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Keystone XL: State Department Dodges the Big Questions

New report shrugs at the proposed tar sands oil pipeline's environmental threat

Daryl Hannah is handcuffed and arrested during a Keystone XL Pipeline protest outside the White House.
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images
March 13, 2013 6:20 PM ET

A lot happened between the State Department's first environmental assessment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline plan, completed in 2011 – before the proposed route was altered to bypass Nebraska's Sand Hills – and the latest one, which appeared in draft form earlier this month. More than 400,000 comments were sent to the State Department (in addition to the million or so it had already received), hundreds of people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience meant to slow or stop the pipeline and gallons of ink were spilled on the topic by supporters and opponents alike.

And yet, the new report hardly seems to reflect these realities. After the sometimes emotional, years-long public debate, it's something of a jolt to find that the State Department's environmental approval still rests on the argument that the pipeline simply isn't that big a deal – that oil from the tar sands will be produced and burned whether Keystone XL is approved or not.

The Case for Fossil-Fuel Divestment

The report admits that tar sands oil is substantially more dangerous for the climate than other kinds of oil, but finds a back door out of the climate issue in the argument that if Keystone weren't approved, the tar sands industry would simply find other paths to market (particularly rail transport).

But rail is a limited and expensive alterative for an industry already operating with "some of the highest break-evens of all global upstream projects." And if those intervening years made anything clear, it's how badly tar sands producers need new exit strategies for their product. There are any number of market analysts, Canadian government officials and industry executives on the record saying that Keystone XL and projects like it are crucial to the economic durability of the tar sands. Consider what Ron Liepert, Canada's Energy Minister – who is pushing to define crude pipelines as a matter of national importance – told the Globe and Mail: "If there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long we're going to be landlocked in bitumen. We're not going to be an energy superpower if we can't get the oil out of Alberta." Last year, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers announced that, without new pipeline construction, it expected the tar sands production boom to flatten out by 2020. 

That overlooked context led a number of environmental groups, and at least one member of Congress, to describe the State Department report as deeply flawed – it basically sidestepped the climate question as if all those years of debate never happened. Some pointed out that the report was written not by State Department personnel, but by consulting firms with ties to the oil industry.

The report's fatalistic approach is unusual, as John H. Cushman, Jr. recently reported for Inside Climate News: Environmental impact statements are supposed to review the cumulative impacts of projects, rather than what would happen if they're not built. And the EPA had warned the State Department not to discount emissions from a single project because they're small compared to global emissions. Dismissing Keystone's climate impact on such terms "is not in keeping with the letter or the spirit of [the National Environmental Policy Act]," Pat Parenteau, an environmental lawyer at the Vermont Law School, told Cushman. "It stands the whole concept of examining the consequences of your actions on its head, it really does."

The pipeline's fate still isn't certain: There's another comment period before the report is finalized, followed by a report from State on whether the pipeline is in the country's national interest, then a decision from the White House. Pipeline opponents, if anything, are ratcheting up their defense: Twenty-six people were arrested for holding a "funeral for our future" at the offices of TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, on Monday, and protesters are planning similar actions over the next few weeks.

Is Congress Finally Moving on Climate Change?

It's largely thanks to protesters that this pipeline has become the major political issue that it is. (While Keystone XL is the stuff of Sunday shows and newspaper editorials, few people have heard of the Keystone Pipeline, a predecessor to XL that sailed through approval and has been operating since 2010). They helped turn the pipeline into a symbolic crossroads, a chance to make a national decision about what form our long-term relationship to energy will take. Will we continue to invest in the outdated infrastructure of fossil fuels, or face up to our climate predicament and start making major changes? It sometimes got lost in the endless back-and-forth over whether this particular pipeline was the right ground on which to stage that fight, but the discussion itself was an achievement.

That's why the SEIS's decision to sidestep that conversation is so disappointing. The report admits that climate change is a serious problem – it includes an entire, painfully ironic section on what impact a changing climate could have on the completed pipeline – but dismisses the idea that anything less than a complete solution to climate change could be worthwhile. Instead of responding to those years of debate, it dodges the climate question with a specious evasion.

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