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State Department Report: Keystone XL Is Environmentally Sound

The State Department released an environmental impact assessment on the Keystone XL pipeline Friday afternoon, concluding that the project is environmentally sound and “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.” A 45-day comment period will now begin for the public to weigh in on the project. The State Department will respond to the comments, before finalizing the environmental impact statement, and “conduct a separate analysis of whether the project is in the national interest, a question on which eight other agencies will offer input over 90 days.” Obama is unlikely to make a final decision until “mid-summer at the earliest.”

From the report:

Based on information and analysis about the North American crude transport infrastructure (particularly the proven ability of rail to transport substantial quantities of crude oil profitably under current market conditions, and to add capacity relatively rapidly) and the global crude oil market, the draft Supplemental EIS 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. [...] Spills associated with the proposed Project that enter the environment are expected to be rare and relatively small.

The study found that “The annual CO2e emissions from the proposed Project is equivalent to CO2e emissions from approximately 626,000 passenger vehicles operating for one year or 398,000 homes using electricity for one year.” It also suggests that “America can meet its energy needs over the next decade without” the project by relying on the “growth in rail transport of oil from western Canada and the Bakken Formation on the Great Plains and other pipelines.”

The proposed pipeline would transport tar sands oil — one of the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels — all the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Industry officials have themselves admitted that without the pipeline, vast amounts of tar sands will stay in the ground. Were the project to go online, the pipeline would constitute a “carbon bomb,” further enabling the ongoing glut of carbon emissions into the atmosphere that threaten to drive global warming to catastrophic levels.

Because of its importance to the fossil fuel industry, contrasted with the damage it would add to the planet’s climate, the Keystone XL pipeline became a flashpoint in the national debate over future climate and energy policy. All told, over $178 million was spent 2012 to lobby in support of the pipeline — outdoing opponents by a whopping 35 to 1. Keystone pipeline boosters included business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, labor unions such the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, and the usual Big Oil suspects such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Shell Oil. 

Despite that overwhelming show of lobbying force, the Keystone XL pipeline galvanizedenvironmentalists, climate activists, and other opponents to shift the center of gravity in the debate. First, the Obama Administration delayed its decision on the pipeline, which was originally scheduled for January. Then Obama picked noted climate hawk Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) as the new Secretary of State, thus placing him in charge of State’s review of the project. Finally, ever since the election November 2012, both Kerry and Obama himself have surprised observers bytaking unusually strong stances on the need to address the threat of climate change immediately and decisively.

Sierra Club responds: “We’re mystified as to how the State Department can acknowledge the negative effects of the Earth’s dirtiest oil on our climate, but at the same time claim that the proposed pipeline will ‘not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects.’ Whether this failure was willful or accidental, this report is nothing short of malpractice. ”