Delaying The Keystone XL Decision Wasn’t All About Politics

President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. TransCanada is the company vying for approval of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ
President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. TransCanada is the company vying for approval of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ

Pure politics: That’s how most outlets described the State Department’s Friday announcement that it will delay its decision on constructing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

There’s good reason for that thinking. As the New York Times points out, Democrats on both sides of the issue stand to benefit from the delay — supporters in oil-rich states can still gain clout by calling for the pipeline’s approval, while opponents can count on financial support from donors like Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has pledged to help vulnerable anti-Keystone lawmakers.

Still, there are reasons to believe that the State Department’s decision was not a political ploy. There are actual complications standing in the way of the pipeline’s imminent approval or rejection, all of which presented themselves after the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released in January, and all of which have to do with whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

The pipeline has no legally approved route through Nebraska.

One month after Keystone XL’s final EIS was issued, a Nebraska court made a ruling that effectively gutted the pipline’s proposed route through the state. That ruling is in the process of being appealed, but as of now, there is no legally approved route for the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska.


This uncertainty is the main reason why the State Department said it would delay the decision. Politico’s Ben White on Monday took issue with that argument in an article for CNBC, saying that this was really none of the agency’s concern. “There is no reason that the Nebraska court ruling should change the federal government’s decision on whether the pipeline is in the national interest,” White wrote. “State is involved only because the pipeline crosses the Canadian border, which does not, in fact, extend into Nebraska.”

While it is true that the State Department is only involved because of the border crossing, the issues that come with that crossing extend far beyond the actual border. Because the Keystone XL pipeline would carry Canadian tar sands oil — a type of fuel we do not extract in the United States — unique environmental and public health risks are posed in every state the pipeline touches. This is why the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statements assessed potential impacts along every inch of the pipeline’s proposed route. Indeed, if the State Department were only involved because of issues surrounding the border, it would have saved itself the trouble of doing a state-by-state assessment.

If the pipeline’s route eventually has to be changed, then there is an entire section of the Environmental Impact Statement that no longer applies and needs to be re-done. As Executive Order 13337 states, the national interest includes “maintaining safety, public health, and environmental protections.” Because a different route would mean different risks for all three of those components, it would be environmentally irresponsible — and therefore not in the national interest — to make a decision before knowing if it needs to be changed.

The public is entitled to adequate consideration of their comments.

When President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13337, he laid out what must happen before approving an energy project that crosses international borders. Among many things, the order says the Secretary of State shall consider “any public comments” submitted.


Keystone XL has been so divisive in American politics that a whopping 2.5 million comments were received during the final comment period. This is, as the State Department said, unprecedented. For the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System’s right-of-way renewal, 580 people and organizations commented. For the Energy Gateway West Transmission Line Project, 2,600 comments were received. When New York took up a proposal to allow hydraulic fracturing in the state, it got 20,000 comments — the most New York had ever faced on a proposed regulation.

One of the largest comment processes in the news this year was over the NorthMet project, a relatively unknown copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota that received 52,000 public comments. Even this, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr, was an “enormous” undertaking. “It’s a monster to get your arms around,” Landwehr told the MinnPost on Thursday, noting that the project’s previous Environmental Impact Statement — which got 10,000 comments — took nine months to sort through. This means, in Minnesota, sorting through 52,000 comments could take up to four years.

This is not to say that it will take years for the State Department to sort through 2.5 million comments — it obviously has a much larger workforce than Minnesota’s DNR, and Keystone XL is a much larger project. But if a divisive Minnesota-specific project receives 52,000 comments, and a national project engrossing all 50 states receives 2.5 million (approximately 50 times more than 52,000), it’s a safe bet to assume it will take more than two months to do an adequate assessment of those comments. And considering how politically invested Americans have been in Keystone XL, it would be a shame if collective public opinion was not adequately considered before a decision on the pipeline’s future were made.

New information on public health has yet to be addressed.

Ultimately the State Department’s sole responsibility is to decide whether Keystone XL is in the national interest. This, as the Department notes, includes the consideration of public health.

Despite this, there is no section in the Final EIS solely dedicated to public health impacts. There is some mention within the larger section on “potential releases,” though it says little about the long-term effects of exposure to tar sands oil. In summary, the report says the long-term effects “have not been researched as rigorously as the constituents of crude oil,” and goes on to suggest that they might be similar to the effects of being exposed to benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which cause various forms of cancer.


Citing the final report’s uncertainties about the long-term health effects of tar sands pollution, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have since February been calling for a comprehensive and conclusive study on what exposure to a spill could realistically do to human health. Boxer in March said she had spoken with both Obama and Kerry and their staffs about conducting a study, but did not get any indication that it would be done.

“We keep sending them information and they are not going to tell me what they’re going to do,” Boxer said at the time. “They’re just looking at everything.”

Since the release of the Final EIS, increasing attention has been drawn to various health problems of those in Canada who have been exposed to pollution from tar sands oil. In April, a panel from the Alberta Energy Regulator released a report finding that odors released from tar sands tanks in Peace River, Alberta, may have been the reason why the families who lived near those tanks experienced fainting, weight loss, gray skin, and strange growths.

Boxer and Whitehouse brought Dr. John O’Connor, a physician in Alberta, to Washington D.C. in February to talk about increased cancer rates in a First Nations community directly downstream of tar sands development. They also brought nurses from areas surrounding the Keystone XL route to talk about the health effects they had already seen from tar sands pollution.

There is no current indication that the Obama administration is seriously considering Boxer and Whitehouse’s request — meaning it is unlikely that this was actually a factor in delaying the Keystone decision. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been.

Tom Steyer is a member of the Board of Directors at the Center for American Progress.