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EPA Is Right to Rate Tar Sands Pipeline Assessment as "Inadequate"

Peter Lehner

Posted July 23, 2010 in Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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In light of yesterday’s news that the Senate has failed to confront climate change and jumpstart the clean energy economy at this time, I am relieved that the EPA is helping to move America away from dirty, dangerous fuels.

The EPA recently released its comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the

Keystone XL pipeline that would carry dirty tar sands oil 2,000 miles from Northern Alberta through America’s heartland to the Gulf Coast.

The comments reveal that the EPA is fulfilling its job of protecting public health and the environment, and taking the lead in good government oversight.

The State Department has been moving forward with the permitting process for the transboundary project. The pipeline would bring tar sands oil under high pressure over the freshwater sources for the American Midwest.

Since the Gulf oil disaster, there is growing public feeling that oil companies have been defining our energy policy for too long. The State Department is out of step with the growing public sentiment that America needs to move away from our dependence on oil and towards cleaner energy sources.

The EPA confirmed this in their comments, saying the pipeline decision was not only inadequate in its analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutant emissions, pipeline safety and spill response, environmental justice considerations and impacts on wetlands and migratory birds, but that the pipeline assessment needed to include a broader analysis of U.S. energy needs. 

Specifically, the letter said that the State Department needed to consider the “national security implications of expanding the Nation’s long-term commitment to a relatively high carbon source of oil”. EPA is asking for additional information and analysis that will be circulated for full public review in a revised draft environmental impact statement.

The concerns raised by the EPA about the lack of information in the draft environmental impact statement echo a number of recent incidences where concerns have been raised about expanding our dependence on tar sands oil, including a letter from Chairman Waxman and a letter from 50 Members of the House of Representatives.

For the last few years, Alberta has been on a public relations campaign to say that they are cleaning up the tar sands. However, as the public unease with being dependent on any type of oil grows, the debate over projects such as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that increase our dependence on oil is also growing.

The point is that real or imaginary “clean-up” of the tar sands extraction operations does not make this new source of oil an acceptable replacement for fuel economy standards, fuel-efficient technologies, electric vehicles and other clean transportation solutions. 

Even if oil companies could wave a magic wand and alleviate all destruction caused by tar sands oil production, they still face an inescapable truth: When we burn oil in our cars, we continue our dependence on ever riskier extraction methods such as tar sands strip-mining and drilling, deepwater drilling, mountain-top removal and oil shale extraction. With a continuation of fossil fuels in our tanks, we can’t reach our climate goals.   

We have a choice to make: Do we continue to rely on a source of fuel that will keep us from meeting our climate goals? Or do we embrace energy sources that are cleaner from the start?

I realize that we are not going to end our dependence on oil overnight, but the last thing we need is a massive investment in expansion of fossil fuels that will take us backward.

It is time we turned to the 21st-century solutions—things like more fuel efficient cars, plug-in hybrids, better public transit, electric rail, and walkable communities—that will get us moving down a cleaner path.

The EPA is asking exactly the right questions about whether this tar sands pipeline is in our best interest as a country. The State Department should go back and do the analysis right this time.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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