The U.S. State Department is about to release its long-awaited report on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would connect the Alberta Oil Sands to the gulf of Mexico. If you think it’s time to break out the shovels, this is not the Keystone decision that you think it is.
The environmental impact report says the pipeline won’t greatly boost oil sands or have a significant climate impact, according to congressional aids briefed on the study who spoke to Bloomberg News. It calls for additional safety measures to prevent and deal with spills, but it’s generally being received as a thumbs up for the project. Whether you find yourself disappointed or delighted, the Keystone fight is far from over. Here are three of the biggest hurdles that remain:
Hurdle 1: More Government Reviews
Today’s report will start a 90-day clock for eight U.S. federal agencies to weigh in. That includes the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, which have both expressed reservations about the pipeline in the past. It was the EPA’s objections to the State Department’s draft assessment in March that prompted this new report in the first place. If the EPA objects again, it will pressure the final referee, President Barack Obama, to make a tough call.
Hurdle 2: Contractor Controversy
Today’s assessment was conducted by Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a U.K. company that environmentalists later criticized for potential conflicts of interest. The scrutiny is about to get heated.
Two environmental groups, Friends of the Earth and the Checks and Balances Project, accused ERM in July of lying about its ties to TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that wants to build the pipeline. Specifically, they charged that ERM claimed not to have worked with TransCanada for at least three years, when in fact they had worked together more recently on a pipeline project in Alaska.
The allegations are being investigated by the State Department’s Inspector General. In December, 25 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Obama asking for the final impact study to be delayed pending the outcome of that probe. That didn’t happen, but the conflict, if true, could conceivably lead to a do-over, which is not without precedent.
Hurdle 3 (the big one): The President’s Pen
Ultimately, this decision is for Obama to make. The State Department’s assessment is just one of many things he’ll need to consider, including pressure from his political base, public opinion, opinions of other scientific advisors, relations with Canada and energy security.
The Keystone report is a Friday afternoon news dump of Super Bowl proportions. By Sunday, even many Americans who oppose Keystone will be more concerned with the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks than the Canadian tar sands. Maybe that’s just as well, because the real Keystone decision is yet to come.