The Obama administration is set to unveil a fresh environmental analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline as early as this week, but critics say that study won’t be complete unless it considers climate change costs tied to the $7 billion project.
The State Department’s forthcoming environmental assessment is based on a newly proposed pipeline route that navigates around water supplies in Nebraska, after the administration rejected the previous planned path in January.
An earlier environmental impact statement — pegged to the initial route — did not include a broad evaluation of how the pipeline might boost carbon dioxide emissions by expanding the marketplace for energy-intensive extraction of oil sands crude in Alberta, Canada.
Environmentalists say this new version should include such an analysis.
“The environmental review should find that building the Keystone XL pipeline will unlock additional tar sands development and increase greenhouse gas emissions,” said Daniel Kessler with 350.org, which opposes the project. “Keystone XL would expand dirty tar sands mining practices and lure the U.S. into a long-term commitment to an extra-dirty oil energy infrastructure.”
Canada’s oil sands are technically bitumen, a tar-like hydrocarbon typically extracted by open-pit mining and in-situ techniques involving underground injections of steam that liquefy the otherwise hard fossil fuel.
“Because the proposed project would lead to a massive expansion of a dirty, carbon-intensive tar sands oil, the pipeline’s fate represents one of the most important environmental decisions facing the Obama administration,” noted Josh Mogerman, a deputy director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Nothing short of a thorough-going review of the pipeline’s climate-change consequences is a prerequisite for the proposal to move forward.”
Pipeline supporters, including the American Petroleum Institute, argue that even without Keystone XL, the Canadian oil sands crude will be extracted, perhaps ultimately sold to consumers in Asian markets.
A pipeline delivering diluted bitumen to the Gulf Coast would at least ensure the fossil fuel is processed in “clean, efficient American refineries” designed to deal with heavier crudes, said Cindy Schild, API’s downstream operations senior manager.
“Do you want it processed in the U.S. at refineries that are some of the safest and cleanest in the world, or do you want it going to China?” Schild asked.
Pipeline backers also said the environmentalists’ climate change argument represented their latest bid to stall Keystone XL.
Officials with TransCanada Corp., which would own and operate Keystone XL but not the diluted bitumen flowing through it, note that the project itself would “produce almost no emissions,” while giving oil harvested in the U.S. a new path to the Gulf Coast.
As for critics, “their issue is really about fossil fuel consumption and not our pipeline,” said company spokesman Shawn Howard. “We are an energy infrastructure company, and our business is to deliver energy products to the right market at the right time for our customers.”
The State Department’s supplemental environmental impact statement is one of the final steps before a likely administration decision on whether to grant a permit for the border-crossing pipeline next year.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is expected to release his verdict on the project early next year following public meetings and a final review by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The agency’s final analysis is slated to be filed within weeks.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s environmental review will queue up a decision on whether Keystone XL is in the national interest.
The climate change argument could be fodder for an eventual legal challenge against the pipeline, with Keystone XL foes possibly arguing the government didn’t evaluate the environmental impacts of the project sufficiently.
In addition to considering possible climate change effects tied to the pipeline, critics say the State Department should do a fresh analysis of whether Canada’s oil sands crude is even needed in the U.S., given a surge in domestic oil and gas extraction from dense rock formations.
“The world of oil supply and transportation has changed rapidly in the United States even over the last year,” Mogerman said. “Both the environmental review and the national interest determination will need to consider new factors that go directly to the question of whether we need Keystone XL and whether it is actually in the U.S. national interest.”