Friday, January 31, 2014

Keystone XL Clears Environmental Hurdle, but Outcome Far From Certain

The Department of State today issued the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would deliver up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Canada to Nebraska, linking to an existing pipeline that would then make the oil accessible to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.  An initial read of the EIS suggests State is laying the groundwork for the Obama administration to approve the pipeline because the document assesses that the pipeline would not have a significant impact on the climate.  Although we have seen this plenty of times before - an EIS downplays the impacts of a project and signals impending approval - the outcome is far from certain in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline.

An illustration from the EIS that looks like it belongs in a children's book shows the process for ripping up the miles of prairie and badlands to lay the Keystone XL pipeline.
The President claimed in his June 2013 climate speech that he would evaluate whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline based on its overall contribution to the climate crisis; he should instead ask whether the Federal government should facilitate a 5.4 billion dollar investment that makes it easier for companies to profit from an unsustainable and destructive fuel source.  Although the document's "wells to wheels" analysis of the pipeline's impact on greenhouse gas emissions does acknowledge that the pipeline could contribute to an overall increase in these emissions,  that analysis is in a footnote on page 4.14-36 of the EIS.  The EIS primarily lays out the case that the tar sands oil is likely to be extracted from the ground in Canada, distributed and burned via other means, such as rail and trucks, regardless of whether or not the pipeline is built.

What is encouraging is that the President has plainly accepted that the climate crisis is a threat.  What is troubling is that he continues to adhere to an "all of the above" energy policy that does not seem to differentiate among energy sources based on sustainability.  The Department of Interior has opened more public lands to natural gas and coal extraction, and even the administration's solar policy has permitted some of the most poorly sited and destructive renewable energy projects imaginable, such as BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar project.   If we truly believe that we face a climate crisis, and that our wildlands are under unprecedented threat, our policies should prioritize energy efficiency and sustainable renewable energy.  Our transportation investments should favor mass transit, pedestrian and bike friendly cities, and fuel efficient vehicles.  We should not be green lighting the construction of multi-billion dollar oil pipelines.

The President must consider whether his administration should approve further entrenchment in a paradigm that he has already admitted we must abandon, or to affirm his pledge to innovate and switch to a more sustainable path.  Whether or not Keystone XL is found to contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the irrefutable fact is that the pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. An investment of time, money and sweat in an industry that should be rendered obsolete by investments in a smarter path.

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