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An oil pipeline rupture on March 29 poured thousands of barrels of heavy crude petroleum into the streets of Mayflower, Ark., focusing the environmental debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline back on the risks of spills.
It was fears of a devastating spill in the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska that held up quick approval in 2008 of the pipeline designed to move crude oil from Western Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But in recent months, environmental objections to the pipeline have centered mostly on the potential effect on climate change from expanding production in Alberta’s tar sands.
Environmentalists say the breach of the 1940s-era Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas is a reminder of the inherent risks of transporting oil by pipeline — especially the bitumen mined from the Canadian tar sands that critics insist is more corrosive and harder to clean up than conventional petroleum. Keystone opponents formed a coalition this week to launch a new media blitz that more prominently highlights the tangible dangers of pipeline spills.
“You haven’t heard that argument much,” Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., said.
The pipeline industry insists there is no evidence that oil produced in the tar sands and diluted for pipeline transport is any more corrosive than conventional petroleum. And the Keystone pipeline’s developer, TransCanada, says the new pipeline would bear little resemblance to the 65-year-old artery that ruptured in Arkansas, which operator Exxon Mobil Corp. says it last inspected in February.
TransCanada says Keystone XL would employ state-of-the-art technology to avoid spills, including 57 special safety controls such as remote-controlled shutoff valves and thicker pipe at river crossings. The company also said the pipeline would be subject to more frequent inspections.
Critics say the industry has it both ways. While the regulatory system for pipeline operations treats the heavy Canadian oil no differently than conventional oil, a provision in the tax code can allow tar sands importers to avoid paying an excise tax that supports a spill cleanup fund.
“It’s really calling them on their own illogic,” Holt said.
Environmentalists point to the imperfect safety record of the current Keystone line, which has been delivering viscous tar sands crude from Canada to Illinois since 2010, as reason enough for concern.
“Treating tar sands oil like conventional crude is not protecting communities,” said Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.