The EPA has slowed down the approval process of a permit for a new Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that a few months ago looked like a shoo-in for a State Department rubber stamp by the fall.
The EPA gave the State department's draft environmental impact statement for the 2000 mile pipeline that will cut across the nation's heartland the worst rating possible, noting that if differences between the agencies can't be resolved, the matter could get referred to the White House for resolution.
In response, the State department announced it intended to add 90 days to the process of making a decision on the pipeline permit to allow the final environmental impact statement to be reviewed by other federal agencies. Observers think that means there will be no decision until sometime next year.
Last year, a similar pipeline received approval with far less scrutiny. Is environmental security rising to become a matter of primary national interest in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster?
"We're not BP, I'm not sure what that means for TransCanada," Terry Cunha, a spokesperson for the company that wants to build the pipeline said, referring to the Gulf oil disaster. "The incident that took place with BP is unfortunate, but we don't drill offshore, we're a pipeline company and we have a strong safety record."
The proposed TransCanada pipeline will carry crude from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in Texas. Known as the Keystone XL, it would increase the flow of a far more polluting form of oil from the north by 900,000 barrels a day and double US consumption.
"I think it reflects a growing recognition that Canada has mismanaged oil sands development," Simon Dyer told SolveClimate News. He is the the oilsands program director of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian sustainable energy think tank. "The U.S. EPA is an agency that is actually doing its job as compared to regulatory agencies in Canada that are not providing this kind of scrutiny."
The EPA has asked the State Department to consider the national security implications of expanding the nation's commitment to a relatively high-carbon source of oil, which EPA says has a well-to-tank carbon footprint 82 percent larger than conventional oil.
Also of concern is what would happen if a pipeline accident caused a serious spill above the Ogallala aquifer which millions of Americans in the Midwest rely on for fresh drinking water as well as irrigation, but many other long-standing environmental impacts are also giving EPA pause.
"We don't agree with it," Cunha of TransCanada said, referring to the EPA's poor rating of the draft environmental impact statement. "We've been working with the State Department since November 2008 and we think they did a thorough and complete job."
Energy and Environmental Security on an Equal Footing
Through the lens of energy security, Canadian oil looks more attractive than oil tainted by unfriendly foreign regimes, but since April 20th, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the sheen of that perceived advantage has faded.
It has become painfully clear that with one environmental catastrophe, the economy and social fabric of a whole region can be destroyed as effectively as with a terrorist attack.
It puts oil thirsty Americans between Iraq and a hard place, and the search for a proper balance between energy and environmental security is now up for grabs in the inter-agency tussle.
Ask average Americans where to find the biggest and dirtiest industrial project known to man, and chances are that only a few will point to a leading contender just across the northern border in Alberta, Canada.
Alberta is ground zero of an oil bonanza booming on North American soil, where vast deposits of oil sands sitting beneath pristine boreal forests are being unearthed, causing severe and far-reaching environmental impacts.
To extract the oil from the sand requires three barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced; it leaves behind toxic liquid tailings that are collected in ponds lethal enough to kill birds that land on them, which now sprawl over more than 150 square kilometers of territory; and extraction by itself produces three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil pumped up from a well.
The yield from the messy mining process is a tarry crude that can be turned into gasoline. Even though the biggest customers are Americans in their guzzling autos, the tar sands, as they are also known, have remained largely outside popular awareness and media attention in U.S. It looks like that is starting to change.
Not worth mining at any great scale until recent decades, the inferior grade fuel has now come to provide the largest portion of oil entering the U.S. from Canada, America's largest foreign supplier since 2004. It is projected to provide 30% of US needs by 2030 -- all from a friendly, mostly English-speaking neighbor. It is a welcome prospect inside the State Department, wrestling with terror and responsible for keeping the nation supplied with oil as a matter of national interest.
Expected Rubber Stamp Now Up in the Air