Lowest rating from EPA for tar sands oil pipeline assessment

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comments on the proposal for a new tar sands pipeline are an important defense of a clean energy economy, raising core questions about the safety and environmental implications of a project that will extend our dependence on oil. The State Department has jurisdiction over this trans-boundary pipeline that oil companies would like to see carry raw tar sands bitumen from Canada across America’s heartland to the Gulf Coast for processing. Behind the times, and seemingly not in step with its own Administration’s clean energy goals, the State Department has been treating the assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline as a straightforward construction project. However, EPA is raising questions that show that for an Administration that takes clean energy and climate change seriously, this pipeline has broader implications.

So, it is back to the drawing board for the State Department if they choose to honor EPA’s recommendation. EPA found the draft environmental impact assessment “inadequate” - giving it the lowest possible rating. EPA recommended that the State Department provide new analysis and information in a revised draft environmental impact statement that will circulate for public review. This means additional time for analysis and reflection. EPA also says that the proposal is a potential candidate for referral to the White House Council on Environmental Quality – the office responsible for developing recommendations when there are disagreements among agencies. Hopefully, there will not be a disagreement here and the State Department will follow the recommendation of EPA.

The EPA comments pull out a number of core areas of concern and need for further analysis, many of which were also raised in environmental community comments. But, beyond the need for more detailed information in almost every section, EPA makes the point that the draft environmental impact statement needs to define the purpose and need to allow for a “robust analysis of options for meeting national energy and climate policy objectives.” Even more, EPA says that the “national security implications of expanding the Nation’s long-term commitment to a relatively high carbon source of oil” should be considered.

Most notable in the more detailed comments:

  • Include greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands extraction: EPA found that there is a “reasonably close causal relationship” between issuing a permit for the pipeline and increased extraction of tar sands crude to supply the pipeline. Therefore, EPA recommends that the extraction-related greenhouse gas emissions in Canada be assessed, as well as end use emissions.
  • More information on air quality impacts and refinery emissions: EPA found that there was not enough information provided to justify the conclusion in the draft environmental impact statement that air pollution increases “would not likely be major”.
  • Safety should be a bigger concern: EPA makes it clear that the assessment does not do a good enough job on safety. EPA recommends that the assessment look at the actual chemical composition of the dirtier heavy crude that will flow through the pipe and that it provide information about how the pipeline will be inspected and leaks dealt with. It notes that the emergency response plan is not even developed yet and that it should be developed and a draft included. Finally, EPA raises concerns about coordination with the Department of Transportation and the requested pipeline safety waiver, asking that State and Transportation work together to have one analysis for all of the permits required for the project, including if a special safety waiver permit is granted.
  • Don’t forget environmental justice: EPA recommends that the assessment use a more accurate methodology for assessing impacts for low income, minority and Tribal populations. It especially noted that the assessment did not cover the environmental justice issues impacting the already over-exposed Port Arthur, Texas communities. EPA recommends a new health risk assessment related to refinery air pollution and potential contamination of drinking water from an oil spill.
  • Migratory birds also need trans-boundary impact assessment: EPA notes that addressing impacts to migratory birds from construction activities is not enough. It recommends that the State Department also address potential impacts to migratory bird populations in the United States from tar sands extraction activities.