Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.
— President Barack Obama, 6/25/13
On Wednesday, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the State Department’s Kerri-Ann Jones, urging the agency to review the contribution the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would have on U.S. carbon emissions.
Every year, this proposed pipeline would bring hundreds of millions of barrels of tar sands crude oil out of the Albertan ground, all the way through America to refineries in Texas and a significant portion could be exported abroad.
The Waxman-Whitehouse letter outlines the problems with the State Department’s initial conclusion that approval or denial of Keystone is “unlikely to have a substantial impact on rate of development in the oil sands.” Waxman and Whitehouse argue that the pace of tar sands development is not predetermined and that the industry faces a a financial environment made difficult by high production and transportation costs. Rejecting Keystone XL, they argue, does not necessarily mean the Alberta tar sands will be shipped somewhere else by some other means of transport. The uncertain status of other pipeline projects — namely the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which was rejected in June by the British Columbia government — means that developing tar sands without Keystone XL is not a done deal.
In the letter, Waxman and Whitehouse also echo concerns voiced earlier this year by the EPA. During the public comment period for the State Department’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the proposed pipeline, the EPA had an important and critical comment to offer. The agency could have rated the adequacy of State’s environmental impact statement three different ways: “Adequate,” “Insufficient Information,” or “Inadequate.” They rated it “Insufficient Information,” which means that they do not know enough to fully assess the environmental impacts of a tar sands pipeline traversing the continent. Specifically, EPA found that “If GHG intensity of oil sands crude is not reduced, over a 50 year period the additional CO2 from oil sands crude transported by the pipeline could be as much as 935 million metric tons.”
EPA also noted that the extraction of the tar sands is not inevitable, which is what the State Department’s draft report took as a given. Indeed, pipeline proponents have recently made the case that the recent crude oil train derailment in Quebec is an argument for “safer” pipelines like Keystone, when in fact it is an argument that tar sands oil is not a safe substance to transport by train or by pipeline.
The State Department’s draft EIS was written by the consulting firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM). The environmental group Friends of the Earth announced on Wednesday the results of an investigation into ERM, finding that the firm at best misrepresented its relationship and working history with key pipeline and tar sands stakeholders. Specifically, the group found through public documents that ERM did not disclose previous work with TransCanada on a pipeline in Alaska, and recently an employee tried to cover up his work on a partnership between ExxonMobil and TransCanada. ERM also told the State Department that it had no business relationship with companies that would be affected by the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, even though the documents show that ERM “has business with over a dozen companies with operating stakes in the Alberta tar sands.” At the very least, ERM should have disclosed this information from the beginning to allow the State Department to make an informed decision about which firm would take on such an important assessment.
As previously reported, ERM drew from work done by other firms that have worked with ExxonMobil, BP and Koch Industries. This means that critical parts of the report on which the U.S. government is basing its decision about whether to approve this pipeline was written by consulting firms with deep oil industry ties. If the report’s analysis was solid, this would be less of an issue, but this is not the case.
What’s next? The government will use the final report, due in the next few months, to determine if approving the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest. The report was initially written by firms that arrived at a conclusion that appears to be in their own best interests. The President has said not exacerbating carbon pollution is in the national interest. Rep. Waxman and Sen. Whitehouse are looking out for the interest of a livable climate and all Americans by asking the State Department to make sure its consultants’ report got the facts straight.
In fact, before State considers final approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, perhaps it should ask where exactly TransCanada plans to build it.
Because we actually don’t know that either.