How the Keystone XL Pipeline Would Impact the Bakken

Pipeline Photo
Pipeline Photo

The Senate will vote today on a bill to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, after the House voted to approve it last Friday. The controversial pipeline would carry heavy oil sands crude from Canada and lighter Bakken crude to the Gulf Coast refining market.

In 2013, the Congressional Research Service released a report that stated 12% of the Keystone XL Pipeline's 830,000 b/d ultimate capacity has been set aside for the transport of Bakken Crude. The report further said the Keystone XL pipeline project would include a lateral pipeline, called the Bakken Marketlink, to carry oil from Baker, MT, to the hub in Cushing, OK.

Although the Keystone XL Pipeline would play a role in the Bakken, its significance in the region has diminished slightly over time. Despite a still lacking midstream infrastructure in the Bakken, several pipeline projects have advanced as the political thunderstorm has ensued surrounding the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In September of 2013, Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, the Bakken's second largest producer, said the Keystone XL pipeline was no longer critical in an interview with Amy Harder from the National Journal. For full disclosure, at the time of the interview, Hamm's Hiland Partners was pushing its Double H Pipeline, a 460-mile pipeline project from Dore, ND, to Guernsey, WY., which is slated to be online by January of 2015.

Read more:No Need for Keystone XL - Continental's CEO Harold Hamm

Political Sway for the Keystone XL Pipeline

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) is the Senate bill's chief sponsor. Hoeven has pushed for the pipeline for several years, and touts its benefits (i.e. an increase in jobs, energy security and a decrease in crude by rail transport).

The Keystone XL pipeline is about energy, jobs, helping to grow our economy and increasing national security by increasing energy security,” Hoeven said in a prepared statement.

Keystone Pipeline Could Alleviate Rail Congestion from Bakken Crude

Currently, just under 70% of all the oil produced in North Dakota, where much of the Bakken's development is concentrated, is transported out of the state by rail, ultimately making its way for now to refining markets, primarily on the East and West Coasts. The Keystone XL Pipeline could alleviate some of the rail congestion being caused by the transport of oil, which would free up the rail service in North Dakota and across the midwest for the transport of other goods, primarily agricultural.

ND Regulators Hold Hearing About Bakken Crude Treatment

Oil Rail Car Image
Oil Rail Car Image

Executives at top oil and gas companies in the Bakken are fighting back against North Dakota regulators, opposing the treatment of Bakken crude before it shipped via rail, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). On Tuesday, the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) heard testimony from oil executives, who claim Bakken oil is sufficiently treated at the well site. The paper first reported the NDIC would be holding hearings in August concerning further treatment of Bakken crude, which has been linked to several explosions, resulting from train derailments. Just under 70% of Bakken crude is transported out of North Dakota by rail to coastal refining markets and hubs like Cushing, OK.

Read more: NDIC Considers Bakken Crude Treatment

Critics believe Bakken crude is dangerous, and needs to undergo stabilization. In similar plays like the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, crude is routinely stabilized before transport. At the hearing, representatives from the Dakota Resource Council, a nonprofit environmental group, asked for a moratorium on drilling permits, according to the paper.

The most appropriate action is probably somewhere between a moratorium on drilling permits and letting industry write its own ticket. As a matter of public safety, a thorough analysis of this issue is not unwarranted, but extreme measures to completely halt new development should be met with total disregard.

An issue not often discussed surrounding this issue is pipelines. North Dakota is woefully behind on its pipeline infrastructure. There are bascially two reasons - economics and regulation. It's cheap to transport oil by rail, and pipelines are expensive to build. For the companies that build pipelines, it can sometimes be difficult to secure commitments, and furthermore, state and federal government regulations have made building pipelines more challenging.

Ultimately, the transport of Bakken crude needs to be viewed from a standpoint of both safety and economics. It seems like common sense, and it would be nice if both the oil companies and the regulatory bodies could get on the same page in this respect.