The State Department released its final environmental impact assessment  of the Keystone XL pipeline Friday, and it’s just as bad as some feared—perhaps worse. The report concludes, as did two prior versions, that there would be “no significant impact“ on natural resources near the pipeline route, while also downplaying the potential for increased greenhouse gas emissions.
In a conference call with reporters, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones stressed that “this is not the rubberstamp for this project. The permit that is required for this process has not been approved or rejected at all.”
But the environmental concerns are clearly the main objection to Keystone XL, and the report is widely seen as removing one of the final roadblocks to the project. Environmental groups were quick to blast the results. “The U.S. State Department’s final report on the Keystone XL today is an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
On the issue of pipeline spills, the State Department report assesses that “there could be from 1.18 to 1.83 spills greater than 2,100 gallons per year” for the entire project. It helpfully adds that “crude oil spills are not likely to have toxic effects on the general public.”
While that many spills might already sound risky, the real number is likely much higher than what the State Department calculated. First, as the report itself notes, there have already been fourteen spills along the existing Keystone pipeline since it began operating in June 2010.
In addition, the first independent analysis  of the pipeline project, released last month by Dr. John Stansbury at the University of Nebraska, came up with much more ominous results. Stansbury calculated a potential for ninety-one spills over the next fifty years.
He also lays out a scenario that most certainly would involve “toxic effects on the general public.” If a worst-case spill were to occur at the Platte River crossing, for example, benzene—a human carcinogen—would travel unabated down the Missouri River for several hundred miles and affect the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in cities like Lincoln, Omaha and Nebraska City in Nebraska and St. Joseph and Kansas City in Missouri.
Similarly, Stansbury estimates that a worst-case spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska would contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of drinking water.
It’s important to note that the State Department assessment relies upon assumptions that the Keystone XL pipeline will operate with a fairly high degree of efficiency and safety—more than the rest of the industry. If that somehow happens, the company alone will be responsible for that high standard, because federal regulators are currently incapable of adequately inspecting pipelines that carry tar sands.
The Department of Transportation’s Cynthia Quarterman recently admitted  to Congress that the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had not evaluated the risks of tar sands pipelines and she did not know if current safety regulations could address them.
Beyond spills, there’s also the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which the Environmental Protection Agency estimates to be over 80 percent higher  for tar sands than normal crude oils. While the State Deparment report acknowledges that “current projections suggest that the amount of energy required to extract all crude oils is projected to increase over time,” it also says the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands might stay flat or even decrease over time.
This analysis relies on industry claims that it will develop refining methods that emit fewer greenhouse gases. Numerous  analyses  have predicted much higher greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands development. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has written  that “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over” for reversing climate change.
Again, even the EPA predicts higher-than-normal greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands refining, and it’s important to note that the EPA openly criticized  the last environmental impact statement from the State Department, which isn’t much different than the final version.
Despite claims that a final decision is yet to be made, today’s environmental impact assessment virtually guarantees the State Department will approve the project by the end of the year. But environmental activists are not discouraged—and are placing their bets on President Barack Obama.
Bill McKibben, who has been leading the civil disobedience outside the White House, said  “we knew from past experience that State might do something like this, which is why we’ve always said it’s going to be Obama’s call. They can’t get the climate science right, but maybe they can get the politics right.”