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EPA Smacks State Department Again: Oil Sands Pipeline Analysis 'Insufficient'

State Department also draws fire for scheduling public meetings to take place only after it issues its final environmental review

Jun 9, 2011

WASHINGTON—EPA authorities are still far from satisfied with the State Department’s ongoing environmental review of a controversial 1,702-mile pipeline that would pump diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands mines to Gulf Coast oil refineries.

The department’s second effort not only falls short by failing to fully address safety and oil spill risks along a less-than-satisfactory route of the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, but it also misses the mark on calculating lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, potential damage to wetlands and migratory birds, and the dangers to at-risk communities along the six-state route, according to an Environmental Protection Agency document released Tuesday.

EPA gave the State Department its lowest grade of “inadequate” back in July 2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team issued its first draft of the environmental review on Keystone XL. That harsh dressing-down forced the department to collect more data before completing a revamped draft in mid-April.

But evidently the State Department still hasn’t done enough homework.

Even though EPA bumped up its grade on this second attempt from “inadequate” to “insufficient information,” the agency noted that it has “identified significant environmental impacts that must be avoided … to provide adequate protection to the environment.”

“While the (supplemental draft environmental impact statement) has made progress in responding to EPA's comments on the (draft EIS) and providing information necessary for making an informed decision, EPA believes additional analysis is necessary to fully respond to our earlier comments and to ensure a full evaluation of the potential impacts of proposed Project, and to identify potential means to mitigate those impacts,” Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance wrote in a nine-page memo.

With two drafts completed, the State Department is now tasked with writing what is supposed to be its final environmental review of the Keystone XL.

Giles noted in firm yet polite language that the EPA will be tracking the department’s progress to be sure it directly addresses her agency’s concerns.

“We look forward to continuing to work with you to strengthen the environmental analysis of this project and to provide any assistance you may need to prepare the Final EIS,” Giles wrote. “In addition, we will be carefully reviewing the Final EIS to determine if it fully reflects our agreements and that measures to mitigate adverse environmental impacts are fully evaluated.”

Will New Meetings Matter?

Landowners joined environmental justice and conservation organizations in lauding EPA for being so forthright Tuesday morning with a detailed laundry list of concerns about the petroleum pipeline Alberta-based TransCanada wants to construct through the nation’s midsection.

But those same watchdogs are fired up at the State Department’s announcement Monday that it will schedule public meetings concerning Keystone XL within 30 days after it issues a final environmental review of the pipeline. They are annoyed because that timing means their feedback won’t be considered as the final document is crafted.

The comment period for second draft of the environmental review ended Monday.

A new round of meetings will be scheduled in the nation’s capital as well as in five of the half dozen affected states—Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Kansas is the only state not included on the list.

“There’s no legal requirement for them to respond to comments made at those meetings,” Friends of the Earth tar sands specialist Alex Moore told SolveClimate News in an interview. “The strength of the National Environmental Policy Act is that the State Department is required to take public comment. Now the State Department is trying to create a separate process and that’s not going to make people with concerns happy.”

Pipeline opponents had lobbied for the comment period to be extended beyond June 6.

“These meetings will give the public an opportunity to voice their views on economic, energy security, environmental and safety issues, in addition to any other issues the public thinks should be taken into account in determining whether granting or denying the Presidential Permit would be in the national interest,” State Department officials wrote in a news release.

Johanns Requests Sandhills Meeting

In a Wednesday letter to Clinton, Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns demanded that the meeting in the Cornhusker State take place in the midst of the ecologically sensitive sandhills landscape.

“(State) Department officials should wade ankle-deep in the water of the aquifer and feel the soft composition of the sandhills to get an idea of what will be required to dig a trench and bury a pipeline in such a sensitive environment,” the Republican stated upon releasing his letter. “Holding a meeting 100 miles outside the sandhills won't cut it; the State Department needs to understand the fragile nature of the proposed route and ensure affected Nebraska landowners have easy access to the meeting.”

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, the State Department team is tasked with reviewing TransCanada’s request for a so-called presidential permit required to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Clinton is expected to issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before December. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

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