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March 18, 2013
Keystone draft SEIS not 'policy'

Even though the U.S. State Department’s draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline runs on for four volumes, you will be hard pressed to find either an endorsement or a disapproval of the project in any of them.

That certainly was the impression given by a State Department official, who repeatedly refused to give any indication about whether the environmental impact of the project was such that either the Presidential Permit needed for the pipeline to cross from Canada’s oil sands fields in Alberta was likely or that the project would not be found in the “national interest.”

Length down by 37 percent

TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, first submitted an application for the needed permit in 2008.  The State Department responded with an EIS that raised concerns about the risks of oil spills in the Sands Hills region of Nebraska, which contains a valuable source of drinking water.  Subsequently, the application was denied.  In May 2012, TransCanada submitted a second application that made major modifications to the pipeline route.  For example, the total length of the line was reduced from 1,384 miles to 875 miles; the number of states crossed was reduced from five to three (Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska); the number of miles of the Sands Hills area traversed by the pipeline was reduced from 90 to 0; and the number of surface water bodies crossed was reduced from 317 to 56.

After raising concerns about the original route, in January 2013, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman wrote to President Obama that the reroute adequately eased those concerns.  Moreover, Heineman noted that construction of the pipeline would bring $418 million in economic benefits to Nebraska.

Heavy oil

But the pipeline is hotly opposed by many stakeholders who believe that the heavy Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) petroleum that would be shipped in amounts of up to 830,000 barrels per day would present unprecedented dangers in the event of a spill; that WCSB crudes are more GHG-intensive than the average crudes refined in the United States; and that production activities as well as construction of the pipeline would result in significant GHG emissions.  TransCanada has said it will extract the resources with or without a Presidential Permit.  But approval of the project would add GHGs.  For example, annual CO2 emissions from operating the proposed pipeline would amount to about 3.19 million metric tons of CO2e emissions per year, approximately the amount that would be generated by 626,000 passenger vehicles operating for one year or 398,000 homes using electricity for one year.

Public debate

According to Kerri-Ann Jones, a State Department assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the draft SEIS is a “preliminary document” that is intended to be the foundation of the next round of public debate. 

“This is a document that really is looking at the technical issues related to this particular project,” said Jones.  “It’s not really a policy document.  It’s part of a collection of information that would go forward later on when a lot more work has been done to look to the decision and see how this would fit into our overall thinking on climate.”

Once the final SEIS is issued, the State Department will consult with eight other federal agencies to determine if the pipeline serves the national interest.

Publication of notice of the draft SEIS in the Federal Register will trigger a 45-day public comment period.

Click here for the draft SEIS.

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