A map shows current Enbridge pipelines throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Last Friday, FERC approved plans for an Enbridge rail facility in Flanagan, Illinois, that would help transport up to 140,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day across the Canadian border to the states. Flanagan is where Enbridge’s Flanagan South pipeline begins. That pipeline connects to another pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma, which brings the oil down to refineries in the Gulf where it can be turned into usable fuels, or sometimes sold for export to other countries.
The approval came weeks after Enbridge was accused by environmental groups of blatantly skirting the federal review process in its quest to double the capacity of another project called the Alberta Clipper, which runs from the tar sands to Superior, Wisconsin, and then connects with pipelines that bring oil south.
If Enbridge wanted to double the capacity of the entire Clipper pipeline, it would have needed to be reviewed in the same fashion Keystone XL was, environmental groups contend. Instead, Enbridge proposed doubling capacity above and below the Canadian border, and connecting the two sections of pipeline with an already-existing pipeline called Line 3. Because Line 3 was already approved to cross the Canadian border into the U.S., the project, according to the State Department, did not necessitate federal review.
“The fact that Enbridge is doing all it can to avoid a permit review is a testament to how controversial Keystone has become,” said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation. “But if [oil producers] want to double and triple production in the tar sands, they’re going to need Enbridge, Keystone, and frankly more pipelines than that.”
Environmental groups say they’re considering legal action to challenge the State Department’s approval.
Some environmentalists are also worried about Enbridge's safety record. In 2010, a pipeline owned by the company ruptured, spilling 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The spill was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
U.S. officials blamed the company for ignoring cracks in the pipe going back to 2005. National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said the company experienced "a complete breakdown of safety" in the years preceding the spill.
The company was also accused of underfunding and understaffing cleanup efforts, leading the still ongoing cleanup to take years instead of the initially predicted one-month. The company was fined $3.7 million for the spill. An analysis of company records by the Polaris Institute shows Enbridge was involved in 804 pipeline spills and accidents between 1999 and 2010.
But the Michigan incident, or the potential for a similar one, wasn't taken into account in the State Department's approval of the company's Alberta Clipper expansion plans.
While the approvals were big blows to the anti-tar sands movement in the U.S., environmentalists say Keystone XL still remains the largest single arbiter of the future of tar sands development.
Several analyses, including one funded by the Canadian government, predict that without pipelines and other means to get the oil to international markets, tar sands development will level off or decrease.
Obama denying a permit for the Keystone XL on the basis of its potential climate change impacts would set a precedent for other tar sands projects. And environmentalists hope the fact that Enbridge and others are looking at alternatives to cross-border pipeline projects that require federal approval may be a sign that companies fear the fate of the Keystone XL.
“Keystone is still the biggest game in town for a reason: If Obama rejects it that could have major implications for other projects,” said Jason Kowalski, the U.S. policy director for environmental group 350.org. “But in the meantime, we need to make sure every project goes through the same process that Keystone went through.”