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Environmental groups and some East Texas landowners are upset by the proposed pipeline, fearing threats to the water supply and public health and the use of eminent domain — the seizure of private property by the government. Earlier this month, the towns of Gallatin and Reklaw (through which the proposed pipeline would run) voted to form a regional commission in the hopes that they can force the pipeline to reroute, which could add costs to the project.

The pipeline, carrying up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day, would cross the Ogallala aquifer — though not the Texas portion of the Ogallala. The pipeline is a “toxic time bomb” because it could corrode and pollute the aquifers, according to Chris Wilson, a chemical engineer who wrote a report countering the State Department’s environmental impact review for a group of East Texas landowners called Stop Tar Sands Oil Pipelines. The heavy crude oil recovered from the Canadian tar sands also sinks in water, she said, which means that it’s harder to detect in the event of a leak.

But TransCanada's Prescott said that the pipeline would be solidly built and that the material would not corrode. “From a business standpoint, it makes no sense to build a 17,000 mile pipeline" that doesn't work right, Prescott said.

In June, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered TransCanada to suspend operation of Keystone 1, an existing tar sands crude oil pipeline that stops further north, because of leaks.

Prescott emphasized that the leaks came not from the pipeline itself, but the pump stations, and he said the leaks were cleaned up with little impact to the environment.

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