Keystone XL tar sands pipeline environmental review - strike two!

For a backgrounder on the supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline:


Last week, the State Department released a second round of environmental review for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which is meant to address issues left out (or inadequately addressed) in their earlier analysis. It is notable that the State Department right in the executive summary downplays the importance of this second review, claiming that “no new issues of substance emerged from the comments received.” This is not true – many new issues of substance have been identified since the release of the first environmental review a year ago. Further, the State Department is only allowing a 45 day comment period and so far has not provided any opportunity for field hearings along the route. The State Department undermines the environmental review process by downplaying the importance of getting the substance right and by not providing enough time for meaningful public review.

The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline does not fit with the clean energy commitments made by the Obama Administration. We have better energy solutions than expanding our dependence on dirty and destructive tar sands. So it is ironic that the State Department rushed to issue an inadequate round of review in time for Earth Day which is when the clock starts ticking on the public review period.

The environmental review wrongly assumes that Canada is dealing with the environmental impacts of tar sands extraction in Alberta. They’re not. In fact, last week Alberta released its first regional plan that was supposed to protect land, water and air, but which fell far short of its goals as noted by my colleague Elizabeth Shope in a recent blog.

Despite the fact that there is no need for a pipeline that will simply divert oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast for years to come, the State Department rushed to issue this second round of environmental review. Just a month after they announced that they would draft a supplemental environmental impact statement, they finalized the review. A one month turn around does not leave adequate time for a thorough analysis of the many concerns identified over the past months. The short public review period indicates an incomprehensible haste in a situation where we have more than enough existing pipeline capacity to meet our needs as we move to cleaner sources of energy. Without sufficient time for analysis, the State Department is ignoring the purpose of our National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its goal to get the best information possible out for public review and comment for projects such as this tar sands pipeline.

The State Department should provide at least 120 days for public review as well as holding field hearings along the route. And as inadequacies mount up in this environmental review, we may be looking at the need for the State Department to do yet another draft supplemental environmental review to give the full analysis required by law to issues of concern.

On substance, this supplemental review only deals superficially with critical issues such as pipeline safety, the routing over the Ogallala Aquifer, climate change impacts and environmental justice around refineries. The public deserves an in-depth review of these issues. NRDC and partner organizations have sent a series of letters to the State Department specifically asking that these issues be addressed. These requests have also come from Nebraska Senators and other members of Congress, mayors, farmers, landowners, and others. Apparently, the State Department did not get the message.

We’ll be providing more in-depth analysis of the draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), but to start, here is a first review of several of the areas in which the draft SEIS is inadequate:

  • Alternate routes: The issue of analyzing alternatives to the current proposed route over the Ogallala Aquifer has been raised by Nebraska Senators, legislators, farmers and others. Yet, what should have been a cornerstone of this new environmental review only pays lip service to the legal requirements of NEPA. The review does not consider a reasonable route that avoids the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. Instead it identifies several unreasonable routes and then declines to fully review them, seeming to protect the interests of the pipeline company TransCanada at the cost of the main source of freshwater in America’s heartland. Reasonable alternatives do exist. The fact that the State Department hasn’t considered them is a violation of their legal and public responsibilities.
  • Pipeline safety: This round of environmental review also missed the mark on the pipeline safety issues of diluted bitumen (raw tar sands) pipelines. The review glossed over concerns raised in our  pipeline safety report. The analysis includes a number of technical red herrings and inaccuracies which show a lack of understanding of the environmental impact of diluted bitumen. It would have been better had the State Department waited for a pipeline safety review done by technical experts – for example by the U.S. Pipeline Safety Administration.
  • Climate change: The environmental review makes a good start in acknowledging that tar sands oil has higher lifecycle greenhouse emissions than conventional oil. But it then misses the boat in implying that these additional emissions do not need to be considered. Not only will tar sands cause additional upgrading and refining emissions in the United States, the Keystone XL pipeline will also cause expansion of tar sands extraction in Canada. New tar sands production takes a while to come online – it is a slow and expensive process. Although until around 2025, the proposed Keystone pipeline will mostly be redirecting tar sands from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, after that the pipeline will be directly responsible for expansion of close to 1 million barrels per day in new extraction emissions.
  • Refinery pollution and environmental justice: The State Department asserts that because tar sands emissions are similar to crudes that are currently refined in the Gulf area, the proposed tar sands pipeline will have no cumulative adverse impact on minority and low-income populations due to tar sands refinery air pollution. This statement is inaccurate and contradicts the Department of Energy report that was included with the supplemental review. The two step process of upgrading and then refining tar sands in the Gulf Coast region will put a burden on communities already suffering unfairly from air and water pollution from industrial development. The State Department has a duty to look out for the welfare of these communities and it is not meeting this duty in the environmental review.