June 3, 2011

Order to Suspend Keystone 1 Pipeline Operations Reversed

On Friday, the New York Times reported that the US government found that the continued operation of the Keystone 1 pipeline "without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment." That looked like a big deal; then, the next day, came word that the decision had been overturned. Given the language of the original order, the rapidity of the change raises the question whether political higher-ups were responsible for the reversal. Here is the original story:
After a series of spills, the United States Department of Transportation has ordered the TransCanada Corporation to suspend operation of its one-year-old Keystone 1 pipeline, which carries oil extracted from oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta to the United States. The so-called “corrective action order” was issued by the department’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.  
“Effective immediately, this order prevents TransCanada from restarting operations on their Keystone crude oil pipeline until P.H.M.S.A. is satisfied with the ongoing repairs and is confident that all immediate safety concerns have been addressed,” the agency said. It issued the order in response to two incidents in May involving oil leaks from small-diameter pump-station pipe fittings.  
Transcanada’s Keystone1 is under particular scrutiny because the company has applied to build and operate a much larger pipeline, the Keystone XL, which will run from Canada all the way to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That pipeline will pass under some of the Midwest’s most productive farmland and through its major aquifer.

Just last month, the Keystone 1 pipeline suffered two leaks, according to the Sierra Club, one of which involved over 10,000 gallons of oil. Leaks could prove dangerous and economically damaging.  
Environmental experts have raised concerns about the possibilities of leaks from Keystone XL, in part because TransCanada has in the past been granted waivers that effectively allow it to use thinner steel than would normally be required in the United States. They add that the company’s s pipelines are particularly vulnerable because oil from tar sands is more corrosive than conventional oil and is pumped under higher pressures and temperatures.  
“I find that the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment,” Jeffrey Wiese, an administrator at the department, wrote in issuing the order. 
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to decide whether to approve the Keystone XL project and is expected to render her opinion by the end of the year. In reaching a decision, she will have to weigh both energy and environmental concerns to determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

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