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May 03, 2013
State Department Assessment of Keystone Pipeline Insufficient, EPA states
    by Robert Kropp

Commenting on a State Department review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the Environmental Protection Agency criticizes its findings on greenhouse gas emissions and pipeline spills.

By the time the 45-day public comment period ended in late April for the US State Department's controversial environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, more than one million people had submitted comments calling on the Obama administration to reject the pipeline's construction.

Advocates for a meaningful climate policy had reason to cheer after President Obama announced in his second inaugural address that failure to respond to the threat of climate change "would betray our children and future generations." But then came the State Department's assessment, which somehow concluded that construction of the pipeline would "not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects."

Evidently the State Department chose to ignore such studies as those produced by Oil Change International and the Pembina Institute, both of which used science instead of politics to conclude that building the pipeline would lead to expansion of the tar sands in Canada, once described as "the most destructive project on Earth."

"Filling Keystone XL with oil sands will cause a 36 per cent increase from current oil sands production, for which the higher upstream emissions alone will be equivalent to the annual emissions from 6.3 coal-fired power plants or over 4.6 million cars," Pembina concluded.

During hearings conducted by the State Department before the public comment period closed, Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described Keystone as "a profit scheme for big oil. It would feed our addiction to fossil fuels, accelerate climate change and put our heartland farmers, ranchers and communities at risk. It needs to be denied."

On the final day of the public comment period, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weighed in on the matter with a highly publicized break with the State Department's position. In its comment letter, EPA described as "insufficient" the State Department's conclusions on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, potential oil spills, and alternate routes for the proposed pipeline.

The State Department "concludes that regardless of whether the Project permit is approved, projected oil sands production will remain substantially unchanged," EPA stated in its letter. That conclusion was arrived at by considering rail transport as an effective alternative should construction of the pipeline be denied by Obama. "The market analysis and the conclusion that oil sands crude will find a way to market with or without the Project is the central finding that supports" the conclusion, EPA wrote.

On the issue of pipeline leaks—the most recent of which occurred last month in Arkansas, when more than 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil spilled in a residential neighborhood—EPA observed, "These spills can also have different impacts than spills of conventional oil."

Referring to a 2010 spill of tar sands crude in Michigan, EPA stated, "Oil sands crude sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River, mixing with the river bottom's sediment and organic matter, making the oil difficult to find and recover. After almost three years of recovery efforts, EPA recently determined that dredging of bottom sediments will be required to protect public health and welfare and the environment."

However, "It is this difference in GHG intensity—between oil sands and other crudes—that is a major focus of the public debate about the climate impacts of oil sands crude," EPA stated.

A coalition of 49 institutional investors, coordinated by Ceres and representing some $2 trillion in assets under management, wrote to a trade group of 12 major oil sands producers in October, recommending the reduction of GHG emissions from oil sands extraction "to at least that of conventional oil production." But the investors also expressed skepticism that "these concerns can be adequately resolved while oil sands development continues on its present trajectory."

The nation still awaits the President's final determination on whether the pipeline will be built. May Boeve, Executive Director of, stated, "This decision is now firmly on President Obama's desk. Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change."

In March, 62 Senators voted in favor of a meaningless amendment supporting its construction. And the Republican-led House of Representatives in scheduled to vote this month on a measure approving construction. The Northern Route Approval Act would "ensure that the Keystone XL pipeline is built without any further delay," according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.


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