An EPA letter that was once a mere blip on the radar for the Keystone XL oil pipeline may now be the last federal regulatory obstacle facing the controversial project.
Seven months ago, EPA scientist Jane Watson wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging a more thorough review of the pipeline's water crossings. TransCanada had applied to the Corps for a blanket nationwide permit, the kind granted to projects with minimal impacts on waterways. But Watson identified 61 crossings in southern Texas alone that weren't eligible for these general permits.
Watson's letter, sent on Nov. 8, attracted little attention. The Army Corps' role was minor compared to the State Department, the agency that was then in charge of the pipeline review, and the Corps didn't respond to the letter.
But everything changed after the Obama administration denied the pipeline permit in January. TransCanada split the project in two, and the Army Corps is now the main agency in charge of the southern segment (dubbed the Gulf Coast Project), which would help relieve the glut of oil in Cushing, Okla. by shipping it to refineries and ports along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Approval from the Army Corps is virtually all that stands between TransCanada and pipeline construction.
"Obviously the critical permits are the water crossings," company spokesman Shawn Howard told InsideClimate News. He added that the company may also need some minor permits at the local level.
TransCanada hopes to start building in late summer, and President Obama has said he supports the project. At a press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the administration "has approved the various permits that needed to be approved at the federal level, [and] the President has urged that that process be expedited."
But the Army Corps told InsideClimate News on Wednesday that the agency has not approved TransCanada's application.
"I don't know what Mr. Carney ... was speaking to, but it wasn't about us," Army Corps spokeswoman Martha Cenkci wrote in an email.
The White House press office didn't respond to a request for clarification.
TransCanada reapplied for the Corps' nationwide permit last month. The permitting process offers no opportunity for public comment, and that has angered some Texas residents who own property along the route. Pipeline opponents say Watson's letter proves that the project requires a more rigorous and transparent review.
Cenkci said her agency could not comment on the letter. "EPA wrote the letter, therefore it is within their area to address what they meant, and what their stance is now," she wrote in an email. The current pipeline "does not require review by EPA because of the minor impacts of the proposal on [waterways] within the Corps' authority."
Dr. Watson did not respond to requests for comment. The EPA press office directed all pipeline inquiries to the Army Corps.
The EPA letter concerns the original Keystone XL application to the State Department, which has been withdrawn, said Vicki Dixon, regulatory program manager for the Corps' Southwestern Division. "We will not be replying to that letter."
The Army Corps has not released the Gulf Coast Project route or TransCanada's application paperwork. When InsideClimate News asked if the pipeline would still cross the 61 waterways mentioned in the EPA letter, Cenkci wrote that the Corps is "not comparing the differences between the [Gulf Coast Project] and any previous pipeline proposals, because previous proposals are no longer under review."
When InsideClimate News posed the same question to TransCanada, Howard said the pipeline route hasn't changed—the Gulf Coast Project will follow the same path as the southern segment of the original Keystone XL.
The three Army Corps district offices overseeing the pipeline—Tulsa, Okla., Fort Worth and Galveston, Tex.—each have up to 45 days to respond to TransCanada's application. Galveston and Tulsa received the complete applications on May 11 and 14, respectively. The Ft. Worth office is still collecting the paperwork.
If the Corps doesn't respond after 45 days, the pipeline will be automatically approved. But Cenkci said the Corps will document its decision and give TransCanada a definitive answer within the 45-day deadline.
Route Crosses 651 Texas Waterways
According to the original Keystone XL application, the pipeline will cross 651 waterways in Texas alone. Because the Army Corps has jurisdiction over "waters of the U.S."—a technical term that includes rivers, streams, wetlands and the surrounding habitat—TransCanada needs permission from the Corps before it can start building.