The State Department released its final supplemental environmental impact statement on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on Friday. Critics and supporters of the pipeline alike have awaited the report, ever since President Obama last year singled out carbon pollution as a parameter in Keystone’s national interest calculation.
The newly-released report admits to the obvious: that “the total direct and indirect emissions” of the project “would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.” But in its final analysis, it says the proposed pipeline is “unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas,” and does not look at the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the tar sands oil that would flow through it.
The pipeline’s prospects remain a mystery, much like they were when the draft environmental impact statement was released last year: it still says that the pipeline is not a big deal, will not appreciably increase carbon pollution, and will not have a significant environmental impact. But the report does not consider a scenario in which smaller amounts of tar sands oils are extracted, transported, and consumed. Every single scenario measured in it assumes that a Keystone XL-sized amount of tar sands oil will get burned.
But there are seven important facts that the state department’s survey left out:
1. Keystone XL, Not Rail, Is the Only Feasible Option
The final EIS says that “rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed.” This argument is also put forward by supporters, and essentially says that if the tar sands oil will not be exported via this pipeline, it will just be shipped away via railway — meaning approval of the project will not result in significant carbon pollution increases. Yet an analysis by Reuters’ Patrick Rucker found that rail transport is too expensive and just is not feasible. Industry officials we very skeptical about adopting crude-by-rail as an alternative, meaning that oil companies with a stake in the dirty tar sands deposits see Keystone XL as essential to getting that oil to market.
2. KXL’s ‘Alternative,’ Shipping Oil by Pipeline or Rail, Is Dangerous
Alberta’s oil pipeline network has experienced 28,666 crude oil spills in the last 37 years according to a recent investigation by Global News. Spills like this have led to hugely damaging environmental disasters. Pipelines already carrying heavy crude oil from Canada have caused spills that have emptied neighborhoods like Mayflower, Arkansas. Shipping crude oil by rail is not just unfeasible and expensive — it’s also incredibly dangerous. Forty-seven people died and the center of the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec was destroyed when an oil train came loose and ignited in a huge fireball last summer. In November, an 80-car train carrying oil derailed and exploded in Alabama. In December, a crude oil train derailed and exploded in North Dakota. A crude oil train derailed on a bridge in Philadelphia earlier this month.
3. KXL’s Tar Sands Oil Is Really Dirty
The problem with extracting and burning tar sands oil is that it is the dirtiest type of liquid fuel on the planet. It’s hugely energy-intensive to get out of the ground, and one of the big byproducts is something called “petcoke” — a coal-like, high-sulfur, high-carbon solid that burns dirtier than coal. It also tends to get stored in huge piles that can release huge, dirty dust clouds on unsuspecting residents. More tar sands from Keystone XL would mean more petcoke. It is also a big project — if completed the pipeline would carry and emit 181 million metric tons of CO2 every year. That’s more than 37.7 million cars or 51 coal plants.
4. Oil From KXL Is Not Guaranteed to Stay In America
During a Congressional hearing in 2012, then-Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) asked Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s pipeline head if the company would support legislation requiring Canadian oil and refined byproducts to be sold only in the U.S. “so that this country realizes all of the energy security benefits your company and others have promised?” Mr. Poirbaix said, “no, I can’t do that.”
5. The Pipeline Could Increase Oil Spills
So if large amounts of the Canadian tar sands oil product goes to foreign markets, this would do little for any concept of American energy security. What Americans would have to deal with are spills and leaks, which are already getting a preview with the already-constructed southern leg of the pipeline. As that leg was being built, TransCanada had to excavate and fix over 125 dents and sags, and fears from locals in Texas have led to the formation of a sort of “giant neighborhood watch” to monitor for leaks.
6. Gas Prices Will Rise Thanks To Keystone XL
A report last year from Consumer Watchdog found that if Keystone XL was approved, American consumers, especially in the Midwest, would see higher gas prices to the tune of $3–4 billion per year. The construction of the pipeline would mean much of of the oil would likely be sent down to refineries in Texas, bypassing the Midwest and reducing supply. This would mean that local gas prices would rise by 20–40 cents in the region, and a few cents nationally.
7. ‘Keystone XL Will Have Permanent Impacts on Wildlife’
The Interior Department sent a letter to the State Department following the last DEIS that explained how the pipeline would have “permanent impacts on wildlife” and seriously affect National Park Service lands and Historic Trails. The main concerns detailed by Interior include light and noise pollution in , and particularly how a spill in any of the areas that drain into two nationally-managed rivers. Even though they changed the old route a couple years ago to try to fix this, a spill could threaten the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 83 percent of Nebraska’s irrigation water.
This report does not mean that the the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline has final approval. A State Department official told the Washington Post Thursday night that the report “is not a decision, but another step in the process prescribed by the Executive Order.”
With the release of State’s final environmental report, the clock is about to start running on a 30-day public comment period — and 90 days during which federal agencies can weigh in. The public comment period runs from February 5th to March 7th, while the agencies have 60 days more. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this month, “my hope is that before long that analysis will be available, and then my work begins.” After those 90 days, it will be up to President Obama.
If the assumptions about how much carbon emissions will be emitted by pipeline, rail, or tanker are truly the baseline (the so-called “business-as-usual” scenario), the Administration’s international commitments will become unrealistic and unattainable.