State Department Releases Final Analysis of Keystone Pipeline

by Rona Fried

Since Friday afternoon, when the State Department released its long-awaited and much dreaded final environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, hundreds of vigils across the US are scheduled for tonight … and there are more each hour. 

What’s In the Report?

On the plus side, this is the first time the State Department 
acknowledges that tar sand oil has the potential to significantly contribute to climate change. 

"The total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions," says the State Department in the report. 

It also says: 

  • Tar sands crude is more toxic, more corrosive, more difficult to clean up, and 17% more greenhouse gas-intensive than conventional oil when the life cycle is calculated;  
  • Production, refining and combustion of the projected 830,000 barrels of oil that will flow through the pipeline each day will add between 147 million and 168 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year (51 coal plants)

Before we go on, let’s be clear: this is all President Obama needs to REJECT the pipeline. In his Climate Change speech, he made it clear that he would approve the pipeline only if he was convinced  it would not "significantly exacerbate carbon emissions."

On the down side, the report’s conclusion is the same as the other two flawed
environmental assessments
– that the Keystone pipeline will have minimal environmental impact because Canadian tar sands will make it to market with or without it.

"Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport  costs, and supply-demand scenarios," says the report.

"Even though the State Department continues to downplay clear evidence that the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to tar sands expansion and significantly worsen carbon pollution, it has, for the first time, acknowledged that the proposed project could accelerate climate change," says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It also says that if oil prices drop substantially and there are "long-term constraints on any new pipeline capacity" which results in higher transportation costs of the crude oil – that could substantially impact oil sands production.

Incredibly, the analysis doesn’t look into the future, where it’s easy to see countries rejecting that oil. Over the coming decade, there’s little doubt that clean energy, biofuels, electric cars and efficiency will increase and will become much bigger priorities.

"The report concludes that in a scenario where we take climate change seriously and regulate climate pollution, this pipeline will indeed have a ‘significant impact’ on climate change," says Bill McKibben, who heads 350.org.

"Of particular concern are conclusions that conflict with and are contradicted by tar sands industry executives who confirm that they need the pipeline in order to continue to develop the tar sands and to reach international markets. The study fails to consider that construction of the KXL pipeline is a necessity to fully maximize extraction of tar sands," says Tom Steyer, who recently launched a Climate Pac.

The
report also says the pipeline will create 50 long term jobs and up to 3900 temporary construction jobs. It also suggests that pipeline spills are inevitable, but at around 518 barrels of oil a year, "impact would be limited."

By the way, there have been 28,666 spills in Alberta’s oil pipeline network over the past 37 years. 

And while a recent Reuters analysis found that rail transport isn’t feasible because of the expense, the reports says the industry will turn to rail and truck if the Keystone doesn’t go through. That would lead to more accidents and higher emissions, they say, clearly making the case to approve Keystone.

Tar sands pipeline

What happens now?

The State Department now enters a 90-day "National Interest
Determination," where, after conferring with other agencies, it will
make its recommendation to President Obama. This will be more difficult for the oil industry to corrupt, and will allow Secretary Kerry to step in and show climate leadership.  

During this time, the public will be able to comment. There is no deadline for Kerry to make his recommendation and he will do so after considering public comments and other agencies’ input, along with this report.

Then, President Obama will make the final decision. Like the Super Bowl, should we place bets? Will Obama do what’s best for big oil or will he do what’s clearly in our national interest and reject this pipeline?

While proponents of the pipeline rushed to call the report a victory, the White House says, "not so fast."

"The President has clearly stated that the project will be in the national  interest only if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, told The Hill. "The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) includes a range of estimates of the project’s climate impacts, and that information will now need to be closely evaluated by Secretary Kerry and other relevant agency heads in the weeks ahead."

Conflict of Interest

Sadly, the report was released before the State Department’s Inspector General determined if there was conflict of interest in the contractor chosen to do the analysis. 

There’s no getting around the fact that a TransCanada contractor, Environmental Resources Management, prepared the report.

"Since the beginning of the assessment, the oil industry has had a direct pipeline into the agency. Perhaps most frustrating, is the apparent collusion between the State Department, oil industry and the Canadian government," says Friends of the Earth, which filed the complaint.

Expert Weighs In

Among the many voices talking about the ultimate impact of the pipeline, Michael Mann, climate scientist and Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, says:

"Approving this hotly debated pipeline would send America down the wrong path. The science tells us now is the time we should be throwing everything we have into creating a clean 21st century energy economy, not doubling down on the dirty energy that is imperiling our planet.

"The simple fact is this," Mann continues. "If Keystone XL is built, it will be easier to exploit fossil fuel reserves large enough to drastically destabilize the climate. A direct pipeline to refineries and global markets makes the business of polluting the atmosphere that much cheaper and easier.

"If Keystone is built, we’re choosing a path that looks like this: "decades of extracting high-CO2 fuel at a time when we should be winding down such carbon intensive resource exploitation. It looks like decades of oil spills across America’s heartland written off as an acceptable side effect of making money. It looks like decades of continued political lobbying against any CO2-limiting regulations.

"If approved and built, it looks like the United States is failing to take climate change seriously by virtually guaranteeing the massive Canadian oil sands reserved are exploited. That, I’m afraid, is the real threat of Keystone XL – the loss of US status as a global leader.

"As the world looks to 2015 for the establishment of legally binding emissions targets, it is looking to the US for inspiration and leadership. While opponents of carbon regulations routinely point to China and India as an excuse for further inaction, the US is still the dominant force in world politics. If Obama puts his foot down and tells us the pipeline will not be built, he will be telling the world that the United States is committed to a future powered by clean renewable energy. For better or for worse, as the US goes so goes the planet.

If the United States takes the climatologically necessary step of preventing the Keystone pipeline, it sends a message more powerful than any protest, watered down regulation or rosy proclamation. It says that business as usual is no longer an option. It says carbon pollution is a serious problem. It says that we will no longer be held hostage by ideologues demanding, "More fossil fuels, or the economy gets it!"

Take Action

"Big oil hand-picked the reviewers of the pipeline, which means the report avoids taking a stand on the pipeline’s climate impacts – leaving the ball entirely in President Obama’s court. As always, he has all the evidence he needs to reject the pipeline. As we showed
in 2011, the only time you can count on the President is when you have him completely surrounded. And so it’s up to us to mobilize again, and put the pressure on from all sides. Big oil wants you to believe that today’s report means this fight is over," says 350.org.

Tonight, people across the country will demonstrate their resolve and disappointment in this broken process. We need to show the media, big oil and the President that this
movement is mobilized and unafraid. Can you be there?  

Tomorrow, February 4, 350.org will host an online video chat to lay out ideas on how to pressure President Obama over
the coming months. Click here to RSVP, and you’ll find out the details.   

The No KXL protests are organized by 350.org, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, The Other 98%, Center for Biological Diversity, Oil Change International, Bold Nebraska, Energy Action Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, CREDO, The Hip Hop Caucus, Overpass Light Brigade, Environmental Action, League of Conservation Voters, Waterkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Forest Ethics, Forecast the Facts and others.

Find an event near you or host your own:  

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