It’s Not Just Carbon Emissions: Keystone XL Would Have ‘Permanent Impacts’ On Wildlife, Interior Department Says

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"It’s Not Just Carbon Emissions: Keystone XL Would Have ‘Permanent Impacts’ On Wildlife, Interior Department Says"

Sandhill cranes, one of the species the Interior Department says would be impacted by a spill along Keystone XL's route.

Sandhill cranes, one of the species the Interior Department says would be impacted by a spill along Keystone XL’s route.

CREDIT: AP/Nati Harnik

If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline could have serious impacts on wildlife, natural resources and visitors’ experiences in national parks, according to a letter from the Department of the Interior.

The letter was sent to the State Department on April 29 and was recently posted on the department’s website as one of the 1.2 million public comments it’s processing on its strongly-contested Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline.

In the letter, the Interior Department says Keystone XL’s proposed route would cross five trails within the National Trail System as well as lands that may drain into two nationally-managed rivers. The letter also expresses concerns that the Interior Department’s comments from a previous environmental impact statement were not taken into account on the most recent one: the Interior Department said it requested the pipeline avoid wetlands and that the operations should provide certain measures to ensure water safety, comments the letter says were not addressed “in any substantive manner” by the most recent DEIS.

The letter outlined other major concerns the Department of Interior had about the DEIS:

Wildlife, especially nesting birds: The letter states that, contrary to the DEIS’s claims, Keystone XL would have “permanent impacts” on wildlife along its route, including “wildlife collisions and electrocutions with power lines and vehicle collisions with wildlife on project access roads.” The letter also points out that the DEIS has conflicting statements on the pipeline’s impact on nesting bird species. The DEIS states that impacts to migratory birds will be avoided by limiting construction to non-nesting times of year and prohibiting the cutting of trees with raptor nests in them, but goes on to state that direct impacts on small nesting birds could include “loss of eggs or young, or death,” and also seems to negate previous statements on limitations of construction timing by beginning a sentence with “If construction would occur during the nesting season.” The Interior Department’s letter also warns against the DEIS’s failure to adequately prepare for spills, stating that a spill occurring in the North Valley Grasslands Important Bird Area or the Rainwater Basin IBA could “severely impact critical habitat for migratory birds that spend part of their life cycle on Department managed lands.”

Light pollution on public lands: The DEIS said Keystone XL would “not affect any national parks” — a claim the Interior Department contests, saying the document did not take into account noise and light pollution on all National Park Service lands. The letter claims lighting needs for the pipeline were not addressed at all in the DEIS, an oversight the department says needs to be corrected given the impact light pollution can have on wildlife. Light pollution can also impact visitors’ unobstructed views of the night skies — the letter states that the pipeline’s route “has limited anthropogenic light and, therefore, has high quality night skies,” and that the pipeline could “adversely impact the quality of the night skies.”

Noise pollution on public lands: Similar to light pollution, noise from the construction and operations of the pipeline could “greatly impact” the surrounding wildlife as well as visitor experiences. It’s also not a factor that the State Department adequately addressed in its DEIS, according to the Interior Department: the letter recommends further analysis on the impacts noise pollution from the project would have on wildlife and visitors to nearby parks. The letter also says the DEIS should consider multiple factors — including what kinds of sounds at what levels occur currently in the pipeline’s path and the duration and timing of those sounds — not just the distance from the project to noise-sensitive areas like national parks, when looking at the project’s noise impact.

The Interior Department is the latest in a succession of groups and agencies to highlight the shortcomings of the State Department’s DEIS. The Environmental Protection Agency slammed the DEIS in April for its inadequate measure of the project’s life-cycle carbon emissions and failure to adequately account for the difficulty of cleaning up tar sands oil in its spill response plan. Multiple environmental groups have protested the DEIS’s claim that approval or denial of Keystone XL “remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands.” And last month, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, an internal watchdog for the agency, announced that it would investigate claims that the consulting agency the department hired to draft the EIS had financial ties to TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute. The Obama administration is expected to come to a decision on Keystone XL by the end of this year.

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