With a new, arguably more environmentally cautious route inked for the northern leg of the contentious Keystone XL pipeline, embattled Canadian company TransCanada has taken another step toward securing approval for construction. But charting a new route that tiptoes through the Nebraska Sandhills isn't the only tricky maneuvering the company will have going forward.
The new layout, which claims to successfully minimize the impact in Nebraska and cross fewer miles of endangered species' habitats, has a litany of special safety features including a higher number of emergency shut-offs, frequent pipeline inspections, and deeper beds for underground lines, making Keystone XL "the safest pipeline built in America," according to the company.
That, TransCanada hopes, will finally tip the balance in their favor when it comes to the crucial approval of both state and federal government agencies.
But observers aren't holding their breath for a breakthrough anytime soon. A political minefield has confronted TransCanada at nearly every juncture of the project, most recently with an environmental activist group chaining themselves to TransCanada's bulldozers in Texas. There's also the State Department, which has made it clear that a decision won't be made about the pipeline until at least the first quarter of 2013, another setback for the much-debated project that supporters say could bring thousands of jobs to a struggling economy.
Still, TransCanada remains committed to moving forward with construction—the company reapplied for a presidential permit after the Obama administration vetoed the project earlier this year—despite the almost five-year saga to get approval for the pipeline.
"The entire process has taken a long time—we're approaching the fifth year of review and study and permitting, which is far longer than we expected it would take and longer than it normally takes for a pipeline of this length," Grady Semmens, a spokesman for TransCanada, told U.S. News. "It's frustrating for us."
But all the promises of minimal environmental impact and safer operations are giving some critics a sense of déjà vu.
"They said the same thing [about the pipeline's safety] the first time around," says Anthony Swift, an attorney with the National Resource Defense Council, adding that the original Keystone pipeline was temporarily shut down after a string of more than a dozen oil spills in its first year of operation.
According to Swift, many of the "special safety conditions" TransCanada has pledged to adopt in its new plan simply restate and repackage measures they proposed before.
"They're a combination of things TransCanada was already planning to do or a restatement of what it is already obligated to do," Swift says. "[One regulation] requires operators to do flyovers of pipeline routes once a month and one of those special requirements requires pilots doing those flyovers to look for spills—of course they're looking for spills."
Another special safety condition requires the pipeline to conform to Canadian leak detection standards. But, since TransCanada's headquarters are located in Calgary, the company would've had to do that anyway, Swift says.
"It just fits a pattern in which TransCanada creates the appearance of higher due diligence, but when you really drill down into it, there's very little substance," Swift adds.
The regulation redundancies only scratch the surface of many environmentalists' concerns over the pipeline. Their beef with the project is further upstream and involves the extraction and processing of the oil sands themselves, an issue no amount of creative pipeline re-routing can address.
That's because the oil trapped in the Alberta Oil Sands is ultimately transformed into crude oil using a process which emits greenhouse gasses, the core of many environmentalists' objections to the pipeline. Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions grew by 100 megatons between 1990 and 2009, according to the Canadian government, with emissions from oil sands responsible for about a quarter of the increase. For comparison, transportation was responsible for 44 percent of the increase.
"This is not just a problem with the pipeline itself," Swift says. "The pipeline is going to be moving a type of petroleum [that is] the most greenhouse-gas-intensive oil in the world. Simply replacing 830,000 barrels a day [Keystone's capacity] of conventional crude at the Gulf with 830,000 barrels of Tar Sands is the equivalent of putting 6 million cars on the road as far as greenhouse gas emissions go."
"Regardless of the route, the pipeline as a whole is not in the United States' interest," he adds.
But others disagree and take issue with the necessity of the approval process, arguing that the State Dept. already conducted an environmental impact review—the same one being used to evaluate TransCanada's revised proposal for a presidential permit—which concluded that the pipeline didn't impose any significant environmental problems.
But if the pipeline isn't approved even with the extra safety and environmental hoops, it could set a bad precedent for any new projects and hurt the nation's oil and gas industries.
"We have the best refineries in the world and to bring more oil to those only benefits our economy, not to mention all of the workers [that would be employed] to construct the pipeline," says Nick Loris, energy policy analyst at the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation. "While those might be temporary, this would bring more jobs to our refining industry and would help more oil reach the world market and help lower prices."
The denouement of the oil industry's long-running soap opera is still months away, but supporters of the pipeline see a glimmer of hope depending on the outcome of the state approval process in Nebraska. If Nebraska signs off on the new route, that could give the State Dept. and the next administration an opportunity to approve the pipeline without as much political fallout.
"Given that [Obama] used Nebraska as that point of contention, and given that he doesn't have to make a decision until after the election sometime in 2013, if he's re-elected, I think he can say that TransCanada has worked with Nebraska to address any environmental concerns," Loris says.
Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.