A controversial proposal to build a $7 billion oil pipeline from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast has residents and officials across East Texas wondering about the economic as well as the environmental impact.
The first two phases, which brought the pipeline as far south as Cushing, Okla., are already complete, with Phase 2 expected to be in service soon.
Phase 3, once approved, would bring the pipeline into East Texas before splitting off towards Port Arthur and Houston.
Company officials say the source of the pipeline is the Athabasca Oil Sands in north eastern Alberta, Canada, and currently is in service all the way to Oklahoma.
President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in early 2012, saying it needed further study amid concerns about the possible environmental impact.
It is expected to be months from now, at the earliest, before a new application from TransCanada completes the review process and is acted on.
In the meantime, Republicans have seized upon the president’s January decision as fodder to attack his commitment to job creation, economic growth and energy independence for the U.S.
Opponents of the Keystone XL project worry about the environmental impact of mining tar sands, the pipeline itself and the burning of the oil it would carry.
They are also concerned that it could steer the U.S. further off track in its pursuit of cleaner, renewable forms of energy.
Henderson resident Jeff Williams owns land near the area where the pipeline would be constructed and said he is uneasy with the project.
“We’ve researched it, my family has and I have too, and we’re kind of worried about it,” he said. “I’m all for jobs and everything, but a pipeline of that size is a huge commitment […] if something goes wrong it’s not like you can just put a patch on it and hope for the best.”
Jim Prescott, spokesman for TransCanada, said the company takes such concerns seriously, adding that a safe pipeline is their highest priority.
“Obviously it’s in our best interests to ensure the integrity of the pipeline and the safety of the communities in the surrounding areas,” he said.
Prescott said the pipeline will be monitored constantly and if something were to indicate a leak, such as a drop in pressure, the company could remotely stop the oil sand from flowing through that section of pipe within minutes.
“In addition, representatives from TransCanada plan to fly the pipeline’s route 26 times a year to scout for any signs that something is wrong with the pipeline, such as a difference in terrain,” he said. “Our commitment is to design, to build and to operate the pipeline to be the safest pipeline in the business.”
The Keystone XL project has already faced lawsuits from oil refineries and criticism from environmentalists, as well as members of the United States Congress.
Environmental groups call the pipeline an ecological disaster waiting to happen and say the so-called tar sands produce “dirty” oil that requires huge amounts of energy to extract.
“They’re going to say anything to get this pushed through,” said Rusk County native Susan Baker, whose family lives near the Reklaw community. “I mean, you don’t expect them to come out and say, ‘Hey something might happen and, if it does, we’re all in trouble.’ They’re a business, and their responsibility is to their investors. I don’t trust them.”
On the other hand, supporters of the pipeline say that it would be foolish for the U.S. to turn away a secure, expanding source of oil, and that the pipeline wouldn’t hinder the development of alternative forms of energy.
“Are you buying gas right now?” said Henderson resident Cathy Bain. “To be honest, I don’t know why we’re even talking about this […] the sooner they get this done and running, the sooner we might see some relief in gas prices.”
For others the jobs remain the main selling point.
“We’re not in a position to worry about what might happen, my husband hasn’t worked since getting laid off at [a local oilfield company],” said New London resident Sydney Ward.
“If this can bring jobs to the area, I’m all for it […] I know a lot of people feel the same.”