Disappointing Keystone XL environmental analysis out today?

  • Published on January 31st, 2014

By Meteor Blades

Map of Keystone XL route

The long-awaited supplemental environmental impact statement on the much-disputed Keystone XL pipeline will be released Friday afternoon, according to two unnamed senior administration officials, CNN reports. Multiple sources in the past 24 hours, starting with Bloomberg News, have said that the SEIS, which amounts to a third draft of the EIS first issued in 2011, will not make happy environmental advocates who have intensely opposed the pipeline for five years:

“The (study) is in the final stages of preparation and we anticipate a release of the document soon,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN. “As a reminder when it is released, (the study) is not a decision, but another step in the process prescribed by the Executive Order” from the President. […]Once the results of the study are out, eight U.S. agencies will then comb through it and offer their feedback. Secretary of State John Kerry will make a final recommendation to the White House.

The State Department is handling the report because the 36-inch pipeline—designed to carry tar sands petroleum in the form of diluted bitumen 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska and then through existing pipelines to the Texas Gulf Coast—crosses international boundaries, and the law requires a special presidential permit in such instances.Today’s release will not contain the actual decision on the pipeline. That’s up to President Obama. The mandated review process means it will be at least another 90 days for the interagency review to be completed and additional public comments evaluated before his aye or nay is announced.

Under an executive order with roots in the 1960s, the president must determine whether to grant a construction permit to the pipeline based on whether it is in the “national interest.” Last June, Obama gave tea leaf-reading environmental advocates some hope he might reject the pipeline when he said:

Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.  But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest.And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

Tar sands of Alberta

But if, as is being widely reported, the State Department says in the SEIS that building the multi-billion-dollar pipeline will not significantly affect carbon releases—that it will be “carbon neutral—it seems extremely likely the president will give Keystone XL a thumbs-up. If that is his choice, it is going to make him more enemies among environmental advocates who have already been disappointed and occasionally angered by his mixed stance on energy and other eco-related matters. More than 76,000 people have taken the CREDO pledge to risk arrest for civil disobedience to protest building the pipeline if construction is approved. [Full Disclosure: I am one of them.]

In their report Thursday night, Bloomberg News journalists Jim Snyder, Mark Drajem and Jonathan Allen indicated that the SEIS will contain differences from the second EIS released last March, but that it will conclude the pipeline will not significantly increase carbon emissions. The disputed reasoning behind that is that, even without Keystone XL, the extraction of bitumen from the vast tar sands reserves will continue, using other pipelines and rail to transport the petroleum to refineries and export terminals in the United States or Canada.

To be sure, railroads already have been moving far more crude oil than they were just a decade ago, mostly from the tight shale formations of North Dakota and Montana as well a small amount of tar sands petroleum. But last year, about 400,000 carloads of crude oil were transported by rail, a total of around 280 million barrels. Keystone XL alone could move 300 million barrels annually if it meets its design capacity of 830,000 barrels a day. Bloomberg reports:

“No matter what the SEIS says, it would be premature for either side to tear down the goalposts because there is still a long part of the game left to be played,” said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group opposed to the pipeline. […]The EPA sent a letter last year to the State Department saying the final report should include a “more careful review” of the ability of trains to move the heavy crude out of Alberta.

“The question going into the State Department’s final environmental impact statement is this: Who will State listen to?” said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, a Reston, Virginia-based environmental group. “Will State reverse course after listening to the Environmental Protection Agency experts who criticized the first draft as ‘inadequate’ and the second draft as ‘insufficient’ on climate impacts, oil spill risks, and threats to water resources?”

One major complaint of environmentalists is that the consultants who put together the environmental impact statement, ERM, had a conflict of interest because they do business with TransCanada, Keystone’s owner and builder. ERM did not inform of this when it filled out its application with the State Department. Consequently, the State Department’s Office Inspector General began an investigation.

Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and 23 of his colleagues sent a letter to Obama in December urging him to delay his decision on the pipeline until that investigation was completed.

State Department IG spokesman Doug Welty said Friday that the ERM report is “absolutely is not coming out today.”

ERM holds membership in the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group has spent more than $20 million lobbying for the pipeline since 2008. Although ERM claimed it had no business connection to TransCanada, it was at the time of its application consulting for the company on the Alaska Gas Pipeline Project. Yet it claimed not to have any “direct or indirect relationship (financial, organizational, contractual or otherwise) with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work.”

But that’s a side issue. At the heart of the opposition to the Keystone project is the extraction and burning of billions of barrels of petroleum from the vast reserves of especially dirty tar sands when climate change from an atmosphere already overburdened with carbon has begun to have major and accelerating impacts. Almost every peer-reviewed scientific study on the subject says that situation is going to get worse. Many say much worse unless dramatic action is taken and soon.

The “carbon footprint” of tar sands petroleum is about 17 percent higher than that of conventional oil. Moreover, the extraction of petroleum from the Canadian tar sands is likely to push development of tar sands in the United States as well as the vast deposits of kerogen in the so-called oil shale of the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The goal of more and more environmentalists is to keep as much fossil fuel, whether in the form of oil, coal or natural gas, in the ground to prevent exacerbating climate change. On the other side are the energy companies eager to dig out and burn every bit of the stuff.

(Originally posted at DailyKos. Photos by 350.org,  Greanville Post)

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