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EPA Slams State Department on Proposed Oil Pipeline

White House could intervene as environmental security takes equal place next to energy security as national concern

By David Sassoon

Jul 27, 2010

To extract the oil from the sand requires three barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced; it leaves behind toxic liquid tailings that are collected in ponds lethal enough to kill birds that land on them, which now sprawl over more than 150 square kilometers of territory; and extraction by itself produces three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil pumped up from a well.

The yield from the messy mining process is a tarry crude that can be turned into gasoline. Even though the biggest customers are Americans in their guzzling autos, the tar sands, as they are also known, have remained largely outside popular awareness and media attention in U.S. It looks like that is starting to change.

Not worth mining at any great scale until recent decades, the inferior grade fuel has now come to provide the largest portion of oil entering the U.S. from Canada, America's largest foreign supplier since 2004. It is projected to provide 30% of US needs by 2030 -- all from a friendly, mostly English-speaking neighbor. It is a welcome prospect inside the State Department, wrestling with terror and responsible for keeping the nation supplied with oil as a matter of national interest.

Expected Rubber Stamp Now Up in the Air

At the start of the year, most observers thought approval would be rubber-stamped by the State Department, which has jurisdiction over issuing the trans-border permit for the pipeline.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not hesitate to give approval for another oil sands pipeline, known as the Alberta Clipper, in August 2009, which . There was no reason to believe that anything would be different with the new pipeline.

The April 20th Deepwater Horizon explosion and three months of oil leaking into the Gulf has unquestionably changed the rules of engagement.

In the face of the ongoing Gulf catastrophe and under pressure from environmentalists, the State department announced in mid-June that it would extend the public comment period on the proposed pipeline by two weeks until July 2nd, and added two public hearings scheduled for this month. It will use the public input to develop a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but the process is suddenly no longer in for smooth sailing. 

First, 50 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Clinton urging her to carefully scrutinize the significant environmental impact of the pipeline and grabbed some headlines, unusual for the oil sands, which rarely get U.S. attention

Then in mid-July, the EPA sent the State Department a lengthy critique of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) of the Keystone XL project, and gave it the lowest possible rating -- Inadequate Information. It suggested that the matter might be worth kicking upstairs to the White House and its Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), headed by Nancy Sutley.

"As with all projects that have not addressed potentially significant impacts," the EPA letter from Cynthia Giles to the State Department said, "this proposal is a potential candidate for referral to CEQ."

Powerful Environmental Provision

According to a CEQ source, who spoke with SolveClimate News without authorization and so cannot be identified, noting the possibility of a referral to the White House is something routinely done whenever an environmental impact statement receives an adverse review, which happens only about once a year.

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