In War for Canadian Oil Sands: Keystone XL is Winning

canadian-oil-sandsA huge blow to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline crusade occurred earlier this month when the State Department released a “Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement” (SEIS) for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  The report is extensive and gives detailed analysis of a myriad of issues surrounding the proposed project such as water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, transportation of crude oil, wildlife habitats, and many more.  The report is a supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement that was completed in August of 2011.  “The analysis has been revised, expanded, and updated to include a comprehensive review of the new route in Nebraska as well as any significant new circumstances or information that is now available on the largely unchanged route through Montana and South Dakota,” explains the SEIS.

Obama nearly approved the pipeline in 2011 after the final EIS was released, but contention over an environmentally-sensitive area in Nebraska halted the process.  The SEIS re-routes the pipeline around this area.  Several states, including Nebraska, have already approved the pipeline, and the final decision rests on Obama.  The State Department’s finding that the pipeline will have “no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project route” is a veritable slap in the face to environmental groups opposed to the project.  Although it is worth noting that the statement is made on the condition that the pipeline is constructed and operated according to the rules and recommendations set forth by the State Department.  The SEIS even examines several different oil “release,” “leak,” and “spill” scenarios.  Keystone has already agreed to integrate 57 Special Conditions developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) into its operations and maintenance to mitigate risk of any release of hazardous materials.  According to the State Department, the adoption of these measures and compliance with all regulations, requirements, and recommendations, means the project impact is environmentally “negligible”.

The release of this supplemental report seems to take the wind out of the sails of the anti-Keystone movement.  The full 2000 page report builds on the initial environmental analysis, which took more than three years to complete.  Environmental groups and organizations are speaking out against the report, arguing that it was prepared not by the State Department itself, but by a third party contractor, Environmental Resources Management under an agreement with TransCanada, the company that would build the pipeline.  This is absolutely true, and has never been disputed either by TransCanada, or the State Department.  In fact, the Department of State website cites the study’s author directly by updating that “On March 1, 2013 the Department of State posted a copy of the Environmental Resources Management (ERM) contract and organizational conflicts of interest disclosures.”  Those documents are available to the public here.

In fact, it is not at all unusual for third-parties to be contracted to prepare Environmental Impact Statements.  Under United States law, EISs are required to be performed consistently with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, and follow the appropriate Federal Regulations.  The SEIS prepared by ERM discloses all of this information directly, and under penalty of law because this is a government document, ERM affirms there is no conflict of interest present and that it is not acting on behalf of TransCanada, but rather to conduct its work “consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act and its implementing regulations.”  The contract goes on to explain that beyond billing and payment communication, all contact between TransCanada and ERM must be routed through the Department of State.

So, it is not a scandalous revelation that the SEIS was prepared by a third party contractor working for TransCanada.  That’s how these things are usually done.  The question is, where will the anti-Keystone protest focus its attention next?  Aside from challenging semantics in the impact statements and hammering on the question of greenhouse gas emissions, there is little left to protest.   The State Department makes a legitimate point that development of the Canadian oil sands may have some environmental costs, but it is going to happen whether Keystone is built or not.  The resource value is simply too high to leave undeveloped.  We can insist this oil not be exported to US refineries, but then where will it end up?  Potentially exported to countries with more lax environmental regulations, resulting in even higher GHG emissions?  It’s a possibility.

When faced with these climate questions from opponents of Keystone XL, Dan Simmons, Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Institute of Energy Research said, “Is the Keystone XL pipeline in the national interest?  The environmental impact statement presents no information about why it isn’t.”

Jessica Kennedy
Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.

Jessica can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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