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Supporters of Keystone XL pipeline did not welcome news of oil spill last month

Mired in a years-long battle to gain federal approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, supporters of the project did not welcome the news of last month's oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

Mired in a years-long battle to gain federal approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, supporters of the project did not welcome the news of last month's oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

Not that anyone is ever pleased with an oil spill, but the bursting of a 65-year-old ExxonMobil Corp.-owned pipeline near Little Rock, Ark., on March 29 -- and the national publicity from it -- came at an especially bad time for pipeline advocates, a good number of which have vested interests in the Bakken.

How, if at all, the Arkansas spill might affect the approval of the Keystone XL -- which is expected to get a federal thumb's up or down sometime later this year -- is anybody's guess. Groups and individuals on both sides of the debate, however, have treated the spill as an opportunity to drive home their reasons for approval or rejection.

"Pipelines are still the safest and most efficient way of moving oil while reducing truck traffic and congestion on our roads," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., through his press office Friday. "The Arkansas pipeline was built in the 1940s and this incident highlights the need to build new infrastructure using the latest technology, like the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline is one of the most advanced and studied pipelines in our county's history."

Energy giant TransCanada has had plans for years to finish the Keystone XL project, which would transport heavy tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries through a channel of international pipelines. Proponents of the Keystone XL have long touted the jobs it would help provide and the ease of which it would help bring carbon products to market.

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But not everyone is convinced the pipeline is a good idea. Ross Hammond of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, based out of Berkley, Calif., said in an email Friday that he believes the Arkansas mishap should be the final nail in the coffin for the feds to decide to give the Keystone XL the red light.

"The Mayflower spill should serve as a wake-up call to President Obama that approving the Keystone (XL) pipeline would be a catastrophe for the environment," Hammond wrote. "The State Department review of the environmental impacts of this project, written by oil industry consultants, downplays the environmental impacts of the pipeline. But the residents of Mayflower know better."

Calling the Canadian tar sands oil "dirty and dangerous," Hammond also downplayed the benefits of the number of jobs the pipeline would create.

Other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have also ramped up efforts to sway attitudes about the pipeline in Washington and beyond lately.

Citing numbers that show "billions of barrels of oil move safely throughout North America" every year, TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard indicated after the Arkansas spill that energy infrastructure, such as oil pipelines, are paramount to powering the everyday activities of most North Americans.

"(The Mayflower spill) is an unfortunate circumstance and demonstrates the pipeline industry must continue to focus on the safe, reliable operation of its energy infrastructure," Howard said in a statement. "Americans consume 15 million barrels of oil every day to heat their homes, cook their food and start their cars. Oil and petroleum products are part of our daily lives and most North Americans clearly understand this and it's why support for Keystone XL remains strong."

If the project is approved, Howard said Keystone XL would be the most "state-of-the-art pipeline that has been built to date" and would use the latest technology, including a 24-hour monitoring system and satellite technology that would "send data every five seconds from 16,000 data points to a monitoring center."

Along with her senior counterpart, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has also been a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Keystone XL project. Howard said he's not surprised at the uproar from environmentalists.

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"The people who oppose building a new, modern pipeline are primarily professional activists and lawyers," Howard said. "Sadly, they do not even try to understand what it takes to operate these critical pieces of energy infrastructure. No one even knows what caused the incident with the ExxonMobil pipeline, but that doesn't stop these groups from rushing to all kinds of conclusions that they cannot support with facts."

The rhetoric from both sides will likely only increase as judgment day for the project nears. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said through a statement released Friday that oil companies "only care about profit, not public safety."

Also this week, well-known climate scientist James Hansen announced his retirement as head of the NASA Institute for Space Studies to focus more on advocacy.

What will ultimately happen with the pipeline is up for debate at this point, but no one is expecting proponents or critics of the Keystone XL to lower their tone in the coming months.

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