WASHINGTON—Any day now, the EPA will be weighing in with an analysis of the State Department's final environmental evaluation of the controversial oil sands Keystone XL pipeline.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said Friday that authorities from her agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will be responding to the document, which was released Aug. 26, within "the next week or so."
Jackson's agency—which could force President Obama to decide the fate of the pipeline even if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially OKs it—has been less than complimentary of the State Department's previous two environmental assessments of the fiercely debated $7 billion proposed project.
If EPA officials are as critical of the department's final environmental evaluation, pipeline opponents are hopeful their concerns will prompt Jackson to challenge the potential approval of Keystone XL later this year. Federal law requires that the president be the final decision-maker if the EPA or any of the other seven "cooperating agencies" involved in the pipeline review object to the State Department's conclusion.
William Daley, the president's chief of staff, recently told leaders of environmental organizations that the White House would not participate in the final ruling unless one of those agencies takes exception to the State Department's final determination, according to media reports.
Calgary-based TransCanada's proposed pipeline would pump diluted bitumen, a particularly dirty type of heavy crude, 1,702 miles from mines in Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.
"We will be commenting," Jackson told an audience gathered near Capitol Hill at the Newseum. The event, an energy breakfast organized by PoliticoPro, featured an hour-long question-and-answer session with the EPA administrator.
When a reporter pressed Jackson on what her decision about the pipeline would be, she smiled and quipped, "I've got 99 problems ... but that ain't one."
How Tough Will EPA Be This Time?
Pipeline opponents, many already convinced that the State Department eventually will approve Keystone XL, are counting on EPA authorities to be as tough on the final environmental review as they were on the first two.
The EPA gave the State Department its lowest grade of "inadequate" back in July 2010 after Clinton's team issued its first draft of the environmental review on Keystone XL. That harsh dressing-down forced the State Department to collect more data before completing a revamped draft in mid-April.
Even though EPA bumped up its grade on the department's second attempt from "inadequate" to "insufficient information" in June, the agency noted that it has "identified significant environmental impacts that must be avoided ... to provide adequate protection to the environment."
Agency officials criticized the department's second effort for falling short on addressing safety and oil spill risks along a less-than-satisfactory route, missing the mark on calculating lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, and failing to consider the potential damage to wetlands and migratory birds and the dangers to at-risk communities.
If completed, the 36-inch diameter pipeline would be capable of delivering up to 830,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.
The State Department's final environmental assessment of Keystone XL concluded what the agency had confirmed in its previous two versions: that constructing and operating the pipeline would have "limited adverse environmental impacts” and "there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed project corridor."
In the U.S. Interest? 9 Agencies Get a Say
Release of the final environmental assessment of the pipeline triggered the late August start of a separate 90-day review led by the State Department. Now federal authorities are in the midst of deciding whether the pipeline is in the "national interest." This examination extends beyond the pipeline's environmental repercussions to take into account economic, political, energy security and foreign policy considerations.
Citizens had the opportunity to voice their concerns on these topics during a series of hearings the State Department organized in the half dozen states affected by the Keystone XL. Public meetings in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas concluded with an Oct. 7 gathering in downtown Washington, D.C.