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February 14, 2014
Keystone impact complex, says State

If you look at a small portion of the Department of State’s 11-volume final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, you may indeed conclude that the Department does not believe that either completion or abandonment of the project will have any effect on anticipated climate changes, such as longer summers and increased wildfire risks. 

You will also find in the SEIS, as many in the press have pointed out, the expectation by the Department that several no-project alternatives, such as rail transport of crude oil from the oil sands fields of Alberta, Canada, across 875 miles of the United States, will generate more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and create a greater potential for accidents and oil spills than moving the crude through the pipeline itself.  Given those two elements in the SEIS, the conclusion might be that the Department supports construction of Keystone XL.

But that is not a position the Department is taking, at least not publicly.  As explained by Kerri-Ann Jones, the Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the final SEIS is not about making recommendations.

“The final supplemental document that we’ve posted is a technical assessment,” said Jones in a phone conference.  “It is consistent with [the National Environmental Policy Act].  It is not a decision document. And it does not make any recommendations about approving or denying the application.”

2nd try at President Permit

TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, may proceed with construction on U.S. land only after the Department provides a Presidential Permit, which indicates that the administration has determined that the project serves the national interest.  The final SEIS follows a final EIS the Department issued in 2011 for an earlier proposed design.  Subsequently, the Department denied TransCanada the Presidential Permit. 

In May 2012, TransCanada applied again for the permit for a shorter pipeline that was routed around several environmentally sensitive areas.  In March 2013, the Department released a draft SEIS addressing the redesigned project.  Over 1.5 million comments on the draft were received by the Department.  Ninety-nine percent of these were form letters sponsored by non-government organizations (NGOs), but the remaining 16,863 unique comments still constituted a remarkable amount of feedback, which the Department says it considered in finalizing the final SEIS.

More than two scenarios

In his June 2013 address introducing his Climate Action Plan, President Obama stated that Keystone would serve the national interest only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  And based on the impact assessment and project alternatives noted above, it may be concluded by some that Keystone will not hit the president’s threshold. 

But in her conference, Assistant Secretary Jones repeatedly emphasized that the issue is much more complex than looking at either a pipeline scenario or a rail scenario.  “I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification,” said Jones. 

“The issue about the different scenarios that we’ve looked at is that we can’t nail down which one exactly is going to happen, because we’re looking into the future in terms of the global markets and how things are developed.  The final [SEIS] presents considerable analysis, but it does not answer the broader question about how a decision on the proposed project would fit into the broader national and international efforts to address climate change or other questions of foreign policy or energy security. These are the perspectives that we’re going to be addressing in the next phase, in the national interest determination.”

More economics

That phase begins with receiving another round of public comments as well as comments from eight “cooperating” federal agencies.  One of those agencies is the EPA, which voiced significant environmental concerns about the project in comments on the draft SEIS.  For example, the EPA found problems in the Department’s economic analysis, which indicated that that crude product would be shipped into the United States by rail if the pipeline was not built. 

The EPA countered that the Department’s market analysis of rail transport options did not recognize the potentially much higher per-barrel rail shipment costs.  The final SEIS responds to these and related concerns with an “updated oil market analysis incorporating new economic modeling and expanded analysis of rail transport as part of the No Action Alternative scenarios.”

Kerry’s role

Critical to the final decision on the Presidential Permit is the involvement of Secretary of State John Kerry.  While in Congress, Kerry sponsored legislation to hold the United States to GHG reduction targets.  Given Kerry’s prestige, it is possible the president will leave the permitting decision in the secretary’s hands.  Presently, there is no schedule for a final decision.

“Secretary Kerry has not been briefed on the contents of [the final SEIS], so he will just be getting into this,” said Jones.  “And he does not have a timeline.  He will take the timeline he needs to deliberate and to approach the various dimensions of this project. He will be consulting with those eight agencies that are mentioned in the Executive Order. The only specific timeline that’s given in the Executive Order is that the consulting agencies have up to 90 days to get their views in.”

The final SEIS

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