Public deserves a chance to review new analysis of tar sands pipeline environmental impacts

Today, NRDC and the Sierra Club submitted detailed comments to the State Department on why they are legally required to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement that provides information either not included in or inadequately included in the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline draft environmental impact assessment released last summer.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE) ,  Congressional leaders, the environmental community, and others have been urging the State Department to provide the analysis needed to make a well-informed decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would bring tar sands oil – corrosive bitumen that must be pumped under high pressure and temperature – from Canada to Texas. Yet, months later, the State Department is still not saying publically if they will provide the new information and provide it in a form that includes a meaningful public review period.

Some of the most pertinent questions include whether there is a need for the pipeline (there will be more pipelines than tar sands oil to fill them for many years to come), the environmental impacts of the pipeline (along the route and through causing expansion of destructive tar sands extraction), and how the pipeline affects our clean energy future.  Because there is no rush for this pipeline, the least the State Department should do is to get the impacts analysis right.

So what would that look like ideally?  First, the State Department must complete its review of comments on the draft environmental impact statement. There were a record number of comments filed – over 47,000 – and additional analysis requested by other government agencies.  These comments and analysis requests are substantial enough that they warrant a new public review period once incorporated. Even more important from the legal perspective, there is new information and new circumstances that require the State Department to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement with a new opportunity for meaningful public review.

Only assuming this next round of supplemental impact statement and public review is handled correctly with solid analysis, should the State Department issue a final environmental impact statement. Oddly, there are rumors that State might issue a final statement with public review as the next round. I say “oddly” because it is in the interest of the Obama Administration to conduct this pipeline process in accordance with the law and with the goals of our National Environmental Policy Act. Providing a public review opportunity of a final document does not constitute meaningful public review.

Only after the final environmental impact statement is issued, will the national interest determination process start. This process is conducted over a minimum of 90 days and will include consultation with agencies and tribes. The State Department has also said in meetings that public comments are welcome. At the end of the 90 days – if no agency has asked for additional analysis - the State Department can make a decision – but there is no rush or time limit imposed on them.  Importantly, if an agency does not agree with the decision of the State Department, and an agreement cannot be reached, the decision may be referred to the President.

The State Department owes the public and other agencies, as well as many members of Congress that have weighed in, the opportunity to have the best data and analysis in front of them as they debate the national interest. The best information includes a thorough environmental impact analysis.  After all, the burden is on State to affirmatively show the pipeline is in the national interest. This is what the executive order that governs the transboundary pipeline permitting process requires.

In today’s comments, NRDC and Sierra Club make the case for why the State Department is legally required to prepare a supplemental impact statement. There have been substantial changes in the pipeline proposal – the Bakken oil access to the pipeline is no longer speculative and there have been changes to the pressure and capacity of the pipeline.   Significant new information and circumstances have also risen since the draft environmental impact statement was prepared, including information available after we saw the impacts of the Gulf oil spill disaster and the spill of 1 million gallons of tar sands oil from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The original draft also did not go far enough in providing information about the unique risks associated with tar sands oil, greenhouse gas emissions, wetlands and water impacts, environmental justice impacts and a number of other issues.

The Obama Administration has made strong commitments to clean energy and to fighting climate change. One way to stand by these commitments is to put forward the best information possible for a decision about expansion of a very dirty source of energy such as tar sands. The next step in the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline process should be a supplemental environmental impact statement with an opportunity for meaningful public review and comment.