EPA Unlikely to Buy Argument that Keystone XL Will Not Worsen Climate Change: Agency Concerns Were Ignored

The lead U.S. environmental agency has for several years raised serious concerns about the climate, environmental, safety, and health impacts of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  Three different times, the U.S. EPA  has issued failing grades saying the true impacts of the pipeline have not been adequately considered.  And yet, the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS) released in January by the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) and its contractor ERM failed again to meet the grade.  NRDC has completed a review and concludes that the FSEIS failed to address many of the core concerns raised by the EPA and thereby fails to fully calculate the full extent of the pipeline’s environmental and human impact.  The EPA is unlikely to buy the conclusion the pipeline has no significant impact on climate.  At this point, the EPA can – and should – weigh in again during this critical final phase of the permitting process.  Despite the serious flaws in the FSEIS underestimating impacts of the pipeline, there is enough evidence to reject the pipeline.  Any meaningful analysis of the EPA’s concerns – including the failure of the environmental review to addresses those concerns - should lead to a very clear conclusion:  Keystone XL is not in this nation’s national interest and should be rejected.

The EPA provided OES with comments in 2010, 2011, and 2013.  Over this time, EPA has raised fundamental concerns about the project and how the State Department’s OES office and its contractor ERM addressed these concerns.   Below we have outlined some of the key issues.  A more detailed analysis can be found here.

Climate change

While the FSEIS has acknowledged EPA’s concern that tar sands is more carbon intensive and could have a considerable climate impact, the environmental review ignored EPA’s request to seriously consider the carbon pollution impacts of the project.   

Despite requests by the EPA, OES has failed to illustrate just how big an impact Keystone XL will have on efforts to slow the threat of climate change.  The FSEIS shows that greenhouse gas emissions related to Keystone XL could total as many as 8.4 billion metric tons over the 50 year lifetime of the project. This is equivalent to annual emissions from 35 million passenger vehicles for 50 years.  To gauge just how high that number is, the total number of passenger vehicles registered in Canada in 2010 was just over 20 million.  Even if you only count the additional emissions of the project (using tar sands oil instead of conventional oil) those emissions would be more than half the countries in the world (27.4 MMTCO2e annually).  In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is project to reduce emissions by up to 11.9 million metric tons CO2 per year. 

For a single industrial project, that number should shock anyone who believes there is any hope of mitigating global temperature increases.  What’s worse, at current production levels, the tar sands industry will produce nearly 23 billion tons of greenhouse gases over the next 50 years, or nearly 5% of the total remaining global carbon budget.  The environmental review’s failure to consider the impact of these emissions cut to the heart of its failure to disclose the real and substantial risks posed by Keystone XL and the tar sands industry.

While the social costs of carbon from the pipeline equate to $128 billion (based on the FSEIS climate numbers), EPA’s request that these economic costs be included was ignored.

In every letter it has written to the State Department, EPA has recommended that State significantly expand its analysis of greenhouse gas emissions associated with Keystone XL and include an analysis of both their social cost and their roll in global climate change.  Thankfully, we know from the FSEIS and information from Interagency Working Group on Social Costs of Carbon that the overall social cost of greenhouse gas emission increases caused by Keystone XL is $128 billion.  While the social cost is easily determined, the FSEIS failed to provide any estimates or any analysis on this issue in its FSEIS. 

Air pollution and community impacts

The environmental review underestimated how Keystone XL has a disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects – a key EPA concern.

EPA has raised concerns about whether Keystone XL will have a disproportionate impact on low-income, minority, and/or tribal communities.  As the State Department found, many environmental justice communities along Keystone XL’s route have insufficient access to medical care, a fact that suggests threats from a spill or other accident are actually quite severe for these communities.  It will be up to the EPA to raise concerns that these impacts were underestimated (the FSEIS limited its analysis of impacts to those caused by noise, competition, and transportation disruption all of which it deems to be temporary and minor). 

EPA has long requested that the State Department’s environmental review of Keystone XL defend its conclusion that expected increases in refinery emissions tied to refining tar sands crudes “would likely not be major.”  Indeed, the evidence shows that burning tar sands in Gulf Coast refineries will worsen air pollution given tar sands crudes have higher sulfur, metal, and VOC content.  Furthermore, the evidence now suggests that Gulf Coast refineries are burning lighter oils meaning an influx of heavy and dirty tar sands will cause a greater impact.  Despite mounting evidence, the FSEIS came to a flawed conclusion that emission increases from approving the pipeline were not expected to be major.

The risk of a pipeline spill and impacts to water

Following two ruptures of pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil in Michigan and Arkansas, the EPA has expressed very serious concerns about the sufficiency of OES’s disclosures about the differences between conventional and tar sands crudes. 

The environmental review took a significant step acknowledging EPA’s concern that the chemical composition of diluted bitumen was different.  But EPA’s concern regarding the overall impact of tar sands remains unaddressed.

Following spills in Michigan and Arkansas, EPA has become increasingly concerned about the public health impacts of spills of tar sands crudes.  Because tar sands are semi-solid, a diluting agent must be added to make them flow through pipelines.  This diluting agent contains many toxic constituents, some of which are carcinogenic, which quickly evaporate into the air around a spill, leading to the risk of widespread human health impacts.  Though the environmental review acknowledges some differences between tar sands and conventional crudes, it downplays these differences and essentially concludes that tar sands just aren’t that different from other crude oils.  This conclusion once again flies in the face of what is known about tar sands crude and the extremely high levels of volatile organic compounds that they contain. 

Keep in mind that Keystone XL’s leak detection systems are only sensitive enough to detect leaks totaling more than 1.5% of the pipeline’s capacity.  This means that the leak detection system would not detect spills below 12,450 barrels or 522,900 gallons of tar sands oil.  Considering that the pipeline traverses large swaths of uninhabited farmland, the risk of a spill going undetected appears extraordinarily high.  Independent engineering reviews of Keystone XL’s safety measures echo this concern and suggest that additional spill detection systems must be put in place to ensure that these types of leaks are more quickly detected.

EPA raised a concern that approving Keystone XL could take expand Nation’s commitment to carbon intensive oil.

In their July 2010 comments, the EPA stated: “[W]e believe the national security implications of expanding the Nation’s long-term commitment to a relatively high carbon source of oil should also be considered.”  We agree.  Secretary Kerry should closely evaluate whether the U.S. should permit a 50-year infrastructure project that amounts to a long term commitment to producing, refining, and selling a fossil fuel with higher than average concentrations of carbon.  Approving this 50-year carbon intensive project would be completely at odds with the Obama administration’s climate and clean energy goals.  It is time to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

For a complete analysis of EPA’s concerns and the State Department’s responses, click here.

This analysis and blog was co-drafted with Josh Axelrod.