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One oil pipeline too many for Texas?

TransCanada's plan to pipe in tar sands oil angers Texas landowners who say they resent being pushed around by a foreign company.

January 24, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Canadian oil operators have said they have cleaned up and reduced the carbon footprint of their extraction processes, and they promise further improvement. Meanwhile, Port Arthur refineries already have been gearing up to process a variety of heavier, sour crude not only from Canada but from parts of the Middle East, Venezuela and Mexico.

"I don't think we've projected any additional emissions due to Canadian crude, because we're already processing heavy grades of crude at Port Arthur," said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero Energy Corp., which has announced plans to process additional Canadian oil.

One of the big issues raised at organizing meetings here is safety, and warnings about the possibility of ruptures and leaks.

In July, a 41-year-old pipeline carrying Canadian tar sands oil in Michigan spilled up to 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. Enbridge Inc., which operates that pipeline, also reported a spill of about 126,000 gallons near Neche, N.D., in January, and 50,000 gallons in rural Wisconsin in 2007.

TransCanada initially sought permission to operate Keystone XL at pressures higher than those normally approved in the U.S. but backed off in the face of widespread concerns, leaving the door open to reapply for the high-pressure permit once the pipeline established a safety record.

"We're meeting all of the guidelines that have been put in place by the U.S. government," said Terry Cunha, spokesman for the pipeline company.

Cunha played down concerns that the tar sands oil is inherently riskier to ship than other oil.

"We are just a pipe builder; we are not the owner of any crude oil, but the oil we're shipping is meeting all of the guidelines put in place. It's similar and comparable to oil you'd find coming from California, the Middle East, Venezuela — this oil is no different," he said.

Neil Carman, a former state refinery inspector who now works for the Sierra Club, warned at a community meeting in Houston that the higher sulfur content of Canadian tar sands oil could elevate the risk of release of deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

But it's the manners of the Canadians that stick most in the craw of Texans. At many of the Texas meetings, landowners complained that surveyors for TransCanada have shown up on their property unannounced, followed by land agents pushing them to sign easements.

David Daniel, a Winnsboro carpenter, said TransCanada notified him it would need to cut down most of the trees in the wooded valley that lies at the heart of his property in east Texas.

"I asked them, what are the chances of this thin-wall, high-pressure pipeline rupturing, compared to other pipelines? They said there's no study available — we won't know till the line has been in service for many years. So I'm a lab rat on my own property," Daniel said.

Daniel signed after TransCanada threatened to take him to court, and after pipeline workers showed up at his door to ask him why he was threatening their jobs — apparently convinced that the project will create more than 50,000 "spinoff" jobs, as a study promoted by TransCanada predicts.

Daniel immediately started organizing, urging his neighbors to put out yard signs, and meeting with local tea party activists, who were outraged. "Our local newspaper is extremely conservative. A foreign company seizes an American's private property. They jumped all over it," Daniel said. "Then people started getting interested in the safety issues."

Barbara Jean Shuttlesworth of Arp said the pipeline would traverse the 20 acres she and her husband bought years ago to build their future home. They no longer want to live there.

"They tell you, you can either take this money we're offering you, or they're going to take your land anyway. Because they're going to do what they're going to do," she said. "My husband works in the oil industry. I have family members who have been in the oil business for years. This is not the first time we've seen a pipeline. But the way they're doing this, it really makes you feel helpless. It renders you helpless when they put eminent domain out there."

So far, nine of the state's 32 members of Congress are on record supporting the pipeline. In a state already crisscrossed by more than 77,000 miles of utility pipelines, supporters argue, it would be foolish to stand in the way of a project that will help secure reliable energy supplies from a close ally of the U.S. — one that already is the nation's biggest oil supplier.

"Southeast Texas is no stranger to pipeline projects and has operated them safely for years. Pipelines are a far safer way to transport crude, eliminating the greater potential for accidents by tanking it from overseas," Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican whose district includes the Port Arthur region, said in a statement.

"We can continue to rely on unfriendly foreign nations, or we can work with our longtime allies to the north to supply over 1.4 million barrels of oil a day," he said.

Even among many here with long ties to the environmental movement, the economic argument, as it always has in Texas, wins the day.

Hilton Kelley, director of the Community In-Power and Development Assn. and one of Port Arthur's most prominent environmentalists, said the current economic hardship was no time to be saying no to new industrial development.

"The potential for disaster is great," he said. "But I cannot in good conscience stand and protest the pipeline, because of the large number of jobs this is going to create for American citizens. Here in Port Arthur, we're looking at 14.5% unemployment. You'll die faster from starvation than you will from pollution, and that's the only options that we have, unfortunately."

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