Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline raise banners during a public hearing… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday criticized the State Department's environmental impact review of the Keystone XL pipeline, saying there was not enough evidence to back up key conclusions on gas emissions, safety and alternative routes.
In a letter to top State Department officials, the agency said it had "environmental objections" to their review, which concluded the pipeline would have minimal impact on the environment. The analysis could complicate efforts to win approval for the controversial $7-billion project.
A State Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If approved, Keystone XL would carry crude oil along a 1,700-mile route from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for the pipeline's owner, TransCanada, said, "We have not seen that comment so I can't respond to it specifically."
Environmentalists welcomed the EPA's analysis.
DOCUMENT: EPA reviews Keystone XL
"The Environmental Protection Agency's letter shows that despite multiple tries, the State Department is incapable of doing a proper analysis of the climate, wildlife, clean water, safety and other impacts of this disastrous and unneeded project," said Jim Murphy, the National Wildlife Federation's senior counsel. "President Obama has more than enough information to determine the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in America's national interest and he should reject it."
The EPA's assessment comes during the public comment period for the draft report, a detailed look at the effects of the proposed pipeline on air, water, endangered species, communities and the economy.
The EPA's comments are important because a negative analysis of the final State Department report could raise barriers to the project's approval. The objections could also end up as supporting evidence in litigation against the pipeline if it is approved.
The State Department typically issues permits for pipelines that cross international borders. But because of the Keystone controversy, Obama said he would make the final decision by summer.
The EPA's analysis is the latest step in the protracted review process. Once the 45-day period for public comment closes in mid-May, the State Department will issue a final environmental impact statement. After that, the State Department will have to determine if the pipeline is in the "national interest," a question that has been debated for the last few years between critics and backers of Keystone XL.
Supporters say it would create thousands of jobs and bring in oil that would replace petroleum from hostile foreign countries, including Venezuela. Critics counter that Keystone XL poses great risks to the environment, that it would produce few permanent jobs and that much of the oil would be exported beyond North America.
The EPA letter hammers at the pillars of the State Department's assessment of the project.
The State Department concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from a barrel of much heavier crude extracted from the oil sands would be 17% more than those from a conventional barrel of oil. But the EPA analysis contends that "the difference may be even greater depending on the assumptions made."
Under the EPA's calculation, when the pipeline is running at its full capacity of 830,000 barrels a day, it could add an additional 936 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over 50 years. Such high emissions would severely hamper efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the push to slow climate change.
The EPA also objected to the State Department's conclusion that building the pipeline would not hasten the development of the oil sands. Backers of the project say that the oil will be imported to the U.S. anyway, and that the country should reap the rewards of construction jobs by building the pipeline. Critics of the project assert that without Keystone XL, oil sands development would be badly hampered.
The State Department said oil producers would ship the crude by rail or other pipelines. But other pipeline projects have so far stalled. And while rail is expanding, it is far more expensive to ship oil by rail than through a pipeline. The EPA urged the State Department to reconsider how high rail costs would affect oil sands development.
The EPA has spent the last three years cleaning up a pipeline spill of heavy oil sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The cleanup price has exceeded $1 billion. In its letter, the EPA told the State Department that it had learned that oil sands crude spills "may require different response actions or equipment" than conventional oil. Also, the effects on public health and the environment might be different because the oil sands crude does "not appreciably biodegrade."
The EPA requested that the State Department take such factors into account in demanding a higher level of pipeline safety and spill preparedness from TransCanada.