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Aruba, December 8th 2011 - Amid the rolling landscape of east-central alberta, where Highway 13 dips into a valley that cradles the Battle River roughly 160 kilometers southeast of downtown Edmonton, the staging ground for a half-century of petroleum exports rises abruptly on the horizon. “These are all the new tanks that were built in 2008-09, these ones right along the road here,” says Alan Parkin, chief administrative officer with the Town of Hardisty. He eases his minivan off the highway and gestures to a cluster of jumbo storage terminals. “This is all Enbridge.”

The side road is lined with the towering vats, painted white and gleaming in the morning sun. Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. is by far the biggest terminal operator on the Prairie outcrop. The firm’s Hardisty Contract Terminal – which competes for space with tanks owned by Kinder Morgan Canada, Gibson Petroleum Co., Flint Hills Resources and Husky Energy Inc. – can store 7.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fill 48,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools to the brim, although eyeballing precisely how much oil is sloshing around in the giant steel reservoirs at any given time is no exact science. “There’s really no way of knowing if they’re full or not,” Parkin says.

There are signs, though, that activity in the region is poised to accelerate. Steering his car onto a gravel stretch of road, Parkin stops and points north to a rise, bereft of much save a few trees. Heavy machinery works below, in the shadow of three oil tanks bearing the TransCanada Corp. insignia. “They’re getting things ready to start construction next year,” the administrator says. “Keystone XL is behind this hill.”

Plans for the multibillion-dollar pipeline call for construction of three additional storage tanks – big enough to each hold 350,000 barrels of oil – to facilitate added deliveries of crude oil to the Texas Gulf Coast. The site was leveled last year, Parkin says, in anticipation of a speedy approval for the project by the United States Department of State that never quite materialized. “They’re not going to do anything over the winter,” Parkin guesses.
Nor, it seems, will much happen come spring. After years of regulatory reviews, approval of the controversial Keystone expansion could be delayed by anywhere from 12 to 18 months, until after the 2012 presidential election. The State Department signaled in November that it would ask TransCanada to study alternative routes for the artery that skirt the Sand Hills region in Nebraska. TransCanada has said it will re-route the pipeline to avoid the area. Steven Paget, an analyst with FirstEnergy Capital, calculates the delay could cost the Calgary firm at least $29 million per quarter over 18 months, assuming a six per cent annual cost to the $1.9 billion the pipeline giant has so far invested in materials and site preparation. That could push the overall capital cost of the project north of $8 billion, a $1-billion jump from original estimates that could ultimately be passed to shippers in the form of higher tolls if and when the line gets built.

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