The fate of a controversial oil sands pipeline could fall directly at President Obama’s doorstep.
Under federal law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton currently has the responsibility of deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which if approved would send 700,000 barrels of carbon-heavy oil sands a day from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. But if the project doesn’t receive unanimous support from eight other federal agencies, the president must issue the decision.
Supporters say the pipeline would help wean the United States off foreign oil from the Middle East and create jobs. Opponents say it’s a step backward on Obama’s quest for a clean-energy economy and contributes more to climate change than standard oil.
The State Department has said it hopes to issue a final decision by year’s end, but that could slip into early 2012.
The project requires approval from the U.S. government—specifically, nine federal agencies—because it crosses international borders. Right now the State Department is in the middle of a 90-day review process in which it consults with the eight other agencies and makes its decision about whether to approve the pipeline. By the end of November, the State Department hopes to start circulating that decision to the other agencies, which include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy, Defense, Transportation, Homeland Security, Justice, Interior and Commerce.
Once State circulates its decision, the eight other agencies have 15 days to decide whether they agree with it. If even one of those agencies objects, federal law requires the final decision comes from the president, not the State Department.
If that happens, which is possible given EPA’s criticisms of the project’s environmental impact so far, it would intensify the political heat Obama is facing as his administration gears up to make a decision on the pipeline. The project has been wending its way through the regulatory process since September 2008.
Environmentalists say no one in the State Department should be able to make the decision because of recently uncovered e-mails that suggest an overly cozy relationship between the State Department and TransCanada, the Canadian company seeking to build the pipeline. The groups also cite a New York Times story from last week that found the State Department assigned the work of drafting the environmental impact statement to Cardno Entrix, a company whose major clients include TransCanada. The State Department has maintained its environmental review has been fair, unbiased and transparent.
“I think there are a lot of people watching closely to see whether he [Obama] can step up and deal with it,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the environmental groups leading the charge against the pipeline. “It’s clear to me that it’s no longer a decision that should or could be made properly in the State Department. It needs to be made by the president. He needs to step forward and make that decision.”
EPA has been critical of two earlier environmental impact statements the State Department has issued about the project, the initial draft statement issued in April 2010 and a supplemental statement issued in April 2011. The agency said in both instances that the State Department was not adequately addressing concerns about a series of environmental concerns, including pipeline safety, oil spill risks, climate-change effects and potential impacts on wetlands along the pipeline route.
The State Department issued its final environmental impact statement on Aug. 26, 2011, which started the clock ticking on the 90-day review period. EPA has not issued a response to that impact statement, and an agency spokeswoman could not immediately confirm whether or when EPA plans to respond.