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Domestic Oil Boom, Climate Change Concern Could Derail Keystone XL Permit

Environmentalists say Pres. Obama has more reasons than ever to deny the pipeline, including his renewed focus on tackling climate change.

Nov 9, 2012
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Protester rallies against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington D.C.

Semmens said TransCanada has no control over where the oil ends up. "We certainly don't tell the end users how to use the crude oil," he said. "We just build pipelines if there's a market and a need for them and companies willing to use them."

Will Climate Change Factor into State Department Decision?

The Keystone XL is crucial to Alberta because the province is landlocked and needs pipelines to move its crude to coastal ports to access global markets. Other pipelines have been proposed but they, too, face opposition. A pipeline to the Pacific, called Northern Gateway, could be held up indefinitely by Canadian indigenous groups. A pipeline headed to the Atlantic is still in the planning phase but is already opposed by communities along the route.

The State Department's role in the project is to determine whether the Keystone XL is in the U.S. national interest.

The agency published a draft environmental impact statement for the original pipeline proposal in 2010, followed by a second draft in June 2011. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized both reports, saying the analyses were "inadequate" and "insufficient." The EPA said the first draft failed to calculate the increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with tar sands extraction and use, and it said the second draft underestimated those emissions.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement was released in August 2011. But the EPA never weighed in on it, because a few months later the Obama administration denied the pipeline permit. TransCanada then split the Keystone XL into two parts and reapplied for the northern segment permit in May.

The State Department is now preparing a new environmental review, but it's unclear when it will be released. The timing depends in part on when Nebraska officials approve a new route through the state that avoids the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.

"We're working very hard on it," a State Department spokeswoman said. "We're trying to be rigorous, transparent and efficient. So it's coming, but we don't have any timeline."

She didn't specify what the agency will consider in its review, but she said the process will "include a thorough analysis of the new route in Nebraska, and new and relevant information [or] research that has become available." Once the review is complete, it will be released for public comment.

According to a statement the agency released last November, determining whether the pipeline is in the national interest means analyzing "all of the relevant issues" such as "environmental concerns (including climate change), energy security, economic impacts, and foreign policy."

Droitsch said the NRDC will urge the State Department to reconsider previous arguments that pipeline is needed for energy security. She also wants the agency to examine TransCanada's safety record—the company is now under investigation by Canada's National Energy Board after a whistleblower reported repeated violations in pipeline safety.

The NRDC will monitor the State Department review closely and encourage the public to submit comments, Droitsch said. NRDC staff will also reach out to the administration and representatives in Congress to discuss their concerns.

"The American public expects a rigorous [environmental] review," she said. "[People] are now more and more concerned about global warming…while climate may not have been a top election issue, it is absolutely on the minds of Americans, and they will expect action."

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