Climate

While We’ve Been Debating Keystone, The U.S. Has Grown Its Pipeline Network By Almost A Quarter

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Americans have been waiting for the federal government to come to a decision over the Keystone XL pipeline for more than six years, enduring countless protests, Congressional hearings and even a Presidential veto over the controversial project.

But during that time, pipeline construction in the U.S. hasn’t slowed — in fact, it’s surged.

The U.S. has added 11,600 miles of oil pipeline in the last decade, increasing its network of pipelines shipping oil through the country by almost a quarter, according to a report published Monday by the Associated Press. Since 2012, according to the AP, more than 50 pipelines have been constructed, approved, or are in the process of being built. Also since 2012, 3.3 million barrels of oil per day of pipeline capacity has been built in the U.S. — a figure that dwarfs Keystone XL’s capacity to ship about 800,000 barrels per day.

Some of those pipelines have been approved even after facing harsh opposition in the states where they were proposed. The Flanagan South pipeline, which has the capacity to ship 600,000 barrels of diluted tar sands and Bakken crude each day, was completed in December of last year. The pipeline, which runs from Pontiac, Illinois to Cushing, Oklahoma, endured multiple lawsuits and opposition from local anti-tar sands groups, who said that the way the pipeline was being permitted allowed it to skip key environmental reviews.

More pipeline projects are going through the approval process, and are dealing with local landowners and environmental groups that don’t want an oil pipeline running through their state. In Iowa, citizens groups, environmental organizations, and a local tribe are fighting to stop a pipeline proposed by Dakota Access LLC. That project would ship up to 570,000 barrels of oil each day from North Dakota’s Bakken region to Patoka, Illinois.

“Our main concern is Iowa’s aquifers might be significantly damaged,” Judith Bender, chairwoman of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, wrote in a letter last month to the Iowa Utilities Board. “And it will only take one mistake and life in Iowa will change for the next thousands of years. We think that should be protected, because it is the water that gives Iowa the best way of life.”

At the beginning of last year, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple told oil and gas industry leaders that he expects his state’s oil and gas pipeline capacity to double over the next two years, from about 783,000 barrels per day in 2014 to about 1.4 million barrels per day by 2016. One of the proposed pipelines that could help the state achieve this goal is the Sandpiper, which if approved would carry Bakken oil from North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. That project has also faced opposition, however, with environmental groups in the pipeline’s path worried about the line’s impact on local waterways.

Spills are a major concern for many fighting against these pipelines — and for the nation as a whole — as more and more pipelines are approved and constructed. Between 2004 and 2012, pipelines in the U.S. spilled three times as much crude oil as oil trains, even though oil trains had more total incidents. These spills are particularly worrisome if they occur over a waterway: earlier this year, a pipeline leaked up to 40,000 gallons of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River, contaminating the drinking water for a nearby town.

This surge in pipeline construction is worrisome for those concerned about spills and weaning the U.S. off fossil fuels, but it doesn’t mean the Keystone XL fight isn’t still important. Greg Stringham, vice president of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in 2014 that whether or not the pipeline was granted approval played a major role in economic forecasts for the Canadian tar sands industry. One of Canada’s alternatives to Keystone — the Energy East pipeline, which would ship tar sands oil from Alberta to Canada’s east coast — is facing significant opposition in Canada. And a 2013 analysis by Reuters found that it would be too costly to attempt to ship the Canadian oil by rail to the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

President Obama is awaiting the State Department’s final report and recommendation on Keystone XL, which will help inform his final decision on the project. There is no deadline for Obama to approve or reject the project.