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Exxon oil spill in Arkansas seeps into Keystone debate

Emergency crews work to clean up an oil spill near Interstate 40 in Mayflower, Arkansas, on March 31, 2013.

JACOB SLATON/REUTERS

Thousands of barrels of Alberta oil-sands crude – the same stuff destined for the controversial Keystone XL project – spilled into a suburban Arkansas neighbourhood over the weekend after a much smaller, older pipeline ruptured, forcing the evacuation of dozens of homes.

Cleanup efforts were under way in Mayflower, Ark., a town of fewer than 2,000 just north of Little Rock, but the spill seems certain to seep into the deeply divisive debate over whether President Barack Obama should approve Keystone XL, a $5-billion pipeline to ship Alberta's crude to U.S. refineries along the Texas coast.

According to Exxon, operator of the pipeline that ruptured Friday, more than 12,000 barrels of oil and water had been recovered by Sunday afternoon. Containment booms were deployed to prevent oil from leaking into nearby Lake Conway.

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Kimberly Brasington, an Exxon spokeswoman, confirmed the oil from the ruptured Pegasus pipeline originated in Canada. The oil is "Wabasca Heavy Crude from Western Canada," she said in an e-mail Sunday. Canadian group CrudeMonitor describes Wabasca as a blend of heavy oil production from the Athabasca region.

As the thick black sludge was being steamed from yards and roads in Mayflower, Keystone opponents – already critical of the carbon-intensive nature of the product and its extraction process – seized on the spill as evidence of the additional risks associated with oil-sands crude.

"Whether it's the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or ... [the] mess in Arkansas, Americans are realizing that transporting large amounts of this corrosive and polluting fuel is a bad deal for American taxpayers and for our environment," said Democrat Ed Markey, who is running for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Arkansas spill was the second of Canadian crude in less than a week. Last Wednesday, a train carrying Canadian crude derailed in Minnesota, spilling about 400 barrels.

Canada's Energy Minister, Joe Oliver, said he didn't think the Arkansas spill would have a big impact on the Keystone debate.

"Americans understand that incidents are not caused by the origin of oil transported through a pipe," he said, adding the Canadian government "strongly supports the Keystone XL pipeline because it would advance our mutual interest in attaining North American energy security and create jobs in both countries."

Cal Dallas, Alberta's International Relations Minister, remained upbeat. "Perhaps in a strange kind of a way this makes a strong case for having new pipe infrastructure for moving this product around," he said, referring to the fact that the Arkansas line was more than 40 years old.

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He also rejected the commonly-held claim that oil-sands crude was more corrosive than other hydrocarbons.

A spokesman for TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline said people shouldn't "rush to condemn" pipelines as a result of this latest spill – the cause of which isn't clear. Shawn Howard said it "doesn't change the case for Keystone" and pointed out that pipeline technology has changed dramatically since the affected Exxon line was built and that pipelines remain the safest mode for moving oil.

As the cleanup was under way in Arkansas, Nebraska Republican and ardent Keystone backer Rep. Lee Terry warned Saturday that if Mr. Obama failed to approve the pipeline, Congress might attempt to wrest control of the decision from the Oval Office.

"The Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer," Mr. Terry said, echoing the quip first used by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to describe the Keystone decision nearly two years ago. In a toughly worded attack on Mr. Obama over Keystone XL, he said: "If the President continues to drag his feet, Congress is prepared to act."

Given the Republican control of the House of Representatives and surprisingly strong support in the Senate – where 17 Democrats backed Keystone in a non-binding 62-37 vote 10 days ago, Mr. Terry's threat, while remote, has a ring of possibility.

With Mr. Obama expected to decide Keystone's fate this summer, environmentalists have turned it into a test of his willingness to take action to combat greenhouse gases.

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But Mr. Terry said the prevarication on Keystone had gone on too long.

"It has been more than 1,600 days since the initial permits were filed for building the pipeline," he said. "To put that in perspective, it took the United States a little more than 1,300 days to win World War II."

With files from Dawn Walton and Kim Mackrael

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