Alberta-based TransCanada's proposed 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline would link up with its existing 2,151-mile Keystone pipeline, which began operations in June, and go through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The Keystone XL would cross dozens of rivers and streams from Montana to Texas, including the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, and the the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast shallow underground water table that's a major source of water for much of the High Plains region.
Opponents say last month's spill underscored the dangers of the United States' reliance on fossil fuels. A pipeline ruptured on July 25 and spilled nearly a million gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed the Keystone XL project even before the Michigan spill, but the incident has increased scrutiny and elevated concerns.
Last week representatives from some of the nation's leading environmental groups wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urging him refuse to issue a permit to TransCanada:
"Last week’s Enbridge oil pipeline spill of more than 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is the latest of more than 2,500 significant pipeline incidents that have occurred in United States over the last decade, which have resulted in 161 fatalities and 576 injuries. Enbridge’s operations alone were responsible for over 600 spills that released more than 5 million gallons of oil into the environment. This history of pipeline spills taken alongside the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, clearly demonstrate the need for additional government oversight and safety measures when it comes to our oil extraction and transportation."
"Recognizing DOT’s role as a consulting agency on TransCanada’s presidential permit application to the State Department for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project – the next major tar sands oil pipeline under consideration – we urge DOT to recommend that the pipeline not be built."
Groups opposing the expanded pipeline have also popped up on Facebook. Last week, protesters demonstrated outside Chicago's Palmer House Hilton hotel, where President Obama was attending a Democratic fundraiser, and hung a banner over Obama's Lake Shore Drive route that read, "Pres. Obama: Stop the Keystone Pipeline, Stop the Tar Sands."
"This disastrous oil spill in Michigan is yet another wake-up call to the tragic impacts of our oil dependence," says Alex Moore of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “Coming on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, this spill reinforces the need for us to build a clean energy economy, not more pipelines.”
TransCanada's vice president of Keystone Pipelines, Robert Jones, says the company is committed to safety and will use state-of-the-art leak-detection systems with automatic shut-off valves. Emergency response plans, he says, are already in place if a leak were to occur.
"We could react to that leak automatically," Jones says.
Before TransCanada can begin construction, it must get approval from several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management.
Last month, the State Department added 90 days to the review process.
TransCanada also needs permits from Montana and South Dakota.
Utility officials in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas say their states don't require permits for interstate oil pipelines. The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission approved the project in March. Tom Ring of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says a decision could come this fall.
TransCanada hopes to begin construction early next year and complete the project by early 2013, spokesman Terry Cunha says.
Once completed, the combined Keystone system would have the capacity to deliver 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day to U.S. refineries, including 500,000 barrels from the new portion, which is expected to cost $7 billion, Cunha says.
The proposed pipeline would run through part of Agnes Reeves' ranch in eastern Montana. Her son, Tom Reeves, says the pipeline spill in Michigan has exacerbated his family's concerns.
“The Michigan spill shows that pipeline spills can and do happen,” Reeves said. “That it was a terrible environmental disaster, and I certainly would not want such a disaster to occur in Montana.”
Last week TransCanada withdrew its application for a special permit that would have allowed the company to pump oil through the pipeline at higher-than-normal pressures. Critics had blasted the waiver application as a profit-boosting measure that would have increased the risk of a catastrophic pipeline failure.
TransCanada officials dismissed that accusation, saying the waiver request was based pipeline standards used in Canada.
Jones, said if U.S. demand for Canadian crude oil requires the company to expand its pipeline system in the future, then the company would consider re-applying for a safety waiver in the future.
“I think it would be speculation for us right now to determine when that would happen,” Jones said.