5 Years After Keystone XL Application, Pipeline’s Importance Still Debated

While many say the importance of the Keystone XL pipeline has dimmed for the Bakken, North Dakota congressional leaders continue to call for its approval, citing its creation of jobs and promotion of North American energy security.

Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of TransCanada’s application to the U.S. State Department for the 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta to Texas. While the southern half has been approved, the northern section of the pipeline has twice been blocked by the Obama administration. It would not go through North Dakota, but would transport up to 100,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day.

North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said Thursday the Keystone XL is less important for Bakken producers than it was five years ago because rail ramped up to meet transportation demands.

“On the other hand, I think it still is very important because it will offer an efficient, safe way to transport Bakken crude into Cushing, Okla., and all the way down to the Gulf Coast,” Helms said. “It offers another option for our light, sweet crude. To me, that’s very important.”

Helms testified earlier this year to a U.S. House of Representatives committee that approval of Keystone XL will remove 300 to 500 truckloads from North Dakota highways and one to two fewer trains will leave the state each day.

Helms also testified that when compared to pipelines, greenhouse gas emissions from rail transportation are 1.8 times greater and 2.9 times greater for truck transportation.

Recent comments from Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm that Keystone XL is no longer needed have attracted a lot of attention in the debate about the project. Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who has opposed the pipeline, mentioned Hamm’s comments when asked about his stance on the pipeline during his recent tour of the Bakken.

But in a statement issued Thursday, Continental Resources spokeswoman Kristin Miskovsky clarified that Hamm’s statements indicated that while the industry has found other alternatives, the company supports the construction of the pipeline.

“We actually have barrels committed the Keystone XL. Mr. Hamm’s comments were that the administration has waited too long to make a decision. As such, the industry has had to find other ways to move crude oil,” Miskovsky said.

Jack Ekstrom, vice president for government and corporate relations for Whiting Oil and Gas Corp., who was on the tour with Wyden, said many operators in the Bakken don’t need Keystone XL, but that doesn’t mean they don’t support it.

“We’re going to be fine without it. But we would do that much better with it, not just for North Dakota, not just for Montana, but for the country as a whole,” said Ekstrom, citing economic benefits, energy security and relations with Canada.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp recently called Keystone XL the “Kim Kardashian of energy.”

“There is irrational attention to Keystone as kind of ground zero on the carbon debate when it has nothing to do with carbon, it has to do with moving and transporting oil and gas,” Heitkamp said in an interview after her recent trip to the oil sands in Alberta. “It has, for whatever reason taken on a life of its own that is not rational.”

On Thursday, Heitkamp said in a statement her visit to Canada reinforced the importance of the pipeline for the two countries.

“It’s disappointing we’re at this point where five years later we still don’t have an answer on the Keystone XL pipeline,” Heitkamp said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer said in spring of 2012 that expansion of other pipelines in North Dakota has diminished the importance of Keystone XL to the Bakken. However, Cramer also continues to call for the project’s approval for its creation of jobs.

“It is shameful the president is letting this project languish on his desk while the national unemployment rate remains unacceptably high,” Cramer said in a statement Thursday.

The House of Representatives intends to pass legislation making presidential approval of Keystone XL a condition of raising the national debt limit, according to Cramer’s office.

Hoeven points to the trucks that will be removed from North Dakota roads when advocating for the pipeline.

“Every concern has been reasonably answered, and it’s time for economic reality, common sense and the will of the people to prevail,” Hoeven said in a statement Thursday.

Environmental groups, including those in North Dakota, continue to raise concerns about the project.

Don Morrison, executive director for the Dakota Resource Council, said the jobs supporters say it would create are exaggerated and the project will do little to relieve transportation challenges in the Bakken.

“There’s a lot of hype and we’d even call it a sham,” Morrison said.

The Sierra Club, including the chapter in North Dakota, also opposes the pipeline.

“North Dakota won’t get any benefit from the tar sands being developed,” said conservation organizer Wayde Schafer. “I don’t think we should be facilitating the use of such a dirty energy source.”