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Will the Keystone Pipeline help US Consumers?

8:54 AM, Mar 14, 2012   |    comments
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Often lost in the political wrangling over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline - on hold after President Obama rejected TransCanada's initial construction proposal - are some key findings that run counter to the rosy picture of abundant supply and lower prices so often painted by US politicians.

Canadian companies backing the Keystone XL - touted as enhancing US energy security with a big new surge of imported Canadian oil - actually expect it to supply more lucrative Gulf Coast export markets as well as raise Midwest oil prices by reducing "oversupply" in that region.

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These little-publicized findings are contained in the studies and testimony of experts working for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline from Alberta's tar sands across America's heartland to Gulf Coast refineries.

Some of these concerns popped up, albeit briefly, in US congressional testimony last year on the pipeline project, and have given rise to a recent proposal to bar the sale of Keystone oil overseas.

In the latest round of Capitol Hill fighting over the pipeline, Senate Democrats on Thursday defeated a Republican amendment to the transportation bill that would have fast-tracked the project by stripping the State Department of its approval authority and giving it to Congress.

In February, legislation to force US approval of the pipeline passed the House 237-187. That bill would strip the president of authority to block the project and give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 30 days to approve the pipeline.

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But most of the heated partisan rhetoric over job creation and gasoline prices glosses over what Keystone would or wouldn't do for the US.

"Keystone will bring many benefits to the United States, but I believe the most important role that Keystone will play is to bring energy security to the United States during what has been recently some very unsettling times overseas," Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president for energy and oil pipelines, said in a congressional hearing in December.

So, would TransCanada support US legislation requiring Canadian oil and products refined from it, such as diesel, to be sold only in the United States, asked Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, "so that this country realizes all of the energy security benefits your company and others have promised?"
"No, I can't do that," Mr. Pourbaix said.

In an e-mailed statement, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha writes that Keystone XL could help cut US reliance on Mideast and Venezuelan imports "by up to 40 percent." He cites a 2010 US Department of Energy study that he contends says more Canadian oil would "help reduce US imports of foreign oil from sources outside of North America."

Most analysts agree that more Canadian oil flowing south would help reduce imports from other regions. Less obvious, however, is the fact that the Keystone XL pipeline is not actually needed to bring all that new Canadian oil to the US - a flow now projected to rise to 1.7 million barrels per day by 2030, according to the same DOE study.

Often characterized by proponents as validating the need for the pipeline, that study actually found that Canadian oil import growth will go on at "almost identical" levels through 2030 using existing and new pipeline capacity as well as rail shipments - whether or not Keystone XL is built.
Even so, supporters in Congress continue to call Keystone XL "a no-brainer" from a US energy-security standpoint, also arguing it would benefit consumers by lowering gas prices, too. Keystone XL's "supplies from reliable sources leads to lower costs, thereby putting downward pressure on prices," one study on TransCanada's website says.

According to this premise, Keystone XL would move up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude south each day, boosting economic activity by billions of dollars and creating thousands of new jobs - though their precise number is hotly disputed.

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Yet in January, Mr. Obama, under pressure by Republicans, reiterated his previous decision to deny permission to build the Keystone XL- at least for now. The pipeline "would not serve the national interest at this time," Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary of State, subsequently told the House subcommittee on Energy and Power, citing "unresolved concerns" including energy security, economic effects and environmental impacts.

TransCanada replied to the denial by saying it would resubmit its construction proposal to address the environmental concerns, and on Tuesday a company executive reportedly said new plans that rerouted the pipeline away from the sensitive Nebraska Sandhills region would be ready in weeks.

But the president's denial unleashed a furor as GOP presidential candidates and oil industry backers lambasted the White House for denying the US economy oil and jobs.

"The president demonstrates a lack of seriousness about bringing down unemployment, restoring economic growth, and achieving energy independence," GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said in a statement.

Newt Gingrich said the decision "weakens America's national security and kills thousands of well-paying American jobs," while oil industry advocate Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, called the project "essential," and said, "It must be approved and built."
But others, including environmentalists who oppose the pipeline mainly because extracting oil from tar sands releases more greenhouse gases than other methods of harvesting oil, also argue the pipeline will do little or nothing to boost US energy security and will actually lead to higher oil prices in the Midwest.

"Rather than providing the US with more Canadian oil, Keystone XL will simply shift oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, where much of it can be exported to international buyers - decreasing US energy supply and increasing the cost of oil in the American Midwest," concludes a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy non-profit group, citing numerous TransCanada studies and the transcripts of Canadian federal hearings.

But it's not just environmentalists who are howling in the wilderness.

"The firms involved have asked the US State Department to approve this project, even as they've told Canadian government officials how the pipeline can be used to add at least $4 billion to the US fuel bill," Philip K. Verleger, president of PKVerleger LLC, a Colorado consulting firm that specializes in research on oil market economics, wrote in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune commentary last March.

US farmers who spent $12.4 billion on fuel in 2009 could see those costs rise to $15 billion or higher if the pipeline goes through, he projects. At least $500 million of the added cost "would come from the Canadian


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