Activists threaten massive protests against Keystone

Environmentalists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline are pledging to turn up the heat on President Barack Obama by risking arrest through acts of civil disobedience at fundraisers, political meetings and federal agency offices.

The planned protests go beyond activists chaining themselves to construction equipment in the pipeline’s path and are designed to build political pressure as Obama nears a final decision on the project.

They also illustrate the political challenge facing Obama, who risks alienating at least one key Democratic base — environmentalists or labor unions — no matter what he decides.

Becky Bond, the political director of the progressive group CREDO, which is organizing the threatened protests, says environmentalists will hold Obama accountable.

Trans Mountain: Kinder Morgan plans West Coast pipeline expansion for oil sands

“We see it as being incumbent upon us as citizens to send a message that the president cannot ignore,” Bond told reporters on a conference call. If the State Department determines Keystone XL is in the national interest, it will unleash the “biggest burst of peaceful civil disobedience in modern history,” Bond said.

Some 60,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” saying they will risk arrest to fight the pipeline, and Bond said she expected 10s of thousands more to sign up this summer.

On the other side of the issue, members of the building and construction trades unions are planning to hold a “rally for jobs and infrastructure” to push for Keystone XL approval on Wednesday near the White House.

Also Wednesday, Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, is expected to tout the pipeline during a speech on the U.S.-Canada energy relationship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Despite the flurry of action this week, a final decision is likely many months away, as the State Department sifts through hundreds of thousands ofpublic comments on its latest environmental assessment of the project. Those comments were due to the State Department on Monday, after administration officials declined requests to extend the deadline.

Environmentalists on Monday claimed pipeline opponents had filed more than a million comments against the project.

Heavy Crude: Tar sand spill poses unusual threat

Conservationists insist that the diluted bitumen that would be carried by Keystone XL has proven harder to clean up than alternatives. The recent spill from Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus Pipeline in a residential community in Mayflower, Ark., highlights the risks, they say.

Environmentalists also argue that Keystone XL would ensure a market for bitumen harvested from Alberta’s oil sands through more energy-intensive techniques than some alternatives, potentially hiking the fossil fuel’s carbon footprint.

But the State Department’s environmental review concluded that Canada’s oil sands will be developed even if Keystone XL is blocked.

In comments submitted to the State Department, the American Petroleum Institute, American Exploration and Production Council and other groups stressed that trains and other pipelines could transport the same — or more — Canadian crude even in the absence of Keystone XL:

“There is ample evidence that it is logistically and economically possible for rail and existing or planned pipelines to transport the needed quantity of WCSB crude oil to the U.S. refineries in the Gulf,” the API and other groups said. “Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence cited is the fact that companies, who would have had a clear incentive to study the costs and returns closely, have orders for more than 28,00 new insulated rail tank cars that are used only to transport bitumen, (trumping) KXL opponents’ latest claims that the economics won’t support rail.”

But the Environmental Protection Agency’s own review of the State Department’s analysis, filed on Monday, came to a different conclusion.

EPA noted that the State Department’s conclusion that oil sands crude “will find a way to market with or without the project” was based largely on the analysis of market conditions and the conjecture that other pipelines and rail transport could fill the gap if Keystone XL isn’t built. But the State Department’s analysis was “not based on an updated energy-economic modeling effort,” EPA said. EPA added:

“We recommend that the final environmental impact statement provide a more careful review of the market analysis and rail transport options. This analysis should include further investigation of rail capacity and costs, recognizing the potential for much higher per-barrel rail shipment costs than presented in the draft (study).” This analysis should consider how the level and pace of oil sands crude production might be affected by higher transportation costs and the potential for congestion impacts to slow rail transport of crude.”

Separately, TransCanada Corp. has cited its pledge to follow all federal safety regulations and design requirements, as well as an additional 57 conditions for design, maintenance and testing.

“So much of this rhetoric has gotten so out of hand,” said Brigham McCown, a former acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “You hear about pipelines when there’s an accident because they are so rare.”

Republicans in the House of Representatives are advancing legislation that would ensure Keystone XL’s approval by effectively deeming previous environmental reviews of the project significant, authorizing other necessary permits and expediting judicial review of the pipeline.

Although it is likely to pass the House sometime in May, the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Moving forward: House panel approves bill to speed permit for Keystone XL

McCown said it was better to wait on the State Department to conclude its review.

“From a national perspective, I think we need to let the system play out and let the study move forward,” McCown said. “I get the frustration, but I don’t believe that these attempts ultimately benefit the process.”

If Keystone XL were purely a domestic project — without crossing an international border — the State Department would never have gotten involved. And even pipeline critics say it probably would have won approval long ago. After all, TransCanada is already building the southern leg of Keystone XL in Texas.

But an executive order issued by former President George W. Bush in 2004 tasks the State Department with determining whether any border-crossing energy infrastructure is in the “national interest.” If any one of eight separate federal agencies disagrees with State’s decision, that would launch a process that ultimately would put the final verdict in Obama’s hands.

Keystone XL DSEIS Comments Final 4-18-13