WASHINGTON — The State Department today removed a major roadblock to a planned $7 billion oil pipeline from western Canada to the Texas coast in a report that says the project is unlikely to cause significant environmental problems during construction or operation.
The thousand-page report on the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline says no significant problems have emerged since a similar report was issued last year.
Calgary-based TransCanada wants to build a massive pipeline to carry crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas. The pipeline, which would travel through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, would carry an estimated 700,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada. Supporters say it could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
The project has become a flashpoint for environmental groups who say the pipeline would bring “dirty oil” that requires huge amounts of energy to extract and could cause an ecological disaster in case of a spill. Opponents of the pipeline have urged the Obama administration to block the project as a sign he is serious about protecting the environment.
Several hundred activists, including actress Margot Kidder and prominent scientists, have been arrested in recent days in protests outside the White House. Organizers say the protests are the largest acts of civil disobedience centered on the environment in many years.
TransCanada maintains that the project would create tens of thousands of jobs and would be built to strict environmental standards, including 57 conditions above those required by law.
For example, the company has agreed to build much of the pipeline 4 feet below ground, instead of the usual 3 feet. Depths will increase to 25 feet below ground at several hundred river crossings along the proposed route, which passes through the Ogallala Aquifer, an environmentally sensitive formation that provides groundwater to eight states in the Great Plains.
TransCanada also said it will allow an increased number of inspections and install a greater number of safety shut-off valves than usual.
The State Department report cites those conditions as among the reasons for its confidence in the project. The report endorses the current proposed route, which has drawn criticism from officials in Nebraska and other states as environmentally risky.
Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary of state, said the report was “not a rubber stamp for this project,” adding, “No decision has been made.”
The report, the third environmental analysis submitted by the State Department since last year, kicks off a 90-day review of whether the project is in the “national interest” before a final decision is issued by the end of the year.
If approved by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the pipeline could be completed in 2013. The department has authority over the project because it crosses an international boundary.
In in its analysis, the State Department dismissed concerns from environmental groups that the pipeline would increase emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Canada’s oil sands are likely to be developed with or without the pipeline, the report said, making concerns about climate change moot.
“There are alternatives to the pipeline to move that potential fuel around” to other locations, Jones said, including barges, railways and tanker ships.
The American Petroleum Institute said the report brought the pipeline one step closer to reality. Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said the pipeline would “bring American consumers a sure and steady supply of oil from our close friend and neighbor Canada.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council said the final report still “lacks a number of in-depth safety and pollution studies.” The NRDC said the report failed to critically review pipeline safety issues, added pollution to refinery communities, alternative routes and the impact to wildlife.
“Once again, the State Department has failed to do its homework, and they’re leaving the American public to suffer the consequences,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the NRDC international program director. “It is utterly beyond me how the administration can claim the pipeline will have ‘no significant impacts’ if they haven’t bothered to do in-depth studies around the issues of contention. The public has made their concerns clear and the administration seems to have ignored them.”
Casey-Lefkowitz added the pipeline would leave a “dirty legacy that will haunt President Obama and Secretary Clinton for years to come.”
James Hansen, a NASA scientist who was an early crusader against climate change, said allowing the Keystone XL pipeline would be like accepting a dirty needle from a fellow oil addict, Canada.
“If Obama chooses the dirty needle it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, with no real intention of solving the addiction,” he said.