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As Keystone XL stalls, another pipeline network moves quietly forward

The Keystone XL has been in the news a lot lately. The controversial pipeline would carry tar sands oil, a form of crude that is booming in North America. The southern section of the pipeline is already built, but protests have raged over the northern section and the State Department has been hesitant to approve it.

The Keystone XL’s fans say tar sands oil can make us a more energy independent country. But environmentalists oppose it, saying tar sands oil is especially dirty and will accelerate climate change.

But while Keystone XL has stalled, another tar sands project are happening under the radar.

“While all the focus has been on Keystone XL, Enbridge has used existing pipelines and new pipelines next to existing pipelines to create the same system,” says Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

One piece in that pipeline network expects to begin full operations soon. It is called Flanagan South and it starts about two hours south of Chicago at the Flanagan South pump station.

Flanagan South
The pump station is by a road in the middle of a big field. A few pipes come up above ground and there is a building about the size of a small warehouse. It is all pretty simple-looking for how much will happen here.

In early December, the oil transport company Enbridge plans to start full operations on the Flanagan South pipeline, pumping 600,000 barrels of oil a day through a pipe about as wide as a hula hoop. The pipeline goes from Illinois to Oklahoma, but is part of a network that stretches up to the Canadian tar sands and down to the Gulf Coast (just like the Keystone.)

The number of pipelines is the United States is growing because of a booming oil industry in the tar sands of Canada and North Dakota.  Enbridge spokesperson Jennifer Smith says that is not only good news for Enbridge’s business, it is also good news for states like Illinois. “Once Flanagan South [and a number of other Illinois pipelines] are in service for a full year, it will be over an additional 4 million in taxes that Enbridge will contribute to the Illinois economy,” said Smith.

Enbridge hired around 1,000 people during construction of the Illinois section of the pipeline (it estimates about half of those jobs went to Illinois residents). And crude oil imports to the midwest recently hit an all-time high.

“Outside of just the gasoline, jet fuel and diesel, by-products of crude oil are made for plastics, and are made in manufacturing. Our true quality of life depends on crude oil,” said Smith.

In total, Enbridge expects to hire only five permanent position because of the Flanagan pipeline. And Doug Hayes with the Sierra Club say those jobs are just not worth it.

“The 600,000 barrels a day is equal to about 130 million tons of carbon emissions, which is the same as putting 27 million more cars on the road each year,” said Hayes.

Escaping public attention

Enbridge used existing pipes to build its new network, reversing some lines and expanding others. One of those existing lines already crossed a Canadian border, so unlike Keystone XL, it did not need state department approval (though this process has also been controversial).

The Sierra club’s Doug Hayes says the company also used something called a Nationwide 12 permit to build the new Flanagan section. It basically fast-tracks the permitting process. The southern section of the Keystone XL (which is already complete) also used one.

The permit allowed Enbridge to skip long public comment periods and avoid an environmental review of the Flanagan pipeline in its entirety.

“So the problem is, there was no opportunity for the communities along the pipeline to learn about the dangers of oil spills, the climate impacts, and so forth,” said Hayes.

Hayes represented the Sierra Club in a lawsuit over this permit. The Sierra Club lost, but is appealing.

Hayes says the case is a big deal because he expects more companies to follow a similar strategy. “The tar sands industry is looking at what is happening with Keystone XL and they understand that the more the public learns about these projects, the more opposition grows. So, there has been a concerted effort to permit these pipelines behind closed doors,” said Hayes.

Smith, the Enbridge spokesperson says the company never tried to keep the pipeline quiet and that she helped host open houses and presentations. “Everyone is welcome to come and learn about the projects and get their questions answered,” she said.

But when pressed on if Enbridge escaped the more comprehensive environmental review, she is more elusive. She responded to multiple rephrased variations of the question by repeating that the company followed the permitting route that the government laid out for them.

The risk of oil spills

The new Flanagan South pipeline passes through roughly 2,000 waterways or wetlands. The Environmental Protection Agency says tar sands oil presents a different spill risk than conventional oil, because it can sink to the bottom of waterways and does not appreciably biodegrade.

About four years ago, an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands oil ruptured in Michigan.
The accident cost just over a billion dollars and still is not cleaned up. A report from National Wildlife Federation says the spill contaminated 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River and provoked evacuations.

Smith concedes there will always be a risk of spills. But she says if oil is going to move, the safest way to do it is through pipelines. “Even according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, pipelines are the safest way to transport oil,” said Smith.

Enbridge says the Michigan spill was quote, “The company’s darkest time.” It says it’s updated safety procedures and equipment since then. But pipeline activists say it is difficult to evaluate if that is true. Because of lax government oversight, they say they are left to take the company at its word.

Government Oversight

The National Wildlife Federation’s report on the Michigan spill holds Enbridge accountable. But it also blames government agencies.

“The first responders were very ill-prepared to deal with the spill. And a lot of that was the fact that they simply didn’t have the information and tools that they needed. That is largely the fault of a federal regulatory agency that did not prepare them properly,” said Jim Murphy, lawyer for The National Wildlife Federation.

Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) does not have the resources to deal with all the new pipelines.

“So, if there are problems, the regulators may be missing it. So, to a grand degree we are trusting that the pipeline industry is going to do things correctly,” said Weimer.

In a testimony before congress, PHMSA officials said the agency must grow to meet added demands and evolving changes. They also requested additional funding and said the “potential to do more remains.”

But Weimer says we can not lay all the blame on the federal government. States can apply to do their own additional monitoring. “They can really provide better and more inspections of the pipeline,” said Weimer.

Only a few states have done that, and Illinois is not one of them. But with the growing number of new pipelines in the state, Weimer says maybe it is time to consider it.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h

Front and Center is funded by The Joyce Foundation: Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country.

 

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