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Is the Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline in America's Best 'National Interest'?

The decision now rests with Sec. of State Clinton—and the pipeline's proponents and opponents are gearing up for their final arguments.

Sep 12, 2011
Secretary of State HIllary Clinton

WASHINGTON—Proponents and opponents of the fiercely debated Keystone XL pipeline agree on at least one point. The next three months will be crucial in bolstering their respective arguments about a proposal to pump Canadian oil sands via a 36-inch pipeline through America's heartland to Gulf Coast refineries.

Barely two weeks ago, pro-pipeline contingents were claiming victory and anti-pipeline forces were fuming after the State Department declared that the project would cause minimal environmental harm.

But now both sides are girding for the federal government's next step. It requires the State Department to take the lead in determining if Keystone XL is in the national interest. The $7 billion pipeline, a project of Alberta-based TransCanada, would travel 1,702 miles through six states. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised to say yes or no to the company's application for a presidential permit by the end of the year.

Pipeline advocates are still confident they will prevail. However, opponents are increasingly optimistic that expanding their case beyond environmental concerns could give them an edge. This broader 90-day review—known by the cumbersome name of "national interest determination"—will focus on economic, political, energy security and foreign policy considerations, as well as environmental repercussions.

The State Department has scheduled a series of eight September and October public meetings in the half-dozen states along Keystone XL's proposed route—Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas—plus a final one Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C. The department also will accept written comments through Oct. 9.

Environmental justice and conservation organizations seem re-energized by this opportunity to expand their side of the pipeline story.

"The State Department has committed to this national interest conversation being serious and we are going to take them at their word," Danielle Droitsch of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program told InsideClimate News. "That means not taking a narrow view of what is in the national interest."

She and others said they will continue to address the project's environmental impact. But now they'll also hammer on what they perceive as the faulty reasoning of pipeline proponents who stress the pipeline's social and economic benefits, particularly job creation and energy security.

Droitsch said Keystone XL's opponents are much more educated and savvy about pipeline issues now that the permit process is moving into its fourth year. They plan to highlight evidence that they say shows the pipeline could lead oil companies to raise gasoline prices in the Midwest and export Canadian diluted bitumen to China instead of keeping it in the United States.

"Those economic issues, the ones about gas prices, energy security and whether the crude stays here, are of greatest concern to Americans," Droitsch said.

In the meantime, TransCanada remains confident that its application is solid, even as it braces for another round of fireworks from pipeline opponents.

"We understand why the State Department has set up an extremely comprehensive review," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told InsideClimate News. "We respect that process. There are still some final questions that have to be answered. With the national interest determination, there will be a lot of information to sift through."

Howard said the "professional activists" who are lambasting Keystone XL don't have a grasp on the U.S. demand for crude oil, how oil products are transported or the economics of pipelines.

"I expect a concoction a day for the next 90 days," he said. "These groups will drag in everything and the kitchen sink. It's just an absolute bunch of rubbish."

A Rubber Stamp?

The State Department released its long-awaited final environmental analysis of Keystone XL on Aug. 26. It was the third iteration of the document during the protracted federal review.

In a teleconference with reporters, Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, emphasized that the final evaluation was by no means a rubber stamp.

"The final environmental impact statement is not the decision regarding the permit," Jones said. "[It] is one piece of information that will be considered. This is not a lean in any way toward one particular decision or another."

Howard said TransCanada wasn't surprised that the State Department once again found few flaws with the project, "because the facts about the pipeline don't change."

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