WASHINGTON - An oil spill that polluted an Arkansas town is drawing new scrutiny to the risks of transporting fuel across a national labyrinth of pipelines as President Obama weighs whether to approve Keystone XL.
Environmental groups point to the rupture of the Exxon Mobil pipe on March 29 in Mayflower, Ark., about 22 miles northwest of Little Rock, as a reason Obama should reject Keystone. Industry groups contend that pipelines remain the safest way to transport oil and other fuels, and that existing regulations are adequate.
"Without question, this underscores the risks of transporting this stuff," Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a phone interview.
The State Department is weighing whether to recommend that Obama approve the Keystone project. The agency is reviewing the plan because it crosses an international border.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the White House takes the safety of the pipeline system "very seriously." He said the Environmental Protection Agency is working with local officials and Exxon on the Arkansas spill.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress argue Keystone will create thousands of jobs and improve U.S. energy security. The Senate on March 22 approved 62-37 a non-binding resolution encouraging development of the project. If built, the pipeline each day could carry more than 800,000 barrels of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Exxon's pipeline, known as Pegasus, can carry 96,000 barrels a day. The 20-inch line runs to Nederland, Texas, from Patoka, Ill.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, a San Francisco-based environmental group, in a statement called the spill "another reminder that oil companies cannot be trusted to transport toxic tar-sands crude through Americans' backyards, farmlands and watersheds."
One question central to the debate is whether the diluted bitumen is more corrosive than conventional heavy crude.
Crude from Alberta's oil sands can pose a greater risk if it is transported at a higher temperature or under greater pressure, Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a Redmond, Wash.-based pipeline safety consultant, said in a phone interview.
Operators using modern pipeline-safety techniques can manage any increased corrosion potential by cleaning out the line more frequently or carefully monitoring how the bitumen is diluted, he said.