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Susan Casey-Lefkowitz’s Blog

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline environmental review makes light of the very real concerns about damage to climate, health, and water

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Posted September 7, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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In late August, the State Department issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline (Keystone XL).  There is ample evidence that Keystone XL will cause an increase in tar sands oil extraction and the significant harm to climate, wildlife, water and health that come from tar sands strip mining and drilling. The pipeline project will also risk health and safety in the United States through oil spills and water and air pollution.  Despite this, the State Department incorrectly found “no significant impact” in their environmental review. The environmental assessment makes several fundamental flaws in their analysis that has led to the illogical conclusion that Keystone XL would not cause significant air, land, and water pollution. In fact, the Keystone XL project will have a significant impact on the environment and public health and is not worth the risks.

We have pulled together an overview of our analysis of the FEIS that goes into more detail, but basically, the review can should not be called final as it is still lacking in key areas:

  • An expert study of the safety impacts of a raw tar sands oil pipeline including the likelihood of spills and difficulties of clean up, despite the high number of leaks from TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline in its first year of operation.
  • A thorough analysis of the clean energy alternatives to this pipeline.
  • The proposal of a serious alternative path to the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. And this at a time when bi-partisan calls to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer and the Nebraska Sandhills are growing stronger. Just in the past week, Nebraska Governor Heineman said that the pipeline should not go through Nebraska and this was echoed by Senator Johanns.
  • Consideration of the impact on climate change of extracting and ultimately burning tar sands oil to the extent that sparked two weeks of sit-ins and arrests in front of the White House during the final days of August.
  • Despite a commitment by this Administration to focus on environmental justice, an on-the-ground study of the refinery pollution impacts in Port Arthur and Houston.

This latest round of environmental review does not meet the State Department’s own stated goals of being thorough and objective. We are now entering a period where the State Department is consulting on whether this project would be in the national interest. We have also developed an analysis of what the criteria should be for the national interest determination process National interest determination is specific to transboundary pipelines and is supposed to start after the environmental review process is completed so that the issues raised in the environmental review can be part of these considerations. Instead, the State Department is rushing ahead with calling the environmental review final and starting the national interest determination, despite missing key pieces of analysis such as the biological opinion on wildlife impacts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and despite having glossed over many areas of critical concern to the American public such as those mentioned above.

The State Department needs to let go of its artificial, self-imposed goal of making a decision about this pipeline project by the end of the year. The stakes are too high to take risks when it comes to public safety and our environment, especially when the clean energy alternatives are actually better for our economy and for our security. We do not need this pipeline and President Obama and Secretary Clinton should deny the permit. But while we are going through the steps of assessing the impacts, saying that there is no significant impact makes light of the very real concerns of the risks to farms, property, drinking water, climate, and health. This Administration should have the courage to do the detailed and expert analysis that the environmental review process demands so that decision-makers can have the best possible information available to them about the risks of this pipeline.

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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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