Keystone Pipeline Saga Still Has Several More Chapters

View of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province, Canada on October 25, 2009. Greenpeace is calling for an end to oil sands mining in the region due to their greenhouse gas emissions and have recently staged sit-ins which briefly halted production at several mines. At an estimated 175 billion barrels, Alberta's oil sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world behind Saudi Arabia, but they were neglected for years, except by local companies, because of high extraction costs. Since 2000, skyrocketing crude oil prices and improved extraction methods have made exploitation more economical, and have lured several multinational oil companies to mine the sands.  
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Nov. 25, 2013, 12:56 p.m.

Settle back in­to your seat and get com­fort­able, be­cause the next rounds in the Key­stone XL pipeline fight are go­ing to re­quire dig­ging in­to doc­u­ments span­ning thou­sands of pages, or at least wait­ing un­til someone else does it for you.

The next two steps in the pro­trac­ted reg­u­lat­ory re­view pro­cess will be the State De­part­ment’s re­lease of two doc­u­ments: the fi­nal en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment and a re­lated in­spect­or gen­er­al’s re­port. The IG for State has been in­vest­ig­at­ing wheth­er any con­flict of in­terest ex­ists between the com­pany that did the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­vir­on­ment­al re­view and Tran­sCanada, the com­pany seek­ing to build the cross-bor­der pipeline from Al­berta to Texas.

Once those two doc­u­ments are re­leased — ex­pec­ted some­time in the next three months — oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies will con­duct nearly four more months of re­view be­fore the ad­min­is­tra­tion makes a fi­nal de­cision on the per­mit. That means the Key­stone XL saga isn’t poised to end un­til the middle part of 2014.

In Septem­ber 2008, Tran­sCanada first sub­mit­ted its ap­plic­a­tion to the State De­part­ment to build the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would send more than 700,000 bar­rels of heavy oil from Al­berta to the Gulf Coast. You might re­call that Tran­sCanada is ac­tu­ally in the middle of the second reg­u­lat­ory re­view pro­cess, since Pres­id­ent Obama re­jec­ted the com­pany’s first ap­plic­a­tion in the face of the GOP-im­posed dead­line in early 2012.

The south­ern leg of the pipeline span­ning 500 miles is al­most com­plete, be­cause it doesn’t re­quire a pres­id­en­tial per­mit. The part still pending for ap­prov­al is runs about 875 miles from the U.S. bor­der with Canada to Neb­raska.

The State De­part­ment is over­due in re­leas­ing its fi­nal en­vir­on­ment­al re­view, which it had ini­tially pro­jec­ted would be re­leased in early fall. While ad­min­is­tra­tions have a habit of re­leas­ing con­tro­ver­sial news around hol­i­days and Fri­days, a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial con­firmed Monday its fi­nal en­vir­on­ment­al re­view is not com­ing this week. We should all be thank­ful for that.

When it does come, it will mean a lot in terms of what dir­ec­tion the ad­min­is­tra­tion is lean­ing for its fi­nal de­cision. The doc­u­ment will be massive and the small parts that mat­ter most will be bur­ied. Spe­cific­ally, you should look for how the re­view eval­u­ates the pipeline’s pro­jec­ted im­pact (or lack there­of) on glob­al warm­ing based on the mark­er the pres­id­ent put down in his speech in June.

“Our na­tion­al in­terest will be served only if this pro­ject does not sig­ni­fic­antly ex­acer­bate the prob­lem of car­bon pol­lu­tion,” Obama said on a steamy sum­mer day at Geor­getown Uni­versity. “The net ef­fects of the pipeline’s im­pact on our cli­mate will ab­so­lutely be crit­ic­al to de­term­in­ing wheth­er this pro­ject is al­lowed to go for­ward.”

His speech shif­ted the pipeline de­bate from one about eco­nom­ics and en­vir­on­ment­al risks squarely in­to glob­al-warm­ing ter­rit­ory.

“It’s all about the im­pact on cli­mate,” said Bill Bur­ton, a former com­mu­nic­a­tions aide to Obama who is now ad­vising the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, which is op­pos­ing the pipeline. “And if we see they make a judg­ment call about wheth­er or not oil will still come out of the ground with or without the pipeline.”

To trans­late Obama’s line in the cli­mate sand in­to a tech­nic­al re­view doc­u­ment, you need to get wonky.

“The thing that mat­ters most is the word ‘ad­di­tion­al­ity,’ ” said Kev­in Book, man­aging dir­ect­or at Clear­View En­ergy Part­ners, a Wash­ing­ton-based non­par­tis­an ana­lys­is firm. “Ad­di­tion­al­ity” isn’t ac­tu­ally a word but a jar­gon term used among cli­mate ex­perts to ex­plain how many more car­bon emis­sions a pro­ject adds re­l­at­ive to the status quo.

The draft en­vir­on­ment­al re­view the State De­part­ment re­leased in March found that Key­stone would in­dir­ectly add up to 830,000 met­ric tons of car­bon di­ox­ide a year — which is a tiny amount com­pared to the 32 bil­lion met­ric tons of glob­al car­bon emis­sions from the en­tire en­ergy sec­tor over­all — by help­ing en­able Canada’s oil-sands de­vel­op­ment. Be­cause of this re­l­at­ive small fig­ure com­pared to the over­all amount of car­bon, the re­view con­cluded that Key­stone “is un­likely to have a sub­stan­tial im­pact on the rate of de­vel­op­ment in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil re­fined in the Gulf Coast re­gion.” This par­tic­u­lar line made en­vir­on­ment­al­ists worry the draft re­view was a sign the ad­min­is­tra­tion was go­ing to green-light the pro­ject.

If the 830,000 fig­ure is much high­er, it could in­dic­ate the ad­min­is­tra­tion is lean­ing less to­ward a fi­nal an­swer of yes than it was be­fore. If it’s lower or about the same, it’s a sign the ad­min­is­tra­tion is headed to­ward yes, still.

The State’s De­part­ment’s ini­tial en­vir­on­ment­al re­view, re­leased all the way back in sum­mer 2011, came to a sim­il­ar con­clu­sion: ” “¦ the over­all con­tri­bu­tion to cu­mu­lat­ive [green­house-gas] im­pacts from pro­posed Pro­ject con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion would not con­sti­tute a sub­stant­ive con­tri­bu­tion to the U.S. or glob­al emis­sions.”

Oth­er than the fi­nal en­vir­on­ment­al re­view, you need to watch for the in­spect­or gen­er­al’s re­port, which is in­vest­ig­at­ing En­vir­on­ment­al Re­source Man­age­ment’s ties to Tran­sCanada in re­sponse to pres­sure from en­vir­on­ment­al groups. The IG has said it will re­lease its re­port early next year, likely in Feb­ru­ary, which means any fi­nal de­cision on the pipeline prob­ably won’t come un­til after that. If the re­port does find con­crete evid­ence of a con­flict-of-in­terest, then this reg­u­lat­ory pro­cess could start all over for a third time.

Book ul­ti­mately pre­dicts Obama will ap­prove the pipeline even it takes more time.

“If you’re go­ing to deny the pipeline, it could have been done already,” Book said. “It takes longer to say yes than no. You need to dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” to say yes and pro­tect your­self from leg­al chal­lenges.”

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