The EPA Finds Holes in the State Department

The EPA Finds Holes in the State Department

Emma Bryce
Published: 04/24/2013

A 2012 map showing Keystone's original pipeline route across Nebraska in blue, and TransCanada's preferred alternative in green. (Photo by SkyTruth / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


The State Department’s draft environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline—which in March concluded that the pipeline would have negligible climate impact—was criticized by environmental groups when it came out. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is questioning the report, suggesting that the State Department has underrepresented Keystone’s climate impacts, the associated safety concerns, and alternative pipeline routes.

In its letter, released on Monday as the public comment period on the DEIS drew to a close, the EPA categorized the assessment as one with “insufficient information.”

“The EPA has got it exactly right,” said Anthony Swift, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, in a statement, according to the Washington Post. “The State Department’s draft environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is insufficient. The EPA determined that the Keystone XL pipeline would have significant negative environmental impacts.”

The State Department wields the power to decide whether the pipeline gets the go-ahead in the form of a presidential permit, without President Obama’s direct consent—but only if its findings go unchallenged. That’s why the EPA’s assertions are significant, and could be instrumental in spurring Obama’s involvement at the decision-making stage. The letter commends the State’s assessment on many counts, but overwhelmingly challenges its review.

The key critique is that the assessment suggests Keystone XL will have negligible impact on climate, since other extraction and transportation efforts will take its place if it goes away. “The market analysis and the conclusion that oil sands crude will find a way to market with or without the Project is the central finding that supports the [State Department’s] conclusions regarding the Project’s potential [greenhouse gas] emissions impacts.” This assumption, says the EPA, is wrong, since no industries could currently take the pipeline’s place. Without the pipeline, the tar sands would likely remain in the ground.

The EPA also critiques other aspects of the report—like its findings on pipeline safety. The agency says that the State ought to emphasize the differences between diluted bitumen or ‘dilbit’—the ingredient that Keystone would carry—and conventional oil during a spill. If it hits water, dilbit sinks and is much harder to clean up, the letter shows, and a spill like that would require a whole different set of disaster responses that the EPA feels have not been fully assessed in the State’s review.

Finally, the EPA finds that the State’s exploration of pipeline route alternatives is weak. Alternatives should be “the ‘heart’ of an EIS,” the letter reads—yet the State’s assessment largely glosses over other options.

Ultimately, the EPA’s letter has given the State Department and pipeline advocates something solid to mull over. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin explains in her article that the “EPA’s objection to the State Department’s draft analysis not only provides opponents with political ammunition, it could force President Obama to directly weigh in on the permitting decision if they raise similar objections later when State conducts a national interest determination.”

The letter has been met with widespread frustration from pipeline advocates, drawing criticism from the Republican Party and TransCanada (the company driving the pipeline) Grist points out. TransCanada has accused the EPA of dabbling with Canadian sovereignty, while the GOP argued that the EPA’s statement shows the government has “run amok.”

The EPA’s letter came amidst a wave of comments that surged in on Monday. “It’s going to take some time for State Department and the White House to go through a million comments, but when they do, they’ll see a common thread,” said Daniel Kessler, spokesman for climate advocacy group, as reported by E&E News. “People from every part of the country in every walk of life think that this pipeline is bad for our land, water and climate.”


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