Environmentalists say plan to pipe crude across Alberta and load it onto supertankers bound for Asia could lead to 'catastrophe'
By Suzanne Goldenberg
Environmental groups have expanded their campaign to block new oil routes from Alberta's tar sands by targeting a project designed to transport the carbon-heavy crude to China.
A new report from environmental groups in the US and Canada warns that plans to pipe the crude across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast in British Columbia, and then load it onto supertankers bound for Asia, carries enormous risks.
In a conference call with reporters, the groups warned that transporting the heavy bitumen in tar sands crude across such rugged terrain would be far more dangerous than moving conventional oil, with terrible consequences in the event of a spill.
"We really don't need an expansion of the tar sands," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programmes at the Natural Resources Defence Counil. "There really is no safe and risk-free way to get tar sands oil across British Columbia ecosystems in pipelines and supertankers."
Tar sands crude is far more carbon intensive than conventional oil, and strip mining has destroyed water and forests on traditional aboriginal lands.
Also on Tuesday, aboriginal groups announced they would sue Shell for failing to protect traditional territory of the Athabasca Chipewayan First Nation peoples.
The groups are hoping to build on their victory earlier this month in forcing a one-year delay in the Keystone XL project, intended to pipe tar sands crude across the American heartland to refineries in Texas by cutting off new export routes from Alberta.
The underground pipeline would cross more than 785 streams and rivers in a region that is prone to landslides and forest fires.
It would be even more vulnerable to ruptures than ordinary pipelines, because bitumen is highly corrosive. Bitumen is also much harder to clean up in the event of a spill, campaigners warned.
"If bitumen sinks, conventional equipment like booms and skimmers do not work," said Katie Terhune, the energy campaigner for the Living Oceans Society. And transporting crude in supertankers was even risker than moving it through pipelines. "One mistake in navigation and we could have a catastrophe," Terhune said.
The proposed 728-mile Northern Gateway pipeline was the Plan B if oil companies were unable to pump more oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The project, worth an estimated $5bn, is designed to transport up to 525,000 barrels of oil per day to markets in China and refineries in California.
The State Department ordered a one-year delay in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline earlier this month so it could study new routes following protests from green groups and landowners in Nebraska.
However, Republicans in the Senate are putting forward a bill on Wednesday that would force the State Department to complete its study in 60 days. That would once again put Barack Obama in the difficult position of making a politically charged decision on the pipeline just months ahead of the 2012 elections.
Republicans in the House are preparing their own measures to put the pipeline back on track early in the new year.
The Canadian government and the company behind the Keystone XL project, TransCanada, say they are confident the pipeline will eventually go ahead. But the Canadian authorities are still working hard to promote the Enbridge project as an alternative exit route for tar sands oil.
Canadian officials have repeatedly warned that they would ship oil to China if the American authorities did not approve the Keystone XL project.
Now with Tuesday's report, it appears as if environmental groups are gearing up to try to stop that route, too.