WASHINGTON — A long-awaited environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline released Friday by the State Department found the project would have a negligible impact on climate change, bolstering the case for the project as it heads to President Obama for a decision on its construction.
Obama said in June that his main criterion for approving the proposed $7 billion pipeline was that it not significantly worsen the problem of carbon pollution.
Because the northern stretch of Keystone XL, which would carry 830,000 barrels a day from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., would cross a U.S. border, it needs a so-called presidential permit from the State Department. Obama has said he would make the decision.
A senior State Department official was careful to note that the environmental review took no position on whether to approve the pipeline: “Its analysis is only one factor in the final determination, which will also weigh national-security, foreign-policy and economic issues.”
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The report sets up a difficult decision for Secretary of State John Kerry, who will make a recommendation on the project to Obama. Kerry, who hopes to make action on climate change a key part of his legacy, has never publicly offered his personal views on the pipeline.
Federal agencies have 90 days to submit comments about the final assessment, while a 30-day public-comment period runs concurrently.
The president will have to determine whether Keystone XL is in the “national interest” based on those analyses, which will include one from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been critical of the State Department’s previous reviews.
The proposed pipeline has become a symbol of the political debate over climate change. Republicans and some oil- and gas-producing states in the U.S. — and Canada’s minister of natural resources — cheered the report, but it further rankled environmentalists already at odds with Obama and his energy policy.
Foes say the pipeline would carry “dirty oil” that contributes to global warming and express concern about possible spills.
Republicans and business and labor groups have urged Obama to approve the pipeline to create thousands of jobs and move further toward North American energy independence.
The pipeline is also strongly supported by Democrats in oil- and gas-producing states, including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. All face re-election this year and could be politically damaged by rejection of the pipeline. Republican Mitt Romney carried all three states in the 2012 presidential election.
The 1,179-mile pipeline would travel through the heart of the United States to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. It would cross Montana and South Dakota before reaching Nebraska. An existing spur runs through Kansas and Oklahoma to Texas.
Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed regardless of U.S. action on the pipeline, the report said.
The report says oil derived from tar sands in Alberta generates about 17 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming than traditional crude. But the report makes clear that other methods of transporting the oil — including rail, trucks and barges — would release more greenhouse gases than the pipeline.
U.S. and Canadian accident investigators warned last week about the dangers of oil trains that transport crude oil from North Dakota and other states to refineries in the U.S. and Canada. The officials urged new safety rules, cautioning that a major loss of life could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil.
An alternative that relies on shipping the oil by rail through the Central U.S. to Gulf Coast refineries would generate 28 percent more greenhouse gases than a pipeline, the report said.
The oil industry applauded the review.
“After five years and five environmental reviews, time and time again the Department of State analysis has shown that the pipeline is safe for the environment,” said Cindy Schild, the senior manager of refining and oil-sands programs at the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for the oil industry.
However, a top official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the report gives Obama all the information he needs to reject the pipeline.
“Piping the dirtiest oil on the planet through the heart of America would endanger our farms, our communities, our fresh water and our climate,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the group’s international program director. “That is absolutely not in our national interest.”
In Canada, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver welcomed the report and said officials there “await a timely decision” on the pipeline. “The choice for the United States is clear: oil supply from a reliable, environmentally responsible friend and neighbor or from unstable sources with similar or higher greenhouse-gas emissions and lesser environmental standards,” he said.
Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in January 2012, saying he did not have enough time for a fair review before a deadline forced on him by congressional Republicans. That delayed the choice for him until after his re-election.
Obama’s initial rejection went over badly in Canada, which relies on the U.S. for 97 percent of its energy exports. The pipeline is critical to Canada, which needs infrastructure in place to export its growing oil-sands production.
In response, Obama suggested development of an Oklahoma-to-Texas line to alleviate an oil bottleneck at a Cushing, Okla., storage hub. Oil began moving on that segment of the pipeline last week.
The 485-mile southern section of the pipeline operated by Calgary, Canada-based TransCanada did not require presidential approval because it does not cross a U.S. border.
Petroleum producers, meanwhile, have already turned to a solution Obama can’t veto: rail.
Canada’s two largest railroads are increasing Alberta crude shipments and developing new terminals to serve refineries throughout North America.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Canadian railroads handled 160,000 carloads of oil in 2013, up from 500 in 2009.
There are drawbacks to rail. It costs more to ship crude oil by train than by pipeline, and recent fiery derailments in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota have raised alarm over the safety of moving the flammable cargo in trains.
Some environmental groups, meanwhile, said oil-industry influence skewed the State Department’s latest report.
The inspector general is investigating complaints that the State Department’s main contractor on the Keystone report, ERM Group, has a conflict of interest because of its business ties to TransCanada, the company that is seeking to build Keystone.
A State Department official Friday denied the conflict of interest.
“There were very rigorous conflict-of-interest screening guidelines, and we feel very confident there are no issues with this contractor,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones.
Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, Tribune Washington Bureau, The New York Times and The Associated Press.