April 23, 2013

Blistering Comments on State's Draft Keystone XL Environmental Impact Statement

Monday was the deadline for public comment on the State Department's draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Mine, which I submitted with the support of two of my University of Nebraska colleagues, are here. The State Department had initially announced that it would take the unusual path of refusing to make all of the comments available to the public absent a Freedom of Information Act request, but after a storm of criticism, the Department has reversed its decision to play hide and seek and now promises to post them all on a website.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has released its comments, which are extremely critical of the State Department's analysis of the project's effect on climate change and its failure to consider alternative pipeline routes that avoid critical water resources. The EPA's comments, together with the outpouring of opposition from environmentalists and others, could well carry the day on the merits, persuading the President to reject the project as contrary to the national interest. At minimum, they will serve as fodder for subsequent litigation against the construction of the pipeline, if it's approved.

The EPA is hardly alone in its criticism. In my comments, I focused on several problems with the State Department's analysis. I write that the draft EIS failed to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that requires federal agencies to evaluate the harmful environmental consequences of their actions and to consider ways to carry out those actions so that they mitigate or avoid such consequences.

For example, the draft EIS concludes that the pipeline will produce “no substantive change in global greenhouse gas emissions.” I write,

By failing to scrutinize the cumulative, long-term impacts of tar sands development, the EIS fails to comply with the regulatory requirements for a thorough analysis of both direct and indirect effects of the proposed pipeline. There is a clear connection between the pipeline and the tar sands development. Indeed, Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford has made her four trips to Washington in the past 18 months in an effort to make her case that the pipeline is of “pivotal importance” to the future of North American energy security and independence…

An adequate EIS would thoroughly analyze the following impacts, along with less environmentally destructive alternatives.

  • According to the industry’s own analysis of carbon emissions, the pipeline will carry and emit 181 million metric tons of CO2 every year. That is comparable to the emissions from 51 coal plants or 37.7 million cars.
  • Tar sands pollute far more than conventional oil—27 million more metric tons of CO2, according to the U.S. EPA—due to the way in which it burns and the energy required to extract it. Exploiting and transporting oil from the tar sands will cause 17 percent more carbon emissions than regular oil.
  • Petcoke, a byproduct of the tar sands refining process, is exported for use as a cheap substitute for coal. This practice encourages more fossil fuel burning for energy production, and therefore more carbon emissions. The State Department’s EIS does not acknowledge this aspect of the proposal.

The pipeline would also pose the risk of grave damage to a unique and extraordinary resource, Nebraska's High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer. The aquifer sustains agriculture throughout the Great Plains, which in turn provides food for the world (in fact, 27 percent of all U.S. irrigated farmland depends on the Ogallala).  It provides 82% of the drinking water for the residents of Nebraska and a half-dozen other states.  But it's a fragile resource. The pipeline, despite a much touted rerouting, still goes over the aquifer, and, as I write,

still poses a significant threat of contamination to the groundwater and to the soils, wetlands, and habitat above it. Transportation of diluted bitumen through the pipeline will likely result in catastrophic impacts from spills to rivers, streams, and the Ogallala Aquifer, as demonstrated by the recent spill of tar sands oil from the Exxon Pegasus pipeline into Lake Conway, Arkansas. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry nine times more diluted bitumen than the Pegasus, creating the potential for even more catastrophic results than experienced in Arkansas. 

As the EPA noted in its comments, it has learned a good deal about pipeline spills of oil sands crude from its work cleaning up such a spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan — a $1 billion-plus effort. EPA writes that such spills "may require different response actions or equipment" than do spills of conventional oil. It also notes that the environmental and public health effects of such spills could be different than for conventional oil spills because oil sands crude does "not appreciably biodegrade."

In the end, the State Department's essential task here is to decide whether the pipeline serves the national interest. Even with its failings, the EIS makes clear that it's not. Let's hope the President agrees.

Sandra Zellmer, CPR Member Scholar; Robert Daugherty Prof. of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law. Bio.

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