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Center for Biological Diversity:
No Keystone XL 

Bloomberg Business, January 30, 2015

EPA Critique Buoys Keystone Critics After Congress Backs Project
By Jim Snyder and Mark Drajem

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will file a response to a federal study of the Keystone XL pipeline released a year ago, raising the hopes of critics who argue the findings understated the project’s climate risks.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency will weigh in on the State Department review that largely blessed Keystone. The cross-border pipeline has become a flashpoint in a fight pitting energy development against environmental protection.

President Barack Obama has vowed to reject the pipeline if it’s found to worsen climate change.

“This EPA letter could be the path for Obama in deciding he doesn’t want this project,” said Bill Snape, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group critical of Keystone. “If the president is going to reject this pipeline, you would expect to see some reasoning for it in the EPA letter.”

The pipeline, which would cross three states then connect in Nebraska to a link leading to the Texas coast, has divided the Congress in a debate over energy and climate that analysts say outstrips its relevance to either. The Senate Thursday joined the House to pass legislation that would approve the project without waiting for Obama’s decision, a measure he says he will veto.

McCarthy said the EPA may also submit a comment for the State Department review that will determine if the pipeline is in the national interest. Eight federal agencies have until Monday to weigh in.

Political Cover

John Northington, a former Interior Department official who advises both industry and environmental clients, said a negative EPA review could offer Obama additional political cover to reject a project that polls suggest more Americans support than oppose.

“If they end up doing it, it’s by design, the administration wants them to go out there and criticize it,” Northington said in a phone interview.

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. applied to build Keystone in September 2008, though it submitted a new route in 2012 after objections from Nebraska officials to the original path.

The Republican-led Senate on Thursday passed 62-36 legislation approving Keystone. Obama has pledged to veto the legislation because it would circumvent his administration’s review. Supporters concede they don’t have the two-thirds majority to override a veto.

Global Warming

While Obama has said Keystone offers few benefits to U.S. consumers, he hasn’t said he’ll block the project. He said he’ll reject it if the pipeline would contribute significantly to global warming. The State Department analysis last year said it probably wouldn’t.

The EPA challenged a draft State Department environmental analysis on Keystone. In an April 2013 letter, the agency said the draft needed more extensive study of the climate risks and additional mitigation efforts in the case of a spill.

The EPA said emissions tied to Keystone would add 18.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

The State Department responded with its own range -- from 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year compared with four other types of crude. The agency also concluded that the oil would be developed with or without the pipeline, further diminishing it’s climate impact.

Emissions Impact

And while the final report repeated the basic conclusion in a draft -- that Keystone wouldn’t have a significant impact on emissions -- the analysis also included a scenario under which the effects could be greater.

Alberta oil producers may need the cheaper option of a pipeline like Keystone, compared with the more expensive methods of transporting crude by rail, should oil fall below $75 a barrel. The State Department analysis said the scenario was unlikely. Since then, oil has slipped below $50 a barrel, to the lowest in almost six years.

“We’re definitely looking forward to what EPA has to say, given the low oil prices and the serious questions they’ve raised in the past,” said David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International, a group pushing alternatives to oil.

The EPA also listed environmental mitigation requirements the State Department should impose as a condition for TransCanada winning a permit to build Keystone.

Spill Responsibilities

The State Department added some of those, such as more explicit language stating TransCanada would be responsible for cleaning up a spill that polluted potable groundwater and providing fresh water to people affected.

Northington said the administration may end up adding conditions to reduce the environmental risks that may make construction unfeasible.

Lowell Rothschild, a Washington-based environmental litigator at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said the EPA’s decision to weigh in on the final report probably indicates that isn’t fully satisfied with the State Department’s work.

“It’s more likely than not that they have remaining concerns,” Rothschild said in a phone interview.

That said, a conciliatory reply from the agency may signal Obama is ready to OK the long-delayed application, he said.

Critics of Keystone argue it isn’t in the national interest, in part because it would promote development of the oil sands, which are more carbon intensive than other fossil fuels. Supporters say it would jobs and increase U.S. energy security.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton