WASHINGTON — A State Department analysis released Friday largely downplays potential environmental risks facing Nebraska and the rest of the globe from the Keystone XL pipeline.
The report was welcomed by the company behind the long-delayed project but denounced by environmental groups for whom the pipeline’s fate has become a potent symbol of the nation’s willingness to tackle climate change.
State Department officials stressed that the analysis is only a draft, one that will receive intense scrutiny over the course of a 45-day public comment period, including a to-be-scheduled public meeting in Nebraska.
“We’re anxious to get a lot of comments from the public and to have a lot of discussion,” Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said during an afternoon conference call with reporters.
TransCanada Inc. has proposed building a 1,700-mile pipeline to carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Houston area. After concerns were raised, the company altered the pipeline’s planned route to avoid the sandy soils and high water tables of the Nebraska Sand Hills. A 2,000-page analysis of the second route by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality concluded that a pipeline spill would not cause widespread groundwater contamination.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approved the new route Jan. 22, prompting a chorus of pipeline supporters to call for its approval by the U.S. State Department and President Barack Obama. The federal agency has jurisdiction because the pipeline crosses an international border.
Supporters say that the pipeline would provide a needed oil supply from a friendly trade partner and that building it would create jobs. Many conservative politicians, including Nebraska’s congressional delegation, have urged the president to swiftly approve the project.
Environmental groups outside of Nebraska have clamored for the State Department to deny the project, saying the extraction of tar-sands oil consumes massive quantities of energy and water while contributing to the factors behind climate change.
Friday’s federal draft report minimizes some of the primary concerns raised by environmental activists in Nebraska.
It notes that the new route avoids the ecologically fragile Sand Hills region as defined by the State Department and concludes that the project is unlikely to hurt the endangered whooping cranes that migrate through the state every year. It also downplays the risk of pipeline leaks into the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of Nebraska — a primary concern among pipeline opponents.
Analyses of historic spills and groundwater modeling indicated that plumes from large-scale releases would reach about 1,000 feet, according to the report.
“This localized effect indicates that petroleum releases from the proposed project would not extensively affect water quality in this aquifer group,” the report states.
Jane Kleeb, head of Bold Nebraska, the environmental advocacy group that is fighting the pipeline, questioned the science behind the report, saying it was using faulty comparisons and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality modeling, which she described as flawed.
The group also takes issue with the department’s map of the Sand Hills as too narrowly defined.
“The route still crosses the Sand Hills, sandy soils and soils corrosive to the pipe,” she said. “The route still crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, the Niobrara River, the Platte River and over 200 bodies of water in Nebraska alone, as well as countless private family wells.”
TransCanada welcomed the report as an important step forward.
“No one has a stronger interest than TransCanada does in making sure that Keystone XL operates safely, and more than four years of exhaustive study and environmental review show the care and attention we have placed on ensuring this is the safest oil pipeline built to date in the United States,” said Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and chief executive officer.
TransCanada could take particular comfort in the section that found “the project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude refined in the Gulf Coast area.”
Essentially, tar sands oil is coming out of the ground whether or not the pipeline is built, according to the report.
Environmental groups blasted those findings, however. Kleeb said tar sands production is not expanding without this pipeline.
“The State Department’s assumption that tar sands development does not change with or without this pipeline is wrong and simply laughable. Why would TransCanada spend billions on building the pipeline and millions on lobbying unless this piece of infrastructure is the ... linchpin for the expansion of tar sands?” she said.
While pipeline backers were heartened at the substance of the report, some were cautious about the overall implications.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., has been a leading proponent of the pipeline, enough so that it has become a signature issue. He and other pipeline supporters on Capitol Hill have been discussing a new push for legislation requiring approval of the project.
In a statement, Terry noted that the State Department released the same type of environmental reports back in 2010, but the pipeline remained stalled.
“So while I’m pleased to see this process is again moving forward, I have zero confidence that this matter will be resolved in a timely fashion. We’ve been to this rodeo before,” Terry said. “I’ll be watching this process closely.”
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This report contains material from Bloomberg News.