The State Department has released a long-awaited environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s the key section:
[A]pproval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil.
In other words, the State Department believes that oil from Alberta’s tar sands will be extracted, shipped and burnt regardless of whether the pipeline is built or not. That conclusion is disappointing for anyone hoping that the review would give President Obama clear justification to reject the pipeline. Last August, he declared that it would not be in the national interest to greenlight any project unless it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
Instead, the EIS leaves the administration considerable room to maneuver as the decision process enters the next stage: a more comprehensive assessment of whether the pipeline serves the national interest. That determination will consider climate change, foreign policy and energy security. “This is not a document that deals with approving and denying” the pipeline, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones emphasized on a call with reporters. There is no timeline for a final decision on the project, although eight federal agencies have ninety days to weigh in, and a monthlong public comment period begins on February 5.
While the EIS does not lay out a clear reason to reject the pipeline, neither does it deny the environmental implications of the project completely. The report affirmed a previous finding that oil produced from tar sands produces about 17 percent more greenhouse gas pollution when burned, compared to traditional crude. Jones said it would be “a bit of an oversimplification” to conclude from the report that KXL would have no impact on climate change. Jones also acknowledged that the report’s assumptions about oil markets are “uncertain and changeable.”
One figure we’re likely to hear cited by proponents of the pipeline is 42,100. That’s the number of temporary jobs the pipeline is expected to generate, according to the report. However, the more significant number is fifty. According to the EIS, that’s how many people would still have a job once construction ends in a year or two.
The timing of the release is itself controversial. The State Department’s Inspector General has yet to complete a conflict of interest investigation into the contractor hired to conduct the EIS, a London-based company called Environmental Resource Management (ERM). The IG launched its investigation after Friends of the Earth and other groups obtained information indicating that ERM failed to disclose connections to TransCanada, the company backing the pipeline, and other industry groups.
In December, twenty-five Democrats in Congress sent a letter urging officials to delay the publication of the EIS until the allegations had been fully investigated. “It would be unwise and premature for the Department of State to release an EIS prepared by ERM while it remains under investigation for lying to federal officials about its ties to TransCanada and over a dozen oil companies with a direct stake in whether or not Keystone XL gets approved,” the letter reads.