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House Bill Would Open The Floodgates For Tar Sands

15 May 2014  |   Zach Drennen

The battle over keeping tar sands in the ground doesn’t end with Keystone XL. The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill last week that would undermine the review process for cross-border pipelines and leave the American people more at risk of a tar sands spill in their backyard. And it could be on the House floor in just a matter of weeks. 

This dangerous legislation would gut the review process for approving cross-border pipeline applications. It would require the automatic approval of any cross-border oil pipeline within 120 days of the completion of review under the National Energy Policy Act unless the Secretary of State intervenes to deem the pipeline “not in the public interest.” Although concerns about spills, climate change, and dangerous chemicals all fall well within the public interest, the bill would fast track a process that deserves time for adequate review. 

Worryingly, H.R.3301 would exempt any modifications to existing pipelines from the permitting process. This means more than just repairs – it includes flow reversals, volume expansion no matter how significant, and changes in the fuel mixture carried. 

This can have tragic consequences for the communities transited by modified pipelines. The Pegasus pipeline was built in the 1940s to carry light oil from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest, but in 2006, operator Exxon Mobil reversed the flow direction so the pipeline could carry Canadian tar sands oil to refiners in Texas. Three years later, they expanded the capacity of Pegasus from 65,000 to 95,000 barrels of oil per day. In 2013, the pipeline burst and flooded a suburban Arkansas community with thousands of barrels of tar sands oil.

Unlike normal crude oil, the bitumen from tar sands is a heavy, asphalt-like product that must be diluted with toxic chemicals in order to flow through a pipeline. These chemicals evaporate during a spill, leaving nearby people with headaches, nausea, and respiratory issues with unknown long term effects. The product left behind sinks to the bottom of water bodies in semi-solid form, making cleanup far more difficult than in the case of normal oil spills. 

Despite these obvious risks, Enbridge, the same company responsible for the Kalamazoo River spill, recently complained that the environmental review of their plan to expand the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline was taking “much longer” than hoped.   

Enter H.R.3301. Enbridge and ExxonMobil could also seek to reverse the flow of pipelines from Ontario, Canada through Montreal and New Hampshire to the coast of Maine, as another way to bring tar sands oil to international markets. New Hampshire’s entire Congressional delegation signed a letter opposing any flow reversal without adequate environmental evaluation. 

But H.R. 3301 would allow such a change to go through with less review than this blog post. 

(Photograph taken by schizoform)

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