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.