State Department Report Acknowledges Climate Change Impacts of Keystone XL

On Jan. 31, the U.S. Department of State published its long-awaited Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline, which acknowledges, for the first time, that the proposed pipeline could contribute to climate change. On Feb. 3, communities and groups across the country organized over 200 local vigils in 44 states and Washington, DC to let President Obama know the risks that the pipeline will bring. The final EIS report does not provide any recommendations on the pipeline but will be used to develop a recommendation from the State Department and in the president's final decision on the pipeline.

Climate Change Impacts

If approved, the pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands, which are more carbon intensive, corrosive, and difficult to clean up than conventional oil, each day from Canada through America's agricultural heartland to Texas.

In the final EIS, the State Department backed away from its previous finding that the pipeline would not result in any significant adverse environmental effects. Instead, the report concluded that "[t]he total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions." The process of extracting and burning tar sands oil creates about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) on a lifecycle basis than average crude oil, according to the report.

The report also concluded that the pipeline would not substantially impact tar sands development because it claimed tar sands would be brought to market with or without the pipeline. (If the pipeline does result in greater use of tar sands, then the environmental risks associated with that expanded exploration could be raised as an issue against approving the pipeline.) This conclusion directly conflicts with oil and gas industry claims that the pipeline is necessary if they are going to be able to increase the use of tar sands for fuel.

"Even though the State Department continues to downplay clear evidence that the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to tar sands expansion and significantly worsen carbon pollution, it has, for the first time, acknowledged that the proposed project could accelerate climate change," says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The climate change findings of the final EIS report could make President Obama's decision on the pipeline more difficult. The president has sought to make his fight against climate change a cornerstone of his second term and stated in a major speech last summer that the pipeline would only be approved if it would not "significantly exacerbate" the problem of carbon pollution. He said the pipeline's net effects on the climate would be "absolutely critical" to his decision.

Threats to Water Resources

The State Department EIS report also provides more details of the public health and environmental dangers associated with the proposed pipeline, recognizing its great risk to water resources. The dangers from tar sands oil were vividly exposed in March 2013 when more than 5,000 barrels of tar sands oil gushed out in Arkansas, forcing residents to flee their homes. In addition, Keystone I, which runs from Canada through Illinois, had 14 reported leaks during its first year of operation between 2010 and 2011. One of the largest spills occurred in North Dakota in May 2011, when 21,000 gallons of crude tar sands leaked from the pipeline, temporarily shutting it down.

The State Department concludes that tar sands spills would present difficult challenges because the tar sands is heavier than water and would sink below the water's surface when spilled. This is unlike conventional oil, which floats on water and is therefore significantly easier to clean up. This submersion would create additional impacts and present challenges to spill responders and local communities. As proposed, the pipeline would cross several major rivers (including the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers) and aquifers that supply millions of Americans with drinking water and irrigate farmland. A large spill could leak into soil and contaminate miles of river and shoreline.

Minimal Economic Benefits

The State Department report has helped further debunk the inflated job creation numbers associated with building the pipeline. The pipeline company, TransCanada, had claimed the project could create 20,000 "direct" jobs, though most of them temporary. No government or academic study has projected such a high number. The State Department's final report estimated that the project would directly create 3,900 temporary construction jobs and only 35 permanent and 15 temporary jobs after construction is complete.

In addition, the State Department concludes that the pipeline's construction would contribute 3.4 billion to the U.S. economy. While this sounds like a significant amount, it only represents a 0.02 percent increase in the nation's gross domestic product. The report also noted that most of the tar sands oil transported through the pipeline would be exported and therefore not have a significant impact on fuel prices in the United States. This confirms what President Barack Obama said in an interview last June:

So what we also know is, is that that oil is going to be piped down to the Gulf to be sold on the world oil markets, so it does not bring down gas prices here in the United States. In fact, it might actually cause some gas prices in the Midwest to go up where currently they can't ship some of that oil to world markets.

Public Reaction

Since the final report's release, activists around the country have organized to let President Obama know about the risks that the pipeline will bring. "No environmental issue in decades has brought—and continues to bring—Americans into the streets in such large numbers," said co-founder Bill McKibben.

Also, on Feb. 3, an alliance of Native American communities promised to block construction of the northern leg of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. "We stand with the Lakota Nation, we stand on the side of protecting sacred water, we stand for Indigenous land-based lifeways which will NOT be corrupted by a hazardous, toxic pipeline," the groups said in a joint statement.

The Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group is comprised of Montana landowners whose property the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would cross. "The release of the final EIS means that it is now time for citizens, especially in the affected states with so much to lose, to speak up and let Secretary Kerry and President Obama know that we do not believe this project to be in the national interest," said Darrell Garoutte, a Northern Plains member in McCone County, MT.

What's Next?

There is a chance that the environmental review will be redone. The State Department will soon release the results of an Inspector General's investigation into whether a conflict of interest was present when State was preparing earlier drafts of the environmental impact statement. Friends of the Earth prompted the inquiry after it obtained documents indicating that the primary contractor for the impact statement, the ERM Group Inc., has financial ties to the company seeking to build the pipeline. If a conflict of interest is found, a new environmental review may be required.

Should the final EIS report stand, the State Department will use it in its national interest review. The department will consider both the environmental and economic impacts of the project, including its effect on the relationship between the United States and Canada, the nation's largest trading partner.

The agency launched the 30-day comment period on the report and the project on Feb. 5, giving the public the opportunity to offer comments to the State Department on whether the pipeline is in the national interest. Federal agencies will have 90 days to submit their comments. The longer comment period for agencies may be important as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been critical of the State Department's previous reviews of the proposed pipeline.

After the comment periods close, Secretary of State John Kerry will deliver his agency's final recommendation to the president on the pipeline. However, it is the president who will make the final decision.

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