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State Department Keystone XL Environmental Review: It's Easy to Find "No Significant Impact" if You Do No Significant Study... (Guest Blog by Danielle Droitsch)

Elizabeth Shope

Posted August 26, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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This is a guest blog post by Danielle Droitsch, who is a Senior Advisor to NRDC's International Program.

Thumbnail image for Danielle Droitsch.JPGToday, the U.S. State Department released its Final Environmental  Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands  pipeline.  The State Department’s finding that there will be no  significant environmental impact to most resources is completely  without merit.  Our initial analysis of the environmental review  makes one thing clear: it was premature for the Department of  State to issue the review.   The detailed studies needed to fully  demonstrate the need for and evaluate risks of this tar sands  pipeline have not been completed. In fact, the FEIS seems to  ignore information that clearly points more to how the pipeline will  cause an increase to air pollution, greater greenhouse gas emissions and a higher potential for oil spills threatening drinking water resources. What the FEIS should find is that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not worth the environmental and safety risks.  We have better alternatives to meet our transportation needs than dirty tar sands oil from Canada.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Clinton did not fulfill her promise to “leave no stone unturned” and the State Department’s pledge to do a “thorough and objective” assessment. The things missing are all the more glaring because they relate to the issues that have been most controversial and the source of most of the public debate.  It appears the State Department continues to rush the decision on this pipeline manufacturing an urgency that doesn’t exist.

While the State Department claims they have exhaustively considered all of the issues, there in fact are gaping holes that have remained with only superficial analysis  since the beginning of the process:

  • We have called on the State Department to have the U.S. Pipeline Safety Administration conduct an in depth analysis of the safety of diluted bitumen (raw tar sands) pipeline.  We saw no evidence of this assessment being done and it does not seem to be included in the FEIS.  The review of what diluted bitumen can do to pipelines and in the case of spills is especially critical given there has already been 12 leaks in the first 12 months from TransCanada’s first Keystone tar sands pipeline.  
  • The State Department’s claim that they have enhanced the “overall safety” of the pipeline by requiring “new” and more “stringent” conditions for the project are outrageous.  As my colleague Anthony Swift recently pointed out, these 57 conditions are smoke and mirrors.  There are serious flaws with this argument and most of these conditions are already required by the existing law.
  • The State Department still has not fully considered reasonable alternative routes as requested by seven U.S. Senators that would avoid the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer. If they had, we would have seen some evidence of on-the-ground assessment of other routes. Instead, we fear that as they did in the earlier environmental reviews, the State Department will once again have identified unnecessarily long alternative routes that TransCanada suggested and then dismissed them because of their length. Meanwhile, it has ignored other, shorter routes for the pipeline that avoid the sensitive Sandhills.  As my colleagues Liz Barratt-Brown and Anthony Swift have stated, the State Department has been artificially limiting its choices to longer alternative routes that still puts more of America’s heartland and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk. An investigation of alternative routes seems pretty reasonable---and basic---given the billions of dollars the Ogalalla represents to American agriculture.
  • We find it interesting that the State Department is now committing to have an independent consultant review the Keystone risks assessment.  They acknowledge this could result in changes to the project.  Why would the State Department feel compelled to issue the FEIS without this analysis?  This is yet more evidence that the State Department is rushing this project.
  • We have also not seen evidence of the State Department out in Gulf Coast communities doing an environmental justice study. It seems that once again, the environmental review will fail to assess the critical health and safety issues that local community members in Port Arthur and Houston may face.  The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline may increase toxic air emissions from refineries having a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income populations. The pipeline would bring a steady supply of heavy Canadian crude to local refineries and could act as a major source of carcinogenic air emissions. Just last week, dozens of  members of Congress made a final plea to the State Department to conduct the essential review of the impact of toxic air emissions that was apparently ignored. Given the administration's very public focus on addressing environmental justice issues, a lack of deeper investigation of resulting pollution impacts in the Gulf refining communities is surprising.
  • And on our first review, while the environmental review continues to acknowledge that tar sands oil has higher lifecycle greenhouse emissions than conventional oil, it still incorrectly finds the pipeline will not add to global greenhouse emissions. This is one of the key public concerns about this pipeline and about anything that expands our dependence on tar sands – as seen by the wide range of people willing to risk arrest over the last week in front of the White House. By making this fundamental and mistaken assumption, the FEIS ignores how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will cause the expansion of tar sands extraction in Canada. While Canada has made an international commitment to reduce its emissions by 17 percent by 2020, it is actually on track for a 7 percent increase in emissions. Tar sands emissions have more than doubled since 1990 and are expected to triple between now and 2020.
  • One of the fundamental flaws in the past environmental reviews that we fear has not been corrected in the FEIS is a total failure to demonstrate the need for the pipeline and consider alternatives to meet America’s energy security.   From the very beginning, the Environmental Protection Agency and others have been calling for the State Department to think about the need for the pipeline in the context of America’s declining demand for oil, the need to shrink oil use with measures such as  more aggressive fuel economy standards and investments in clean energy.

The calls for the additional analysis have been made repeatedly over the past year  by the environmental community in 2010 and again in 2011.  In fact, there have been many voices calling for detailed studies including Congress, mayors, the Environmental Protection Agency, landowners, and others.  

However, the issuance of the FEIS is far from the end of the entire process for TransCanada.  States along the pipeline path still need to issue the necessary permits and not all of the landowners along the route have settled with TransCanada.  And as required by executive order, the State Department must still consult with other agencies  to determine whether the pipeline serves the national interest and they have committed to a public process of meetings and taking comments.

The State Department continues to rush the decision of whether to permit the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, ignoring clear requests from a wide range of interests from all walks of life to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline. Public safety and health, the protection of drinking water for millions of Americans, and the imperative to set America on the right course to combat climate change should be the administration’s top priority.  Helping TransCanada and tar sands producers secure profits is not.  The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not worth the environmental risks. We have cleaner and more secure choices to meet our transportation needs in America.

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Comments

William KleinAug 31 2011 11:14 AM

DOS has an “apparent conflict of interest.” This is not the first nor, it appears, will it be the last of these types of Projects. DOS is acting as “lead agency,” “third party environmental analysis contract manager,” and “project proponent” and most of all “program proponent,” all at the same time. In fact the environmental contractor on this project also was environmental contractor to State on Keystone I. DOS also acted as lead agency and analysis contractor on the Alberta Clipper pipeline project. Which begs the next question: Why no cumulative impact assessment of tar sands origination itself? DOS has already approved three of these projects in the same process structure, with the same consultant on two of them. If the US DOS, EPA, et. al., with the same contractor, does not know what the cumulative impacts really are, then who should? Where is the agency of the people? Who stands independent?

Once Keystone XL is developed, NEPA “negative declarations/categorical exclusions” could be attempted based on “existing use in an existing right-of-way.” EPA should be required to undertake a “programmatic analysis” of all incoming and related tar sands projects under DOS stewardship. We need an independent assessment of the cumulative impacts of the real contemplated project and the real contemplated program.

AndrewAug 31 2011 05:39 PM

The administration is allowing leases to sell in the Gulf last I heard. We know they don't know what to do with a spill there. And in the arctic. And they are planning a uranium mine in the Roanoke valley, a known flood zone. A legacy of extinction and cancer will be left by this bipartisan government.

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