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.

Nati Harnik/AP
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.

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.

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.”

Obama made global warming a core theme of his State of the Union address last month, in which he urged Congress “to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” but did not mention the Keystone XL project, nor offer specifics about regulation of industries that contribute to carbon pollution.

Following the State Department report, many advocacy groups echoed Michael Brune, executive director or the Sierra Club, who released a statement saying he was “outraged” by the report’s “deeply flawed analysis.”

“We’re mystified as to how the State Department can acknowledge the negative effects of the Earth’s dirtiest oil on our climate, but at the same time claim that the proposed pipeline will ‘not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects.’ Whether this failure was willful or accidental, this report is nothing short of malpractice,” Mr. Brune said.

Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for environmental advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., says the president’s framing of climate change as a “moral issue” in his comments contradicts his administration’s emerging position regarding Keystone XL. “We get this analysis that says ‘don’t worry, it’s going to happen anyway.’ That’s a technical failure and that’s a moral failure,” Mr. Kessler says.

Many groups say they are stepping up their efforts to persuade Obama of what they say are the dire environmental consequences if the pipeline is approved. Kessler says his organization is seeking a meeting with the president so the many climate scientists they work with can make their case for rejecting the pipeline. In May, there will be civil disobedience training for “thousands” of volunteers who plan to stage nationwide public protests in the coming months.

The organization also will be sending teams to follow the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to stage public protests “so if they are in Barcelona, Buenos Aries or Toledo, Ohio … they will hear from people in their face,” Kessler says.

Besides the environmental argument, some say the pipeline proposal is economically flawed. On Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, released a statement calling for a more fine-tuned analysis into how the pipeline will improve gas prices for American consumers.

“The State Department needs to explain how it is in America’s national and economic interests … especially if the pipeline is simply a conduit for oil and refined products to go elsewhere that makes the United States less energy secure and drives domestic gas prices higher,” Sen. Wyden said.

The current Keystone pipeline carries crude from Hardisty, Alberta to markets in Illinois and Oklahoma. The extensions, one connecting Alberta to Steele City, Neb. and a second that connects Cushing, Okla., to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast, will expand TransCanada’s distribution channels for heavy crude oil extracted from tar sands formations in Alberta.

The State Department says a 45-day public feedback process starts Friday. A final decision is not expected until late July or August. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to