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TransCanada lowballs risks of Keystone pipeline leaks

TransCanada, a firm that calls itself a "leader in responsible development," has grossly underestimated the risks of pipeline leaks, river fouling and aquifer contamination along the firm's proposed $7 billion bitumen pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, according to an independent study.

The analysis of worst-case spills for four locations along Keystone's 2,700 kilometre route through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas found that TransCanada repeatedly underplayed the frequency and severity of spills.

John Stansbury, a water resources engineer at the University of Nebraska, reported that the pipeline would experience 91 significant spills over its lifetime, and not 11 as claimed by TransCanada.

He also found spill response at a river crossing would take 10 times longer than the 11 minutes claimed by TransCanada. (The Enbridge spill on the Kalamazoo River last year, for example, took 12 hours to respond to.)

Moreover, a Keystone XL spill on the Platter River in Nebraska could deposit nearly 6 million gallons of bitumen and pollutants such as benzene for hundreds of miles, and compromise the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people as far south as Kansas City.

And even a small leak in Nebraska's Sandhills could release enough bitumen to contaminate 5 billion gallons of groundwater in the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater aquifer in the United States.

The controversial pipeline, now under an environmental review by the U.S. State Department, has divided Republicans and Democrats throughout the Midwest and created a groundswell of opposition.

Last April, Alberta's Energy Minister Ron Liepert demanded that President Barack Obama "sign the bloody order" and approve the 2700 km long project. Alberta, ruled by one party for 40 years, is dependent on petroleum exports for nearly a third of its revenue.

Liepert said there was no further need for scientific study: "I saw where he said they need to study the science. I don't know what they're studying. We could give him all the briefing he needs and it would take him 15 minutes to read about it, so I just wish he'd sign the bloody order and get on with it."

In contrast to extensive U.S. federal reviews, neither the Canadian government nor the Alberta government have yet to complete a comprehensive socio-economic impact analysis on the oil sands or related multi-billion pipelines. Nor has the National Energy Board, Canada's energy regulator, done a study on the economic impact of exporting raw bitumen to the United States in terms of Canadian refining and upgrading jobs.

To date, Canada has not completed a cumulative environmental impact assessment for the $200 billion project as recommended by the Parliament of Canada in 2007.

Contrary to claims made by TransCanada and the oil industry, the pipeline will not improve U.S. energy security where demand for petroleum is steadily falling.

According to Denver-based oil market analyst Philip Verleger, the proposed expansion is really an attempt to circumvent the U.S. Midwest petroleum market in order to charge higher prices or put bitumen up for sale on the Gulf Coast for export to China.

Groundwater engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have also sent a letter to the U.S. State Department calling for a thorough investigation of Keystone's potential to contaminate critical groundwater supplies.

Jane Kleeb, who leads Bold Nebraska (a citizen's group opposed to the pipeline) said that "The report confirms one thing -- Nebraskans cannot take TransCanada at their word. While TransCanada is busy assuring elected officials that everything is fine and will be fine, Nebraska scientists and water experts are issuing warning signs over and over again."

Last weekend a 12 inch (30 cm) pipeline owned by Exxon Mobile ruptured on the fabled Yellowstone River and spilled more than 1,000 barrels of oil.

Brian Schweitzer, governor of Montana, harshly criticized Exxon Mobile for its slow response and inaccurate communication on the size of that oil spill.

Yet the governor told Postmedia reporter Sheldon Alberts that he still supported TransCanada's project, which would move 700,000 barrels a day to Texas through a 36 inch pipeline.

"Unless people are willing to park their cars and move into a cave and live naked and eat nuts, we're going to continue to produce energy and that energy needs to be moved to the source of consumption."

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Calgary journalist and author.

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