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Sierra Club puts Keystone XL approval chance at 50 percent

A crystal ball capable of predicting the presidential approval of an international pipeline to bring Canada's tar sands oil to Texas refineries has yet to be found as a top official with the Sierra Club this week put the chances at 50 percent.

With Republicans -- and some Democrats, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- pushing harder than ever to get a White House green light for the entire Keystone XL pipeline system, it's assumed by many that the project will eventually come to fruition.

Originally proposed in 2008, the Keystone XL has been a main talking point for several years among members of the GOP, but Sierra Club official Michael Marx said Friday that the completed line -- which hinges only on the approval of the U.S. State Department and President Barack Obama -- is far from a sure thing.

"I think we're going to get an answer from the State Department or the White House in October and I put its odds of being approved at 50 percent right now," said Marx, director of the club's Beyond Oil campaign. "It literally could go either way. I think the president understands that this issue is catching fire. If he gives the green light to this project, the climate movement is going to go ballistic."

Largely because the finished Keystone XL would help transport Bakken oil from North Dakota -- something that has put the once near-forgotten U.S. state in the national spotlight -- Peace Garden State politicians have not been shy about expressing their support for the pipeline.

"The Keystone XL is just the kind of project that will grow our economy and create the jobs our country so desperately needs," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., in a statement issued by his office Friday. "It will also reduce our dependence on the Middle East for oil and it will do so with good environmental stewardship."

Marx, however, argued that the energy industry has overblown the number of jobs it suggests would be created from the pipeline.

"That argument really has no merit," Marx said. "According to the State Department's own numbers, the Keystone XL would only create 35 permanent jobs. We think even that number is high, as we have it at about 22 jobs. The reason the oil industry wants to transport by pipeline and not by rail or truck is because it's cheap and what makes it cheap is that you don't have to employ people."

In North Dakota, however, where jobs are plentiful compared with most other areas of the country, there could be another major benefit in seeing the Keystone XL project through.

"For us in North Dakota, the (Keystone XL) will take up to 500 trucks a day off our roads," Hoeven said. "That would ease the wear and tear on our infrastructure and make our roads safer in the process."

Also a staunch advocate of the Keystone XL, Heitkamp said Friday that she believes the project is closer than ever to approval.

"During the Budget Act vote, the Senate passed a sense of approval for the Keystone XL," Heitkamp said. "It is more clear now than ever that we are ready to move forward with this project. I look forward to the State Department's final decision."

One of the main arguments from environmentalists opposing the pipeline is that it would transport a more carbon-rich crude oil and dilbit (diluted bitumen), which, they say, is potentially much more harmful to the environment if spills occur. Another reason is the idea that the pipeline would come dangerously close to the Northern High Plains Aquifer system, a major drinking water source.

In 2011, more than 60,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into Montana's Yellowstone River after floodwaters compromised ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipeline. In 2010, a pipeline in Michigan broke, spilling heavy tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

"The question isn't whether a spill will happen, but when a spill will happen," Marx said. "We want stronger spill response plans. Most of the oil in the Midwest now is diluted bitumen and it sinks in water. If that goes into a river, like what happened with the Kalamazoo, you have to dredge the river and that takes years and is incredibly expensive. When something like that happens, an area is never the same."

With environmentalists, titans of industry, citizens and politicians on both sides of the aisle looking on with keen interest, the pressure to reach a final decision will undoubtedly increase on the Obama administration.

According to Marx, passage could come down to a coin flip.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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