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Does Keystone XL report let Obama off the hook on climate pledge?

The State Department report on the Keystone XL pipeline does not oppose it on environmental grounds. Critics say this allows Obama to back away from his pledge to combat climate change.

By Staff writer / March 4, 2013

A shack stands along highway 14, several miles north of Neligh, Neb., April 2012, near the proposed new route for the Keystone XL pipeline. The original plans had the pipeline stretching along the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water supply that is the greatest irrigation source for the nation’s farmland, supplying eight states.

Nati Harnik/AP

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A US State Department report released late last week that was noncommittal on the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is galvanizing opponents of the controversial project who say President Obama is backing away from his commitment to combat climate change.

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In the months leading up to a final decision in late summer, the pipeline’s opponents say they plan to use methods ranging from public hearings to civil disobedience to persuade his administration to stop the pipeline from moving forward.

The 1,700-mile pipeline extension, which needs federal approval because it crosses the border between the US and Canada, is a lightning rod issue among environmental groups who say it is dangerous because it will carry oil extracted from Canada’s oil sands region. The harvesting of such oil, they say, produces up to 30 percent more greenhouses gases than does the extraction of conventional crude oil. There are also worries about potential spills from the pipeline, which is planned to traverse much of the nation’s most sensitive agricultural terrain.

Mr. Obama has tabled the decision twice, citing environmental safety concerns in Nebraska, where the original plans had the Keystone XL stretching along the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water supply that is the greatest irrigation source for the nation’s farmland, supplying eight states. The president ultimately blocked the pipeline’s approval in January 2012, which allowed TransCanada, the Calgary-based pipeline operator, to draft a new proposal in May.

Accompanying TransCanada’s proposal to build the pipeline were promises of job creation and improved American energy independence that make blanket opposition to the project more politically costly, perhaps, than approving it.

The State Department report, released late Friday, did not endorse a final decision on the matter. Instead, it concluded that, no matter how the oil is delivered to US markets, including by rail or tankers, the environmental impact from tar sand extraction remains relatively the same.

“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the US. Limitations on pipeline transport would force more crude oil to be transported via other modes of transportation, such as rail, which would probably (but not certainly) be more expensive,” the report read.

The report also says that denying the permit will “likely result in actions by other firms in the United States (and global) petroleum market” to transport the oil through alternative means.

Those conclusions are seen as providing Obama political cover should he approve the project.

The State Department is saying, “we agree with history,” Kevin Book, an energy analyst with ClearView Energy Partners in Washington, told NPR this weekend.

“They’re saying the oil would have gone to market anyway. The facts are the oil is in the ground in Canada isn’t going to stay there if there’s a buyer,” Mr. Book said. “And there is a buyer. The buyer’s here in the US right now, and the oil is coming here by train, by truck and in some cases by barge.”

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