WASHINGTON — The State Department announced Friday that construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline is unlikely to have a significant impact on climate change, a finding that could open the door for President Barack Obama to approve the controversial project.
The 1,700-mile pipeline would bring oil from the Alberta oil sands in Canada to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that crude oil from the sands could produce 14 percent to 20 percent more planet-warming gases than the average oil in U.S. refineries.
But the State Department said Friday that denying the pipeline wouldn’t stop the Canadian oil from getting to market by rail or construction of other new pipelines.
“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands,” according to the State Department’s environmental analysis.
Environmental groups said they were outraged by the finding. They said the oil industry wouldn’t have spent millions lobbying for the $7 billion Keystone pipeline if it weren’t important for developing the oil sands.
Keystone is fundamental to the industry’s plan to triple production in the sands, said Danielle Droitsch, project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The pipeline will produce the equivalent of putting 6 million new cars on the road, Droitsch said.
“It is a total myth that tar sands expansion will continue to grow even if Keystone XL were rejected,” she said. “It is not in the public’s best interest to expand America’s dependence on tar sands. It undermines our effort to move to clean energy and fight climate change.”
Industry groups said the State Department’s analysis confirms it is time to stop delaying the pipeline.
“The Keystone XL project has become one of the most closely examined infrastructure projects in our nation’s history, and it continues to pass with flying colors,” said Chamber of Commerce energy spokeswoman Karen Harbert. “Once again, the State Department has confirmed that this project is environmentally sound.”
It’s not a done deal. There will be a 45-day comment period after the State Department’s analysis is formally published in about a week. Then the State Department will review the comments and create a final environmental impact statement for the pipeline project. At that point, the State Department will decide whether the project is in the national interest and will ask other agencies their views on whether it should go ahead.
Obama has made clear he’ll have final say on the pipeline.
The detailed, 2,000-page State Department analysis did not make a recommendation on whether Obama should approve the pipeline. But it did not raise any environmental deal breakers and said fundamental changes in the world crude oil market, not denial of the Keystone pipeline, would be needed to significantly impact the rate of production in the oil sands.
Obama denied a permit for the northern section of the pipeline last year, saying the route through Nebraska needed more environmental review. Pipeline developer TransCanada has since changed the route so it bypasses the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region, and Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman is urging the president to go ahead and approve it.
Obama is also under pressure to approve the pipeline from Canadian officials, union leaders and members of Congress.
“Today’s report again makes clear there is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a written statement. “After four years of needless delays, it is time for President Obama to stand up for middle-class jobs and energy security and approve the Keystone pipeline.”
Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, though, questioned how much of the oil would be used in the United States and how much would be exported.
“The State Department needs to explain how it is in America’s national and economic interests to facilitate Keystone XL’s completion, especially if the pipeline is simply a conduit for oil and refined products to go elsewhere that makes the United States less energy secure and drives domestic gas prices higher,” the Oregon Democrat said.
Environmental groups have made defeat of the pipeline their top priority, saying it would be incompatible with Obama’s promise to fight climate change.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said Obama needs to live up to his “soaring oratory” on climate change.
“We dealt with this for eight years in the Bush administration, and we didn’t think we’d have to do it with John Kerry’s State Department,” Brune said, speaking of the recently sworn-in secretary of state.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @seancockerham