A Decision about Massive Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Should Not Be Made Hastily

On Friday, a group of Senators sent a letter urging the State Department not to rush its review of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.

A tar sands oil pipeline of this massive scale should not be decided upon hastily.  Last summer I saw firsthand how the tar sands oil fields are devouring Alberta’s forest and threatening the health of communities downstream and downwind. A few months later, the Enbridge tar sands pipeline exploded in Michigan, dumping 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Here is what that spill looked like.

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Meanwhile, six months after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, communities are still suffering the consequences of what happens when we cut corners on safety and government oversight.

Major oil projects warrant careful consideration. Yet several signs indicate that the State Department is rushing the review process, possibly in order to meet TransCanada’s plan to start construction next summer. But haven’t we learned that when oil companies are allowed to act in haste, it is America’s communities that suffer?

At every step, NRDC and others have had to fight to make this process thorough and transparent. We fought to extend the public comment period for the environmental impact statement. And we fought to ensure that the EIS was completed before the State Department initiated its review—with other agencies—of whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

Then two weeks ago Secretary Clinton said she was “inclined” to approve the pipeline. Though it was an off-the-cuff remark and not an official statement, Clinton still seemed to be pre-judging her department’s final decision.

Now for the first time, a group of Senators are officially urging the State Department to fulfill its legally mandated review of the pipeline in a careful manner – without any pre-judging.

The lead on the letter is Senator Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the State Department’s budget. The State Department pays attention to what this Senate colleague does, and Senator Leahy watches to see if new State Department initiatives undercut programs already underway.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, for instance, is in direct opposition to the State Department’s effort to create an international climate regime. When you endorse a pipeline that doubles the amount of tar sands oil—oil that generates three times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil in its production—surely that sends the wrong message to China about the U.S. commitment to cutting emissions.

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But there are also significant concerns right here at home. Nebraska Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson are especially concerned about the safety of running millions of gallons of oil right over the Ogallala Aquifer, the main source of fresh water for America’s heartland.

The Obama administration has worked hard on many fronts to combat climate change and address environmental concerns. Just this week, said that it would propose new fuel efficiency standards for tractor trailers, city buses, and delivery vehicles the government estimate would save about 500 million barrels of oil and reduce nearly 250 million tons of greenhouse gases over the life of vehicles sold between 2014 and 2018. They would also generate $35 billion in net benefits to truckers.

This is the kind of solution that can take America into a cleaner energy future. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will only move us backward.

The Obama administration has an opportunity here. This is the first pipeline it has authority over from start to finish—the other two recent tar sands pipelines were launched under President Bush. The State Department should ensure that the review process addresses the concerns raised by the Senators, EPA, the Department of Energy and a host of others.

In an article in Reuters on Thursday, a State Department official is quoted saying that the decision is months away. This is good news. But it is still worrying that, as the article makes clear, they have yet to decide whether to revise the EIS  based on the many comments they received or proceed to a final version. The Senators’ letter asks them to answer this question. 

It encourages the State Department to take the time to get it right on this critical tar sands decision.