By John Parnell
Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Canadian counterpart today with the impending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline between the two countries likely to figure high on the agenda.
Work has already begun on the southern section of the project, which will carry thick tar sands oil at high pressures from Alberta to refineries on the South Coast of the US.
The northern section requires approval from the State Department as it crosses international borders.
Kerry’s strong environmental credentials have raised the hopes of some environmentalists that he could be set to block the plans, despite intense pressure and claims that the pipeline could create thousands of jobs during its construction.
The credibility of President Obama’s new urgency on climate change would also take a knock if the pipeline is approved.
A dispute over the pipeline’s route across a major water aquifer in Nebraska caused the project’s developer TransCanada to submit a new application. A revised path was accepted by Nebraska last month leaving a nod from Kerry as the final hurdle to its construction.
Work on the southern section has been dogged by a series of small but vocal protests and legal challenges by landowners.
“The question at the State Department is whether the pipeline is in the national interest,” says Eddie Scher from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign. “That’s not clearly defined. We argue that you have to look at climate impacts as part of that. We don’t know whether or not they’ll accept that though.”
NASA climatologist James Hansen has said that if the massive tar sands of North America are exploited it will be “game over” for the climate.
The thick, bitumen-like oil is energy intensive in its extraction and refining, making it dirtier than other sources of oil.
Scher says this also means the pipeline is different to the others that snake across the US.
“The pipeline is a 32 inch pipeline. Tar sands isn’t like crude oil, it’s like asphalt. It is injected full of lighter hydrocarbons and pumped at high pressure, upwards of 1000psi. A car tyre is about 40psi. These are not conventional pipelines.”
Last month a leading liberal Canadian MP said attempts to block the tar sands were as “delusional” as trying to shut down any other major fossil fuel development.