WASHINGTON — Oil began flowing Wednesday through the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, as a massive environmental battle continues over whether President Barack Obama should approve the northern portion to tap Canadian oil sands.
The southern part of the pipeline runs 487 miles from Cushing, Okla., to refineries in Texas. Keystone developer TransCanada hopes to soon get permission to start building the northern leg and bring controversial Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast.
The planned 1,179-mile northern leg gets most of the attention because the Canadian oil sands result in more planet-warming gases than conventional oil. But Keystone opponents in Texas have been fighting the southern section for years.
“The pipeline starting does nothing more than fuel my anger,” said Julia Trigg Crawford, who fought unsuccessfully in court to prevent TransCanada from using eminent domain to run the Keystone pipeline under her land near Paris in northeast Texas.
TransCanada said the southern leg can ship up to 830,000 barrels a day and help relieve the bottleneck of crude in Cushing, the Oklahoma town that is the world’s largest oil storage hub. The pipeline runs from there to Nederland, Texas, with a planned spur to refineries around Houston.
“This is a very important milestone for TransCanada, our shippers and Gulf Coast refiners who have been waiting for a pipeline to supply oil directly from Cushing,” TransCanada’s chief executive, Russ Girling, told reporters Wednesday in a conference call.
Pipeline opponents in Texas pledged Wednesday to document all spills, leaks and disturbances along the route. They said the pipeline’s ultimately planned cargo of Canadian oil sands crude would be difficult to clean up if it’s spilled into Texas rivers and streams, as bitumen in such oil sinks in water rather than floating like conventional crude.
TransCanada’s need to repair the pipeline before it started pumping oil fueled the opposition. So did letters the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent TransCanada in September warning of dents in the pipeline and complaining the company did not use qualified welders.
The federal agency gave the pipeline its approval, though, and TransCanada’s executives said Wednesday that the spill protections are state of the art.
“This is the safest oil pipeline that has been built in America to date,” Girling said.
TransCanada continues to anxiously await the fate of the proposed northern leg of Keystone. That section of the pipeline requires approval from the State Department because it crosses the U.S. international border with Canada.
A preliminary State Department report downplayed the environmental impact of the pipeline, boosting the hopes of TransCanada, which said Wednesday that it expects a final analysis from the agency within weeks. Obama suggested in June, though, that he will block the pipeline if he concludes it would worsen global warming.