WASHINGTON – The U.S. State Department released a draft environmental impact assessment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline Friday, suggesting the project will have little impact on climate change.
Canada’s oil sands will be developed even if U.S. President Barack Obama denies a permit to the pipeline connecting the region to Gulf Coast refineries, the report said. Such a move will also not alter oil consumption in the United States, it added.
The lengthy assessment did not give environmentalists the answer they had hoped for in the debate over the project’s climate impact. Opponents say a presidential veto of the project would send a powerful message to the world about the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and make it more difficult for Canada to export its energy-intensive oil.
But the detailed environmental report — almost 2,000 pages long — also questions one of the strongest arguments for the pipeline, by suggesting that the U.S. can meet its energy needs without it. The growth in rail transport of oil from western Canada and the Bakken Formation on the Great Plains and other pipelines, according to the analysis, could meet the country’s energy needs for the next decade even if the Keystone XL route is never completed.
In a news conference Friday, Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said the department has not made any final conclusions about the project. “We feel that we need to have a public debate,” Jones said.
Obama is not likely to make a decision on pipeline company TransCanada’s permit application until midsummer at the earliest. The analysis will be subject to at least 45 days of public scrutiny, and the State Department will have to respond to hundreds of thousands of comments before finalizing its environmental impact statement.
The department will also have to conduct a separate analysis of whether the project is in the national interest, a question on which eight other agencies will offer input over the course of 90 days.
Jim Lyon, vice president for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the report “fails in its review of climate impacts, threats to endangered wildlife like whooping cranes and woodland caribou, and the concerns of tribal communities.” By vetoing the project, “President Obama can keep billions of tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution locked safely in the ground. . . . Without access to major U.S. export terminals from Keystone XL and other routes, tar sands production will be substantially slowed.”
The report’s executive summary takes a different view, saying it “concludes that approval or denial of the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.”
Supporters of the project say it will ensure a secure supply of oil from Canada, one of the closest U.S. allies, and will generate high-paying jobs for Americans over the two-year construction period.
The Keystone XL project has sparked opposition along the pipeline’s route — which crosses rivers, ranches and farms — as well as nationwide, as critics say it will facilitate the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands, or tar sands. Because the extraction of bitumen from those sands is an energy-intensive process, it emits more greenhouse gases than extracting oil from conventional reservoirs.
Calgary-based TransCanada first applied for a permit in September 2008. But Obama postponed a ruling in February 2012, citing the pipeline’s path through more than 140 km of Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region, and said he would consider a revised application.
Last March, Obama embraced the southern leg of the project, which will extend from Cushing, Oklahoma, to Texas. By late summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued permits and TransCanada Chief Executive Russ Girling said recently that 45 percent of that leg of the pipeline was complete. Opponents turned to civil disobedience, camping out on platforms hoisted in trees along the pipeline’s path.
TransCanada filed a new application last May for the northern leg, pushing the route farther east in Nebraska and avoiding all but a few kilometers of environmentally sensitive areas. The northern leg will run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City in southern Nebraska.
An existing pipeline will connect the two legs.