Leading Senate Democrats are scolding the State Department for hastily moving to approve a Canada-to-Texas pipeline that would nearly double U.S. oil sands imports and cut through the nation's largest underground aquifer.
Eleven senators, led by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), fired off a letter Friday morning to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton set off a firestorm earlier this month when she told a crowd at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco that the agency is "inclined" to approve the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, after 50 House Democrats, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy all recently raised serious concerns about the project.
Clinton said that piping Canadian crude is preferable to creating more dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The senators said it is premature to signal support for the 1,700-mile pipeline while the agency's legally mandated environmental review is in progress.
"We believe the Department of State (DOS) should not pre-judge the outcome of what should be a thorough, transparent analysis of the need for this oil and its impacts on our climate and clean energy goals," they wrote.
The letter demanded answers to a battery of more than 20 questions, such as "Does DOS plan to ask EPA to provide an estimate for lifecycle emissions for tar sands?" and "Is it possible that the wider use of fuel efficient technologies, advanced biofuels, and electric vehicles could offset the need for the pipeline?"
The pushback comes a week after Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns (R) and Ben Nelson (D) sent separate letters to Secretary Clinton, rebuking her for seemingly ignoring the 35-inch pipeline's potential effects on the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer.
The aquifer provides about 80 percent of the state's public water supply and irrigation water. The senators want the State Department to consider the concerns raised by state environmental protection officials before a decision is made.
Johanns, a conservative Republican, also urged the agency to review an existing alternative path that would sidestep the aquifer.
"I do not object to oil pipelines in Nebraska, but there is heightened environmental sensitivity when a pipeline traverses an irreplaceable natural resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, with little examination of potentially preferable alternatives," he wrote.
The pipeline, developed by Calgary-based energy giant TransCanada Corp., would carry 900,000 barrels of oil sands crude each day from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas and tankers off the Gulf Coast. It would nearly double U.S. consumption of the unconventional fuel source.
The State Department must issue a permit because it crosses an international border.
Three Pipelines Would Nearly Quadruple Tar Sands Fuel in U.S.
Two other pipelines have already been approved by the agency—Keystone 1, which will eventually carry crude into Cushing, Okla., and the Alberta Clipper, which will run from Canada to Superior, Wis.
If all three get built, tar sands would make up 15 percent of U.S. fuel supply, up from about 4 percent today.
U.S. environmental groups and other opponents say the new pipelines would bind the nation to an ecologically risky fuel source. EPA figures show that exploiting Alberta's bitumen reserves creates more carbon dioxide emissions than drilling for conventional fossil fuels.
Critics also say the process of refining the sticky crude in U.S. refineries spews higher levels of toxic pollutants than conventional oil production, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and heavy metals.
In July, the EPA gave the State Department's draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline the worst rating possible, citing "inadequate information."
The EPA said additional analysis is needed on, among other things, potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project, air pollutant emissions at the receiving refineries, pipeline safety and impacts on migratory birds.
The State Department is expected to complete a final environmental review no sooner than early 2011, observers say, though some say it should take longer.
"If they want to be living up to their full duties as government officials, they need to be addressing all of the impacts that EPA identified [that] had not been addressed in the original draft," Alex Moore, fuels campaigner for environmental group Friends of the Earth, told SolveClimate News. "If they were to do that, it would take longer."
TransCanada maintains that "pipelines are the safest, most reliable, economical and environmentally favorable way to transport oil and petroleum products" and says Keystone XL would contribute billions to the U.S. economy.