Keystone XL Southern Leg

Oil has begun flowing on the southern segment of North America’s most controversial pipeline project: the Keystone XL. TransCanada announced Wednesday that it had begun operations to send crude from the congested pipeline and storage hub of Cushing, Oklahoma to the refining center of the U.S. Gulf Coast. (See related Interactive: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.)

But the larger northern portion of the project, the link from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to Cushing, continues to await approval by President Barack Obama’s administration. (See related, “Keystone XL Pipeline Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.“) The project plan was re-routed through Nebraska to avoid the sensitive Sandhills ecosystem. But concern over the greenhouse gas emissions impact of providing a route to market for more carbon-intensive crude from the oil sands has invigorated an international network of climate activists.  (See related: Pictures: Animals That Blocked thePath of the Keystone XL.“)

Observers expect a decision early this year.  The tea leaves so far provide conflicting evidence as to which way the president is leaning. A former national security aide recently said he believes the project will be approved. But in a speech last summer, Obama said Keystone XL would only be deemed in the nation’s interest “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  (See related: “Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom.”)

The U.S. State Department’s environmental analysis on Keystone XL concluded there would be little additional carbon impact, because if the pipeline doesn’t get built, the oil will get to market anyway–by train. TransCanada Chief Executive Russ Girling on Wednesday indicated he would do his part to make that happen, saying he is in discussion with oil and rail companies about building rail terminals for oil in Alberta and Oklahoma if Keystone XL is not approved.

That declaration comes as safety officials in both the United States and Canada are grappling with the issue of whether new safeguards for the public are needed to address an unprecedented amount of fuel being transported across North America by rail. (See related, “Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Oil Train Rules,” and “Eight Steps for Safer Trains Eyed by U.S. Officials.“)

Photo Credit: Keystone Southern Leg/shutterstock