One day after oil started flowing through the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline Wednesday, environmentalists warned that "dirty" tar sands oil may soon make its way to the Northeast, potentially "squandering" regional efforts to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.
"Dirty gasoline supplies in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are set to rise significantly, unless states take steps to keep out high-carbon fuel," Danielle Droitsch, a director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Thursday.
The council urged cities and states to require gas stations to disclose the origin and carbon intensity of their fuel, or "the amount of carbon emitted measured on a 'well-to-gas-tank' basis" – a proposal that the National Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing said would be "extraordinarily difficult" to implement.
For the past five years, President Barack Obama, weighing competing environmental and business interests, has avoided deciding whether to approve the construction of the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The northern section of Keystone XL, which actually expands on the existing Keystone pipeline, would carry crude oil 1,200 miles from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Kansas, and also pass through shale-mining regions in Montana and North Dakota.
Pipeline advocates argue that by approving the northern portion, Obama can help reduce America's reliance on oil from overseas and also fuel job growth.
"The opening of the pipeline is great news for American jobs, economic growth and energy security," said Matt Dempsey, of Oil Sands Fact Check, a group which receives funding from the oil industry. "It’s safe to say that most Americans would rather fill up their tanks with oil from North America than oil from unstable nations."
The State Department has said the extension would create up to 42,000 jobs; Obama, voicing skepticism, has pegged the number closer to just 2,000.
Critics, meanwhile, point out that getting oil from Canada's tar sands – a mixture of sand, clay, oil and water called bitumen – creates far more greenhouse gases than conventional mining, and also produces an oil that is more acidic than regular crude, allegedly increasing the risk of leaks from corrosion.
Since opening in June 2010, the existing Keystone pipeline between Alberta and Oklahoma has had 14 spills, a State Department report found. None have come from corrosion, but instead from defective "fittings and seals at pump or valve stations" - evidence, opponents have said, of shoddy construction along the length of the pipeline and its XL expansion.
Nevertheless, Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer, has asserted that Keystone "will be the safest pipeline in the U.S. to date," according to the Arizona Republic.
TransCanada, which owns the Keystone and Keystone XL pipelines, completed construction of the southern portion of the XL expansion last week. Running 487 miles between storage facilities in Oklahoma and refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, with no international borders to cross, it did not need to get a presidential sign-off. TransCanada opened the pipe almost immediately after getting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.
On Thursday, the National Resources Defense Council sounded the alarm, warning that the new section will bring far more tar sands oil to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
"An influx of carbon-intensive fuels into the region, which in 2012 was virtually tar sands-free, will hurt the efforts to combat climate change," the council said in a statement. "Unless these states move as quickly as possible to clean energy, their efforts to combat climate change will suffer."
Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, which represents about 80 percent of the country's gas stations, says the plan would come with "enormous cost."
Update 1/23/14: This story has been updated to include a quote from Matt Dempsey. Clarification 1/24/14: Dempsey's identification has been clarified to more accurately reflect for whom he was speaking.