Groups Demand More Time and Public Say in Keystone XL Pipeline Review

Conservation groups urge State Dept to hold meetings in at least 24 communities along Keystone XL's route before issuing its environmental review

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Image: Will Merydith

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WASHINGTON—Any day now, it’s expected the U.S. State Department will be releasing a revamped version of its environmental review of the much-disputed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

And local and national advocacy organizations want to be sure those along the proposed six-state route from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast receive the opportunity to offer feedback.

A coalition of 32 groups sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week asking her to extend the usual public comment period from 45 to 120 days and to organize on-the-ground public hearings in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

While those groups await a response, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Canadian oil companies are violating antitrust rules with their agreement to ship heavy crude along Keystone XL.

Sen. Ron Wyden said in a news release that he is concerned that this arrangement will drive up prices of Canadian oil sands crude in the Midwest, meaning drivers will pay more at the pump.

Among those signing the letter to Clinton are the Center for Biological Diversity, Indigenous Environmental Network, League of Conservation Voters, Public Citizen Texas, Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Wildlife Foundation, Corporate Ethics International, Bold Nebraska, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

“Pipelines spill, and this pipeline would be carrying some of the dirtiest oil on Earth, putting the water, air and farmland of communities at risk,” Alex Moore of Friends of the Earth said. “Secretary Clinton must not approach the supplemental analysis as another thing to cross off the list. She should listen seriously to the public’s concerns.”

The conservation groups are requesting that Clinton’s team organize meetings in at least 24 communities along the Keystone XL right-of-way.

“We feel it would not be in the spirit of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) or in the spirit of the Administration’s commitment to transparency and public engagement to move ahead,” they wrote in the April 4 letter, “without allowing these communities the opportunity to provide their comments to and ask questions of the officials conducting the permitting review in a public forum.”

First EIS Came Up Short

Last July, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible ranking: “inadequate.” Deficiencies they cited included a lack of accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, safety and spill-response planning and inattentiveness to the potential impact on Canada’s indigenous communities.

That criticism prompted Clinton’s team to begin preparing what’s known as a supplemental environmental impact statement on Keystone XL. Calgary-based TransCanada wants to construct the 1,702-mile underground pipeline to carry heavy crude oil from the tar sands mines in its home province of Alberta to oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

The $7 billion pipeline system has the potential to double — or perhaps triple — the amount of diluted bitumen flowing to the U.S. from its northern neighbor, though critics say an increase in pipeline capacity likely won’t be needed until 2025 or 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen grew five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, Clinton is tasked with granting a thumbs up or down to TransCanada’s request for a presidential permit to build and operate infrastructure being designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

Clinton’s team will be deciding “yes” or “no” on whether the pipeline is allowed to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Pipeline opponents also maintain State Department officials can require TransCanada to reroute Keystone XL if its 1,375-mile U.S. proposed path can be shown to cause economic or environmental harm.

Landowners, Mayors Also Voice Opposition to Keystone XL

Late last month, 100 property owners from five of the six affected states — no Kansans joined the effort — sent a two-page letter to Clinton and President Obama laying out their specific concerns about Keystone XL. They pleaded with the federal government to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement that informs “landowners of the real risks to our health, safety, and livelihood.”

“After the political debate and the construction of this proposed pipeline ends, we are the ones who must live with tar sands running through our property,” they wrote in their March 31 letter. “Please hear our concerns and protect our families and property.”

The landowners sent their letter the day after Obama told Georgetown University students during a speech that the nation must curb its reliance on oil.

While the president did not state that the United States should increase its reliance on tar sands oil, he suggested that oil from Canada and other sources in the Western Hemisphere was preferable to oil from sources in the Middle East. Obama also underscored the need to cut relaince on oil altogether.

“Our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own back yard because we boast one critical, renewable resource the rest of the world cannot match: American ingenuity,” he said. “We’re going to have to find ways to boost our efficiency so we can use less oil. We”ve got to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy that also produce less carbon pollution, which is threatening our climate. And we’ve got to do it quickly.”

Obama gave his energy speech less than a week after 25 current and former mayors from Eugene, Ore., to Burlington, Vt., and places in between such as Grand Rapids, Mich., Durham, N.C., Tallahassee and Salt Lake City asked Clinton to consider the impact of Keystone XL on local efforts to build clean energy economies.

“In 2008, the United States Conference of Mayors adopted a High Carbon Fuels Resolution calling for measures that discouraged the use of tar sands fuel,” the mayors wrote in their March 24 letter. “We were concerned with the high toll that tar sands has on the environment.”

“Increasing our dependence on environmentally destructive, high-carbon fuels such as tar sands oil sends the wrong message to our communities and citizens who work hard to lessen our dependence on oil using conservation, efficiency and other measures,” the letter continued.

None of the signers lives in a community in any of the half dozen states that the Keystone XL would cross if approved.

Norwegian Elders Apologize to Canadians

As the oil sands controversy between the U.S. and its northern neighbor intensifies, some European environmentalists have issued an apology to Canadians.

A group calling itself Grandparents Climate Action of Norway (Besteforeldreaksjonen) paid for an ad in Alberta’s daily newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, condemning Statoil for the devastating impact tar sands extraction is having on impact and boreal forests.

Grandparents Climate Action described itself in a news release as a network of 2,000 concerned Norwegian seniors that includes bishops, scientists, authors, judges and former Cabinet ministers and Parliament members. They have joined Norway’s broader green movement in demanding that one of their own companies, Statoil — which is two-thirds government owned — withdraw from Alberta’s oil sands.

“As citizens, we feel co-responsible for the destruction of environment and climate caused by our state-owned oil company in Alberta,” members of the group said about Statoil. “[This] overwhelming response also serves to confirm that responsible Norwegian citizens will not be silent witnesses to crimes against all our [grandchildren’s] future.”

Two Major U.S. Newspapers Split on Keystone XL

While The Washington Post heartily endorsed Keystone XL in a Feb. 6 editorial with the headline “Say yes to this pipeline: Why a Canada-to-Texas oil route should go through,” The New York Times countered with an April 2 editorial that recommended “No to a New Tar Sands Pipeline.”

Both newspapers parse out economic and conservation arguments, each pointing out that EPA arithmetic shows emissions of heat-trapping gases from tar sands oil production are 82 percent higher than those released by conventional crude oil.

“Oil sands crude is nasty, and the sooner the world stops burning it, the better,” the Post editorial stated “But that’s actually not much of a reason to kill the pipeline.”

While the Post encouraged the Obama administration to carefully consider and address safety and environmental concerns, the Times emphasized that destruction to Canada’s boreal forests, and the threat of pipeline spills and leaks polluting vital waterways and delicate ecological systems makes the entire enterprise a non-starter.

“Political pressure to win swift approval has been building in Congress,” the Times editorial writer concluded. “Moving ahead would be a huge error. From all of the evidence, Keystone XL is not only environmentally risky, it is unnecessary.”