Southern section of controversial Keystone XL pipeline opens

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TransCanada began delivering oil from a hub in Cushing, Okla., to customers in Nederland, Texas, early Jan. 22. The company expects to complete a smaller pipeline that will transport oil from Nederland to refineries near Houston later this year.

The $2.3 billion pipeline from Cushing to Texas is the Gulf Coast — or southern portion — of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The longer Keystone XL, which would transport heavy tar sands crude from Canada and oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale, requires a permit from the Obama administration because it crosses an international border. That $5.4 billion segment has not yet been approved. The president fast-tracked the shorter, southern portion of the pipeline with the hope of relieving a bottleneck in Oklahoma.

The pipeline has been mired in controversy. Opponents and landowners argue that tar sands oil is heavier and dirtier than other forms of crude, meaning that any spill would be harder to clean up and that the refining process will be dirtier.

TransCanada, determined to push ahead with the larger pipeline project, touted the thousands of jobs created by the construction of the Gulf Coast portion, and countered opponents' claims that the tar sands are dirty and could increase global greenhouse gas emissions — a concern Barack Obama has also mentioned.

"It will be the safest pipeline in the U.S. to date," Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer, said, adding that this project "is good for America and good for Americans." He said it is a modern pipeline that is better built than any other in U.S. history.

"This is the same kind of benefit the Keystone XL will deliver," he added.

But landowners and residents in Texas and in areas that would be traversed by Keystone said their fight is not over.

Texas landowner Julia Trigg Crawford has been fighting the construction of the pipeline across her family's farm. She argues that Calgary-based TransCanada did not have the right to take her land through eminent domain, and her case is currently in the Texas Supreme Court.

Furious that the pipeline now snakes under her land, Crawford vowed in a conference call with the press to walk her farm daily looking for leaks or other problems.

"It's a very sad day for me," Crawford said.

Crawford met with other pipeline opponents earlier this month and officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to discuss a variety of problems the agency found while the pipeline was being built. The agency has said the pipeline is safe and that all problems have been resolved.

But Crawford said that when she asked whether an agency inspector had looked at the portion of pipeline on her property, the agency was unable to answer her question. At the moment, she said, it appears that only TransCanada's inspectors have been on her land, which is "like me owning a restaurant and having the health department inspector on my payroll."

Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska, a group that has opposed the Keystone pipeline, said the Gulf Coast segment presented a "huge risk" to people along the route noting problems flagged by the federal pipeline regulator during construction.

"Citizens are watching this pipeline like a hawk," Kleeb vowed.

As are environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. The group's executive director, Michael Brune, issued a statement on Jan. 22 that read in part, "At a time when America is making huge strides on wind and solar power, this dangerous and unnecessary tar sands pipeline is a step backward when we should be moving forward on clean energy."

Brune added, "The Corps of Engineers allowed TransCanada to cross thousands of waterways and wetlands without adequate review or safety precautions. Emergency responders are ill-prepared for tar sands pipeline failures like those that devastated Mayflower, AR, and Kalamazoo, MI. And the export of this tar sands crude overseas means that along with more carbon pollution and more poisoned air and water, Americans will see higher gas prices.

"Tar sands is more corrosive, more toxic, and more difficult to clean up than conventional crude. Coupled with lax oversight and TransCanada’s dismal safety record, this pipeline spells bad news for farmers and families whose land, health, and safety were forfeited so that oil companies can reach export markets with their deadly product. The Sierra Club will fight hard to protect the families who are now at risk, and turn the Obama administration’s shortsighted dirty energy policy around."

Bill McKibben of 350.org, one of the organizations that has rallied coast-to-coast opposition to the pipeline, said, "A shameful day —and a reminder that the Obama administration has boasted too often about how many pipelines they’ve built, how much land they’ve opened to drilling and mining. Expediting KXL south was not the mark of a president who really ‘gets’ climate change."