Skip to main content

A member of a cleanup crew works in Mayflower, Ark., on Monday, April 1, 2013, days after a pipeline ruptured and spewed oil over lawns and roadways.Jeannie Nuss/The Associated Press

Fuelled by grim images of oil-soaked birds and thick, Alberta oil-sands crude pooling in backyards after a pipeline ruptured in Arkansas, anti-Keystone XL activists have redoubled their efforts to persuade President Barack Obama to nix the controversial project to funnel Canadian oil to Texas refineries.

Keystone's opponents are using the Arkansas spill to bash the long-delayed project, its sponsor TransCanada Corp., and the whole concept of shipping carbon-laden and currently heavily discounted Alberta crude to Gulf Coast refineries, which would add billions to the bottom lines of Canadian producers.

"Tar-sands oil is the dirtiest oil on the planet," Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice-president of the League of Conservation Voters said Wednesday. She said the spill in Mayflower, Ark., dramatically demonstrates the grave risks of piping oil-sands crude. "The more the facts come to light, the worse it is," she said.

In the wake of widespread U.S. news coverage of Canadian oil-sands crude fouling an Arkansas town after the rupture of the Pegasus pipeline, Alberta Premier Alison Redford may face a rough ride when she makes yet another pro-Keystone XL lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., next week.

"This fight is going to keep on," said Bill Burton, a former White House political operative whose links to Mr. Obama date back to the days when he was a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Burton, who now runs a progressive political action committee and is a senior adviser to the League of Conservation Voters, said he expected the President to "make the right decision and that's not always in line with current public opinion."

"We all ought to take him at his word on this," Mr. Burton said, referring to Mr. Obama's pledge to address man-made climate change as a key objective of his second term.

Despite a Pew poll – taken before last weekend's spill – that found Americans back Keystone XL nearly three-to-one, the mess in Arkansas may shift the political debate, Mr. Burton said. He said he expects anti-Keystone forces will eventually prevail. The poll showed broad backing for Keystone – strongest among Republicans but with clear majorities among men and women, young and old. Only among self-described liberals on the left of the Democratic Party did a majority oppose Keystone.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Exxon Mobil had reversed the flow in the aging pipeline a few years ago. Pegasus is now used to ship thick, oil-sands crude south to Texas from Illinois. Originally the pipeline moved lighter oil north from the Gulf to the Midwest.

Exxon Mobil was ordered, by the U.S. pipeline safety agency, not to attempt to restart the ruptured Pegasus line, which was sending about 90,000 barrels a day – roughly one-tenth the capacity of the proposed Keystone XL line – when it failed.

"Continued operation of the Pegasus pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property, and the environment," Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said in a written order issued Wednesday.

Exxon Mobil's decision to reverse the Pegasus flow, pumping much thicker and – some claim – far more corrosive crude oil at higher pressures, is expected to get close scrutiny from federal investigators.

In Mayflower, the messy, laborious, cleanup continued. At least 12,000 barrels – roughly equivalent to 15 rail tank car loads – of oil and contaminated water have already been recovered, although the amount of oil that actually spewed form the ruptured line may be less than half of that amount. Still, a break in a pipeline of Keystone's capacity would leak up to 570 barrels a minute.

Exxon Mobile's chief executive officer Rex Tillerson said he didn't know why the Pegasus line ruptured, but added: "I'm proud of the response and I'm really proud of the co-ordination we've had with the local authorities." In an interview with FuelFix, he said the Exxon Mobile's response has limited the damage.

At least the Arkansas spill has sharpened the already nasty Keystone debate.

"If Americans needed a reminder of the serious environmental risks posed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, they got it last week with the oil spill in Mayflower," the Baltimore Sun said yesterday in an editorial urging the President to reject the Canadian pipeline. And it raised a little-considered argument that giving Alberta's oil sands crude a valuable route to tidewater ports would end the current big discounts that are clipping more than nickel a litre off gasoline prices for motorists in the U.S. Midwest.

"The lack of a Keystone XL pipeline today has helped create a glut of oil in North America that's benefited much of the middle of the country," The Sun said. "Images of Arkansas waterfowl covered in thick crude may not pull at the heartstrings of pro-Keystone members of Congress, but the practical implications of enabling Canada to sell its oil to other countries and worsening climate change ought to get everyone's attention."