Route uncertainty, public comments at heart of Keystone XL delay

18 April 2014 22:00 Source:ICIS News

Route uncertainty, public comments at heart of Keystone XL delayHOUSTON (ICIS)--Uncertainty about the route of the proposed northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, as well as an “unprecedented” number of public comments, have led the US State Department to delay its recommendation on whether the project is in the nation’s interest, senior department officials said on Friday.

The State Department is extending the time period for federal agencies to submit their viewpoints on the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil sands product from Canada down to refiners on the US Gulf Coast.

The long-delayed 1,179-mile (1,897km) northern leg of the Keystone XL project, which crosses the Canada-US border, has yet to be approved by the US government. The project’s southern leg from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the US Gulf Coast is in operation.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as the departments of Defense, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Energy and Homeland Security had been working with an early May deadline to submit their feedback on the project, senior State Department officials said on Friday.

But that timeline has changed due to a Nebraska district court decision in February that sided with affected land owners who claimed that the law enabling Keystone XL to be routed through the state was unconstitutional.

The law allowed for the use of compulsory land purchases. Nebraska’s government approved a revised route for the project last year. 

The case will be taken up by the Nebraska Supreme Court and could lead to a change in the pipeline’s route, which could affect the previously completed environmental impact analysis and lead to the need for a new study, senior State Department officials said.

“We are prudently recognising that the facts that the agencies need could change,” one official said.

No timeline for a decision regarding Keystone XL was given by the State Department, other than it would come sometime after the effects, if any, of the Nebraska Supreme Court decision are known.

Work will continue among the federal agencies while it awaits the court’s decision, including sifting through 2.5m public responses on whether the project is in the national interest.

The overwhelming response is “unprecedented” for such a project, the department said, with a senior official saying that pipeline projects typically only garner about 100 responses during their public commenting period.

Reacting to the State Department’s timeframe extension, American Petroleum Institute (API) president Jack Gerard called on Congress to act instead.

“It’s a sad day for America’s workers when politics trumps job creating policy at the White House,” said Gerard. “After nearly six years of review, repeated research on the pipeline’s benefits to economic security and job growth, numerous studies confirming no significant environmental impacts, with the backing of organised labour and poll after poll showing the support of American voters – if the White House lacks the political leadership to make a decision, we call on Congress to represent the will of the people and act.”

Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), called the extension “politically motivated” and likely pushing the decision until after the 2014 congressional elections.

“Delaying a decision until after the November elections is bad public policy,” Drevna said. “President [Barack] Obama could have decided today to allow the pipeline, which has already been extensively studied and found to have little to no impact on the environment, but would greatly enhance our national security, create thousands of immediate jobs and grow local, state and federal tax revenue. Instead he chose to put politics ahead of America’s security, the economy and consumers.”

Meanwhile, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called Friday “a good day because it means more dirty tar sands crude stays in the ground where it belongs”.

“The president said that he would not approve Keystone XL if it contributed significantly to climate disruption, and it is certain that it will,” said the leader of the environmental organisation. “The longer we wait the more clear it becomes: The pipeline is not in the nation's best interest.”  

TransCanada, the owner of the Keystone XL, did not immediately return a request for comment.

But the company’s CEO, Russ Girling, was contacted by the State Department on Friday to be apprised of the agency’s decision, a senior department officials said.

In January, the State Department issued a favourable environmental impact report about Keystone XL.

TransCanada has said it could complete the project within two years following final US approval.

By Jeremy Pafford