By Sheldon Alberts, Washington Correspondent, Postmedia News May 4, 2012 3:05 PM
WASHINGTON — TransCanada Corp. on Friday reapplied to the U.S. State Department for a presidential permit to build the controversial Keystone XL oilsands pipeline, immediately triggering a new fight with opponents over the scope of a coming environmental impact study into the project.
In an interview with Postmedia News, TransCanada executive Alex Pourbaix said the Calgary-based company expects the Obama administration’s review of Keystone XL to be limited to the new rerouted portion of the pipeline through Nebraska.
“Certainly our expectation is that the only required new review would be on the actual reroute itself . . . What we are talking, in the scheme of things, (is) a relatively modest reroute,” said Pourbaix, president of TransCanada’s pipeline division. “As we look at it, we don’t see anything material that was not reviewed in the original application, other than the specific reroute in Nebraska.”
TransCanada submitted its new application for a presidential permit just two weeks after it proposed several new routes for Keystone XL that avoid the ecologically fragile Sand Hills region of Nebraska.
President Barack Obama denied TransCanada’s original permit application in January, citing his administration’s concerns about the impact construction would have on the delicate topsoil in the Sand Hills region and the potential for pollution of the vast Ogallala Aquifer that underlies the area.
Normally, a new pipeline permit application would trigger an entirely new federal environmental impact study. But company officials contend that the State Department should using existing research — including some 10,000 pages of study results — and ensure the new application is processed “expeditiously.”
Because the $5.3-billion pipeline’s planned U.S. route remains unchanged through Montana and South Dakota — which already approved Keystone XL — no new environmental study needs to be done there, TransCanada says.
The company has split the original southern portion of the pipeline — from Steele City, Nebraska, to Port Arthur, Texas — into a separate project that does not require new approval and already has Obama’s support.
But U.S. green groups are already raising objections to TransCanada’s push for a limited review of the pipeline. They argue that the earlier State Department study was flawed because it was conducted by a third-party contractor who had worked with TransCanada in the past.
“The coming environmental review should not rely on the earlier inadequate environmental impact statement,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a conference call Friday with reporters.
“It needs to make a fresh start and consider the full range of impacts this pipeline would have on our water, land, health and climate.”
The 2,700-kilometre Keystone XL pipeline would, if approved, carry 830,000 barrels of oilsands crude per day from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. TransCanada first applied for a permit to build the pipeline across the Canada-U.S. border in 2008.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, in a statement posted on her Facebook page, said the province was “very encouraged” at the news TransCanada had re-applied for the Keystone XL permit.
“I continue to respect that this is a U.S. decision but I am optimistic that this review will be guided by science and fact,” Redford said.
Russ Girling, the company’s CEO, said the project has already undergone “the most comprehensive” review in history for a cross-border pipeline. TransCanada is hoping for approval from the U.S. government in early 2013 and believes construction can be completed no later than early 2015.
TransCanada last month proposed a preferred alternative corridor for Keystone XL that avoids an area officially designated as the Sand Hills region by the Nebraska government.
But environmentalists, and some Nebraska landowners, say the new route still crosses over areas that have similar characteristics to the Sand Hills and will be damaged by construction and a potential pipeline rupture.
“We committed to the state of Nebraska we would reroute to avoid the Sand Hills,” said Pourbaix, noting that the company’s preferred new route adds only 32 kilometres of new pipeline.
“The Nebraska department of environmental quality came out in the fall with their map, which included their definition, not TransCanada’s definition, of the Sand Hills,” he said. “We’ve looked at that map. We are happy to use that map to reroute that pipeline.”
Pourbaix estimated that TransCanada will need to negotiate easement rights with about 200 to 250 new Nebraska landowners as a result of the reroute.
TransCanada says it has “firm, long-term contracts” in place to ship more than 500,000 barrels per day through Keystone XL.
Pourbaix said the company remains confident that industry support will remain despite recent talk that the pipeline is becoming less important as TransCanada’s competitors propose alternative projects to ship oil from Alberta and North Dakota’s Bakken formation.
“With the original delay in Keystone that we experienced in the fall (of 2011), if our producers felt that Keystone was no longer an important part of their strategy for getting to market, they had an opportunity to not stick with us,” he said. “In fact, we have had an absolutely overwhelming response from our contracted shippers. They have all indicated their continuing support. They continue to honour their shipping arrangements. That speaks volumes.”