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Critics: State Dept.'s Latest Oil Pipeline Review 'Superficial'

Conservationists say the State Department will need to go back to the drawing board yet again, but TransCanada calls it overheated rhetoric

Apr 19, 2011

WASHINGTON—Advocacy organizations are as disappointed with the U.S. State Department’s revamped version of its environmental evaluation of a much-disputed Canada-to-Texas oil sands pipeline as they were with its first iteration.

They have been quick in voicing their chagrin, and are promising an in-depth critique in the coming days.

“If this round of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline environmental review is as superficial as it seems, the State Department will need to go back to the drawing board,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director for Natural Resources Defense Council, said just hours after the second document was released Friday. “Perhaps the third time will be a charm and they will get it right.”

Environmentalists did compliment Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team for acknowledging this time around that oil mined from tar sands has significantly higher heat-trapping gas emissions than conventional oil used in the United States.

However, they are still frustrated the review didn’t delve more deeply into what effect those lifecycle emissions could have when calculated for the long term.

As well, they are annoyed the report also shortchanged at least three other overarching issues. Those include pipeline safety, consideration of alternate pipeline routes, and the impact the pollution from U.S. refineries processing Canadian tar sands will have on the poor who live nearby.

Within the next week or so, Casey-Lefkowitz told SolveClimate News in an interview, a coalition of advocates will be preparing an in-depth analysis of the 320-page draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the proposed 1,702-mile Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

TransCanada views the latest document as a signal that the regulatory process is chugging forward, spokesman Shawn Howard said in an e-mail exchange with SolveClimate News.

“The Department of State concluded in the spring of 2010 that Keystone XL would have limited impact on the environment during construction and operation,” Howard wrote. “They have re-affirmed this during their latest round of reviews.”

Decision Still Expected by End of 2011

Clinton is still expected to grant a thumbs up or down to the 1,375-mile U.S. proposed pathway of the pipeline before the end of the year. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

The newest 45-day comment period will officially begin April 22 and wrap up June 6, according to a timeline included in a six-page executive summary of the State Department’s upgraded draft. Department officials will review those comments and then roll out a final environmental impact statement.

Officials evidently rejected a plea from NRDC and 31 other advocacy organizations to extend the usual public comment period from 45 to 120 days. But they did tell the advocates in a teleconference Friday that they were considering a request to coordinate a series of public hearings so those along the six-state proposed route receive the opportunity to offer feedback.

After the final analysis is published, State Department officials will begin a 90-day review with other federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to decide if granting a presidential permit is within the national interest.

Other “cooperating agencies” besides DOE and EPA, include the Army Corps of Engineers; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Interior; the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of Department of Transportation; and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The public also will be invited to comment on what’s known as the “national interest determination” during the first 30 days of that federal review process. Though details have not yet been provided, the State Department also plans to conduct a public meeting in the nation’s capital sometime during those four weeks.

Why Second Document Is Necessary

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, Clinton’s team is tasked with deciding “yes” or “no” on whether the pipeline is allowed to cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

Last July, the EPA gave the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible ranking, labeling the April document “inadequate.” Deficiencies they cited included a lack of accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, safety and spill-response planning and inattentiveness to the potential impact on Canada’s indigenous communities.

That prompted the State Department’s second go-around on Calgary-based TransCanada’s request for a presidential permit. The pipeline giant has proposed building and operating infrastructure designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

TransCanada is seeking permissions to construct an underground pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands mines in its home province of Alberta, then through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas to oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

The $7 billion pipeline system has the potential to double—or perhaps triple—the amount of diluted bitumen flowing to this country from its northern neighbor, though critics say it likely won’t be needed until 2025 or 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen grew five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

No New Substantive Information?

Conservationists tracking Keystone XL pooh-poohed allegations from State Department officials that they didn’t garner any new information while collecting data for the updated analysis.

The executive summary issued by the State Department concludes that thousands of comments received in response to the release of the initial review analysis yielded “no new issues of substance.”

“However, the information provided in this (updated draft) does not alter the conclusions reached in the (first draft) regarding the need for and the potential impacts of the proposed Project,” the summary continued.

Those statements indicate the department is just covering itself, Casey-Lefkowitz noted.

“What they’re trying to say is, ‘We didn’t have to do the supplemental but we did it just to be nice,’” she said. “The Department of State is dead wrong if they say they didn’t receive comments of substance. We all identified numerous new issues the department was legally required to look at in its second environmental review.”

The April 4 letter to Clinton signed by leaders from the coalition of 32 advocacy organizations laid out why the State Department needed to offer in-depth consideration of concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions, pipeline safety, environmental justice and alternate routes.

“For instance, with alternate routes they look at unlikely and expensive ones and say they are too expensive, so we don’t have to proceed,” Casey-Lefkowitz said. “Then they don’t give a thorough analysis of viable ones.”

Among those signing the letter to Clinton are the Center for Biological Diversity, Indigenous Environmental Network, League of Conservation Voters, Public Citizen Texas, Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Wildlife Foundation, Corporate Ethics International, Bold Nebraska, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

Alex Moore, who manages the dirty fuels campaign for Friends of the Earth, echoed the concerns of other advocates with his assessment that the State Department has yet to complete a serious and thoughtful analysis of lurking dangers of the Keystone XL.

“The State Department’s first draft environmental analysis was so inadequate that it had no place to go but up in its second attempt,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, the American public is still not getting a complete picture of the many serious dangers that this mega-pipeline would pose.”

Overheated Rhetoric?

Howard, the TransCanada spokesman, said his company will continue to cooperate with the Clinton and her staff to “demonstrate our ability to build and operate the safest, strongest and most advanced oil pipeline that has been built in the United States.”

Keystone XL will complete a pipeline system that will boost the U.S. economy and offer energy security from a trading partner with strong environmental standards, he added.

Since 2008, Howard pointed out, TransCanada has organized more than 90 open houses and public meetings along the pipeline route, and provided hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of pages of documentation to local, state and federal officials.

“The real issue is whether or not this pipeline meets U.S. regulatory standards,” Howard said. “In planning and designing Keystone, we have gone above both industry and regulatory standards, and we hope that this will be the focus of the discussion, not overheated rhetoric.”

Review Short on Expertise

Ken Winston, policy director with the Nebraska Sierra Club, told SolveClimate News that the State Department’s latest environmental review lived up to his low expectations.

“After looking at it, you have to ask if they really wanted to find something or did they just want to get it off their desk?” Winston said about the April 15 version. “But it’s not final and we intend to give more comments and push on whatever we can.”

He’s especially concerned that reviewers practically ignored alternate pipeline routes designed to avoid iconic and fragile landscapes such as the Nebraska sandhills or the country’s largest underground source for drinking water and crop irrigation, the Ogallala Aquifer.

“Not even mentioning aquifers as a reason to consider another route seems silly,” Winston said. “It’s an oxymoron not to consider something like that in an environmental impact statement.”

Instead of rushing to conclusions, he said, the State Department should be drawing on the expertise of University of Nebraska researchers and the nonprofit, Bellingham, Wash.-based Pipeline Safety Trust.

Strangely enough, Winston said, an introductory section of the State Department Web site touts how proud the agency is to be slicing greenhouse gas emissions via worldwide diplomacy.

“How does this square with the State Department’s updated review?” he asked. “As opposed to going down this Keystone XL road, we’d just like the Obama administration to be consistent.”

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