WASHINGTON -- A long-awaited environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline released Friday by the State Department found the project would have a negligible impact on climate change, bolstering the case for the controversial project as it heads to the White House for a decision on its construction.
During a sweeping speech on climate change last June, President Obama said his main criterion for approving the pipeline was that it not significantly worsen the problem of carbon pollution.
Because the northern stretch of Keystone XL, which would carry 830,000 barrels a day from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb., would cross a U.S. border, it needs a so-called presidential permit from the State Department. But Obama has said that he would make the final decision.
A senior State Department official was careful to note that the environmental review took no position on whether to approve the pipeline, saying: “Its analysis is only one factor in the final determination, which will also weigh national security, foreign policy and economic issues.”
Federal agencies now have 90 days to submit comments about the final assessment, while a 30-day public comment period runs concurrently. Then the president will have to determine whether Keystone XL is in the “national interest” based on those analyses, which will include one from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been critical of the State Department’s previous reviews.
The president has no deadline to issue a decision on the pipeline’s permit. Given the contentiousness of the issue, Obama may delay until after the November elections. A decision on the permit was expected in late 2011 but was postponed until after the 2012 presidential election, in part because of widely held concerns that the original environmental impact statement did not adequately assess the pipeline's effect on greenhouse gas emissions or on a huge aquifer in Nebraska.
Supporters of Keystone XL said the final environmental assessment should clear the way to getting a permit. “Five years, five federal reviews, dozens of public meetings, over a million comments and one conclusion -- the Keystone XL pipeline is safe for the environment,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group in Washington. “This final review puts to rest any credible concerns about the pipeline’s potential negative impact on the environment. This long-awaited project should now be swiftly approved.”
But environmentalists and other advocates have criticized earlier drafts of the study for failing to take into account the project’s total impact on greenhouse gas emissions. They also point out that the State Department’s Inspector General is conducting an inquiry into whether the contractor tasked with the study, Environmental Resources Management, failed to disclose recent work it did for TransCanada, the company proposing to build Keystone XL, resulting in a conflict of interest.
After the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress failed to enact climate change legislation during President Obama's first term, the Keystone XL pipeline became the touchstone issue for environmentalists who have otherwise been largely supportive of the president. As the White House works on the determination of national interest, environmentalists vowed to ratchet up the pressure to reject the pipeline.
“The release of the new report will be a green light to escalate our efforts,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, an environmental group. “This fight got started at the national level when 1,253 people got arrested in front of the White House. We expect many more people will take part in civil disobedience and take to the streets before this fight is over.”