Groups Ask State Dept for 120-Day Comment Period on Keystone Pipeline

Requests for extensions are not uncommon but this one puts the agency in an awkward spot within a roiling national controversy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the Ross Sea Conservation
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the Ross Sea Conservation Reception in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 2013. Credit: State Department

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WASHINGTON—The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have asked the State Department to extend until early summer the looming deadline for public comments about the agency’s controversial draft environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Unless the State Department agrees to allow more time for comments on the impact statement, which exceeds 3,500 pages and was released on March 1, the groups will be hard pressed to fully present their “significant concerns,” representatives of 15 organizations said in a letter on March 27.

The public comment period ends on April 22—Earth Day, as it happens. That is just 45 days after the document was published in the Federal Register, the minimum requirement. The groups asked for it to be extended to 120 days.

The groups have not heard back from the State Department, according to Doug Hayes of the Sierra Club’s environmental law program.

While it is not uncommon for agencies to extend the time allowed for comments in situations like this, the request could put the department in an awkward spot.

If the request is denied, it will give the impression that the department is ramming the analysis through without due process.

But if it is accepted, the administration’s critics in Congress will complain about undue delay. Lawmakers who favor the project have been trying to force the administration’s hand—or even to impose approval of the project by legislative fiat.

The environmental groups complained that with just weeks left to prepare their comments, they haven’t yet received copies of all the documents used in preparing the impact statement.

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The State Department’s review, required under the National Environmental Protection Act, appeared to open the door to construction of the Keystone pipeline, asserting that it would have no significant environmental impact despite carrying more than half a million barrels a day of high-carbon tar sands crude from Canada for decades to come. The project needs a presidential finding that it is in the national interest, a question that is delegated to the State Department to answer.

The reasoning behind that assessment is hotly disputed by environmental groups. The document contains hundreds of pages of new material about the market for oil, the risk of spills, proposed alternatives and the impacts on global climate change from emissions associated with the rapidly growing production of crude from Alberta’s oil sands region.

“We routinely provide comprehensive comments with sophisticated analysis on virtually every section, often providing several hundred pages of technical review,” the groups said in explaining why they need more time to comment.

In a separate action last month, the Sierra Club filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act seeking release of six documents used in preparation of the impact statement, along with a seventh document, the Keystone XL draft emergency response plan.

In its request, the Sierra Club noted that it needs the documents to complete its comments on the impact statement under the tight deadline, as well as to inform the public at large on a government decision of great public interest.

The department has not responded to the club’s request for these unpublished documents.

The State Department also has not allowed any public access to the comments filed by the various interest groups seeking to influence the final version of the environmental impact statement, although NEPA regulations require that these comments be made public.

Last month, InsideClimate News submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking access to the docket of public comments. This week, the department refused ICN’s petition for expedited handling of the request to ensure that the documents are released before the final Keystone decision is made. ICN is appealing that decision.