Public Comment Period Ending on Controversial Keystone Report

When the State Department will make the written comments public, as required under the National Environmental Protection Act, remains unclear.

John Kerry holds a joint press conference with John Baird
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a joint press conference with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., Feb. 8, 2013. The two men discussed the Keystone XL pipeline, among other issues. Credit: dfait.meici via Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada

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WASHINGTON—Advocates and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are due to file detailed comments on its environmental impacts on Monday, after the State Department refused to extend the comment period, which environmental groups had complained was too short.

As many as a million members of the public are expected to meet the comment deadline, which by happenstance fell on Earth Day, April 22. Comments are also expected from industry, labor and environmental groups on both sides of the debate over the proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands region to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The government of Alberta, the American Petroleum Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other groups said they will release copies of their comments soon. But it is not clear when the State Department will make all the written comments public, as required under the National Environmental Protection Act.

The commenters are all seeking to influence the draft supplemental environmental impact statement, or SEIS, that the State Department released in March, which appeared to open the door to a decision later this year to grant the pipeline a permit. Once the final SEIS is issued, the State Department must begin a separate deliberation to determine if the project is in the national interest—a question that goes beyond environmental considerations.

Environmental groups have complained they didn’t have enough time to critique the environmental assessment, which ran to thousands of pages. They said they weren’t given access to some of the underlying studies used for the project.

But on Friday, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones turned down their request for an extended comment period. She said the public will have more time to comment on the project during the national interest discussion.

The draft impact statement, prepared by contractors with close ties to the industry, asserted that the project’s approval wouldn’t significantly affect worldwide greenhouse gas emissions or global climate change. It argued that even if the Keystone is never built Alberta’s tar sands will continue to be exploited and the high-carbon fuels produced there will follow some other route to world markets—either by alternative pipelines to the Atlantic or Pacific, or by costlier rail routes.

Opponents of the pipeline have argued that the impact statement’s market analysis was flawed, that it understated the importance of greenhouse gas emissions from producing and burning tar sands oil, and that serious issues of pipeline safety remain—a point that was reinforced after a pipeline spill in Arkansas in late March.

Proponents have argued that the impact statement settled all the major questions that remain and that the project should move ahead swiftly. Alberta has defended its environmental record and said it plans to tighten up on emissions. And the industry has focused on the economic and employment benefits that it said would ensue.

Some members of Congress, urging quick action, have threatened to take the decision out of the administration’s hands entirely.

At a recent hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said “there is no stalling going on” and that the pipeline question is being carefully examined in accordance with law.

However, Kerry said that he personally is “staying as far away from that as I can now so that when the appropriate time comes to me, I am not getting information from any place I shouldn’t be, and I am not getting engaged in the debate at a time that I shouldn’t be.”

Kerry has a long record of urging action on climate change, but for the White House the decision ahead is fraught with political risks. Environmental groups have called it a touchstone for the administration’s often repeated promises to address the pressing problem of global warming.

In their formal comments, the pipeline’s opponents are likely to make four main arguments, based on their statements and arguments in public this spring.

• They will argue that if the world is to meet its commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that would limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, most of the world’s proven carbon reserves must be left in the ground—especially the dirtiest forms of fuel, such as those from the rapidly expanding production in Alberta’s tar sands.

• They will argue that there are unresolved safety issues and spill risks associated with shipping dilbit, or diluted bitumen, one of the main tar sands products, through pipelines that cross streams and aquifers.

• They will argue that the economic benefits of the project have been overstated: that the jobs are not permanent, that the fuel is not scarce in the domestic market, and that the future costs of global warming offset any near-term benefits. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s crude would be exported, and there would be no significant change in domestic gasoline prices if the pipeline is built, they argue.

• They will say that denying the Keystone pipeline will in fact discourage further growth in tar sands production, as other pipeline routes may not be available and rail shipments are not as viable as the impact statement suggested.

At hearings last week on legislation to expedite approval of the pipeline, Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council argued that alternative pipeline routes and the use of rail to transport oil sands products “will not allow for the same level of tar sands production expansion.”

“Pipelines to the west and east coasts are stalled by entrenched public and First Nations opposition,” he said. “Tar sands bitumen is significantly more expensive to move by rail than Bakken sale crude,” oil that moves shorter distances within the United States by rail.

Several pipeline critics cited a recent analysis by the Reuters news agency debunking the theory that most of the Keystone XL product could just as well be shipped from Canada by rail.

Critics are already gearing up to expand their arguments against the pipeline when the debate turns from environmental concerns to the vaguely defined question of the national interest.

Many critics, for example, contend that the Keystone illustrates a profound economic risk: that when the world finally commits itself to abandon carbon fuels, trillions of dollars of boom-time fossil fuel investments will be stranded and investors will suffer in a catastrophic market crash.

“A precautionary approach means only 20 percent of total fossil fuel reserves can be burned to 2050,” said a new report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative at the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. (The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment provides funding to InsideClimate News.)

The report warned that fossil fuels companies are over-investing in assets that would be worthless once the world’s nations take the required steps to meet the latest carbon targets—those that the United States, Canada and other nations agreed to pursue in the Copenhagen round of climate talks.

When the oil companies talk about the tar sands and the pipeline, they do not dwell on any such concern.

Rex Tillerson, the head of ExxonMobil, in a speech in Dallas last week, said the oil sands are part of a new “era of abundance.” The 170 billion barrels of recoverable oil there, he said, are “enough energy to fuel North America’s vehicles for almost 45 years.” The Keystone pipeline, he said, was just a small part of the trillions of dollars in investments needed to develop those and other unconventional reserves in Canada and the United States alike.

Governments should encourage, not discourage this kind of investment, he said, calling the prolonged debate over Keystone “an object lesson in what can go wrong when decisions veer from this path.”

The delays, he said, were “simply a matter of putting politics ahead of an already rigorous regulatory process.”

But opponents of the pipeline increasingly argue that the United States can do without gasoline and other fuels refined from the tar sands.

“How does the pipeline enhance American energy security if much of the product carries is refined and then exported?” asked Stephen M. Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, at the hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources last week.

Not only is most of the gasoline from the gulf region’s refineries exported, he said, but so are nearly half of the diesel fuel and almost all of the dirty byproduct called petcoke that is shipped abroad as a substitute for coal.