WASHINGTON — A long-awaited State Department review of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline released Friday concludes that he project would have minimal impact on the environment, increasing the chances it could be approved in the coming months.
The State Department underscored that the study, a supplemental environmental impact statement, is a draft and that it does not offer recommendations for action on the $7-billion project, which would bring petroleum from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Nonetheless, the review says, “The analyses of potential impacts associated with construction and normal operation of the proposed project suggest that there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed project route.”
Because the pipeline, which would transport 830,000 barrels per day, would cross a United States border, it needs a permit from the State Department.
A decision on the permit was expected in late 2011 but was delayed 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.
The oil industry and the Canadian government welcomed the new findings. “The Keystone XL project has become one of the most closely examined infrastructure projects in our nation’s history — and it continues to pass with flying colors,” said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.
Environmentalists charged that the study failed to look fully at the risks and instead regurgitated past conclusions. “What we have is Groundhog Day, with the State Department producing the same result that it produced before,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, an environmental group leading the fight against the pipeline.
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 largely been supportive of the president.
The petroleum that the pipeline would transport is a tar-like bitumen trapped in the soil. To extract it, oil companies strip mine boreal forests and heavily process the bitumen before shipping it.
Environmentalists say that practice destroys the local ecology and releases more of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change than conventional oil production.
Keystone XL’s backers, including many Republicans and some labor unions, say the project would create jobs and reduce reliance on oil from politically unfriendly, less stable countries, such as Venezuela.
The draft environmental impact statement says that the annual extraction and shipping of oil sands crude through Keystone XL would fuel 626,000 cars or power 398,000 homes for a year.
The study also says that a barrel of oil sands crude would release about 17% more greenhouse gases than one of conventional crude oil refined in the United States in 2005.
Still, the study states that approving or denying the permit for Keystone XL would not have any effect on the development of the oil sands because companies would use rail, trucks and other pipelines to bring the Alberta crude to the U.S.
Opponents of the pipeline strongly disputed the conclusion, asserting that Canada and the oil industry have said that Keystone XL would be critical to the expansion of oil sands development. The opponents have also said that with the pipeline would come greater greenhouse gas emissions.
The study determined that a new route mapped through Nebraska would avoid the aquifer, which opponents also disputed.
The public has 45 days to comment on the draft. Then, the State Department will issue a final environmental review.
Although the department will officially determine whether to issue a permit, Obama indicated in 2011 that he would make the final decision.