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EPA Finds Keystone Environmental Impact Statement “Insufficient”

Air Date: Week of
Ann Carlson (photo: University of California at Los Angeles)

The EPA has written to the State Department, criticizing its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. UCLA law professor Ann Carlson joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the criticisms in detail and explain how this might impact the Keystone decision.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Some say the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to bring tar sands crude from Canada would unleash climate disaster - others claim it would provide jobs and energy security. The US State Department has released a draft Environmental Impact Statement that favors the project. But now the US Environmental Protection Agency is calling the State Department analysis "insufficient," saying it downplays the pipeline's likely hazards. UCLA law professor Ann Carlson says the EPA challenges the State Department on a number of key points.

CARLSON: They really have three objections, but I would say one is the key objection and really, really important. And that is, in the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the State Department concluded that the greenhouse gas emissions impact of building the pipeline would not be significant, and that’s not because the extraction of the tar sands that would then be exported through the United States through the pipeline aren’t extremely greenhouse gas intensive, they are. In fact, they are much more intensive than traditional crude oil. The conclusion of the State Department is that if we don't build the pipeline, the oil’s going to get used anyway, and it will be either shipped by train or shipped through another pipeline, perhaps that goes to British Colombia and then is shipped to China. And so their conclusion is, no matter what we do, those emissions are going to be emitted. The Environmental Protection Agency is not so sure about that, in large part because there are estimates that suggest that if you don't have the pipeline the transportation costs of shipping the oil probably by rail are sufficiently higher or could be sufficiently higher then it might make the oil too expensive to actually extract in the first place.

CURWOOD: And what are the other two things the EPA objected to?

CARLSON: The second objection is that the possibility of a spill as a result of the building of the pipeline could result in the release of the kind of oil that’s being shipped that’s particularly environmentally damaging, and that more analysis and attention should be paid to try to minimize those risks. The third problem the EPA identifies is that the State Department hasn’t adequately addressed an alternative route that would avoid going over some of the land in Nebraska that is particularly sensitive and has an important aquifer underneath.

CURWOOD: So how important is the EPA's opinion here? How much of an impact can they have on this decision?

CARLSON: I think the Environmental Protection Agency's opinion is extremely important for two reasons. Most important reason is that the leader of environmental issues in the Obama administration is now saying that the conclusion of the draft Environmental Impact Statement from the State Department is inadequate in the most important respect, and that is their conclusion that the pipeline would not have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions - either wrong or ignoring important information. So as a political matter I think it's extremely important. It's also important legally because the State Department is going to have to change its Environmental Impact Statement - remember this is the draft - to address the concerns of Environmental Protection Agency or it’s going to face a lawsuit suggesting that the Environmental Impact Statement is inadequate with very good support from the Environmental Protection Agency agreeing with that assessment.

CURWOOD: So with all these questions being raised, what do you think the timeline is on the Keystone XL pipeline decision?

CARLSON: I am not certain that this EPA letter significantly slows down the decision-making process because I suspect - although I don't know for certain - that the State Department already has some of this information at its fingertips. The question is now incorporating it into the final Impact Statement. So I think the much more important question is actually not on time; it’s on substance. What is the State Department going to do in response to these criticisms from the Environmental Protection Agency? Will it change the department’s bottom line conclusion that the building of the pipeline does not have a significant environmental impact?

CURWOOD: The Keystone debate is really heating up. On Earth Day, for example, critics gathered over million comments opposing the project. Where do you think this thing might wind up?

CARLSON: Well, I think at the end of the day, this really is a political decision. President Obama made clear in the state of the union that he wanted to do something, as much as he could on climate change to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If he wants to show the world that he’s serious about that, I'm not sure that approving a pipeline that has the potential, at least, to significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions is the symbol he wants to send the rest of the world. It’s a political decision, it’s a symbolic decision, it’s an economic decision, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s letter I think is going to provide good legal and good political arguments about why the pipeline decision ought to be no.

CURWOOD: Law Professor Ann Carlson is Director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA. Thanks for joining us.

CARLSON: Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you.



EPA letter

State Department Draft Environmental Impact Study

Ann Carlson faculty page at UCLA


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