Oil to flow through Keystone XL’s southern leg this year

Wayne Knox, a contractor for TransCanada's Keystone XL project, looks at a pipe before it's lowered into the ground in Wood County, Texas. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Wayne Knox, a contractor for TransCanada’s Keystone XL project, looks at a pipe before it’s lowered into the ground in Wood County, Texas. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

The northern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline may be mired in controversy, but the southern portion of the project is almost complete, company officials said Friday.

Dubbed the Gulf Coast Pipeline, that southern leg is on track to begin carrying up to 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Cushing, Okla., to Nederland, Texas, by the end of the year. Eventually, TransCanada expects to be able to ramp up capacity to 830,000 barrels per day.

“The Gulf Coast Pipeline is over 80 percent complete,” said Grady Semmens, a TransCanada Corp. spokesman. He added that some limited construction is still needed, including tying the pipeline in to existing infrastructure and completing some pump stations. Inspections come next.

“Testing is well under way, and commissioning needs to be done prior to any oil being loaded into the pipeline to bring it into commercial service,” Semmens said, adding that commissioning is set to begin “in the near future.”

Environmental activists and Texas landowners opposed to the pipeline have attempted to thwart construction, by camping in trees, locking themselves to equipment and demonstrating in the path of working machinery.

Unlike the 485-mile southern portion of the project, which crosses no international boundaries, the northern leg of Keystone XL is subject to the approval of the State Department, which must determine the pipeline is in the “national interest” to approve it. President Barack Obama last week said the project’s fate hinges on its carbon footprint and vowed that it will only win approval if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The State Department is currently reviewing public comments submitted in response to its March finding that the Keystone XL pipeline is unlikely to cause major changes in the development of Canadian oil sands crude that it would transport across the border.

Environmentalists say that Keystone XL could contribute to climate change by expanding the marketplace for Canada’s oil sands crude. Because the bitumen in Canada’s oil sands is harvested through mining and energy-intensive steam-assisted techniques, it may have a higher carbon footprint than conventional crude.

Some critics also fear spills and leaks that could release hard-to-clean sticky diluted bitumen along the pipeline’s path.

TransCanada officials respond that “Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast pipeline will be the safest pipelines ever built.” The company has pledged it will conduct extra testing, maintenance and inspections of the pipeline, beyond current federal requirements.

In late May and early June, the company dug up portions of just-laid pipe in Texas and replaced the segments, after internal integrity testing documented some dents and other problems. Landowners critical of the project documented the work with photographs showing some unearthed pipelines labeled “dent” and stakes in the ground marking anomalies.

TransCanada said the work was consistent with its pledge to federal pipeline regulators to “address anomalies,” including relatively minor issues that normally might not require replacements at this stage. According to TransCanada, the company is “obligated to inspect the pipeline and address anomalies that previous pipelines only had to report, but not necessarily act upon.”

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