LINCOLN — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized a federal environmental review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on Monday, saying it was incomplete and failed to fully consider other routes.
The EPA called on the State Department to provide “more detailed information” about why it rejected routes for the 36-inch crude oil pipeline that avoid more of the Ogallala Aquifer, including locating it parallel to a pipeline that crosses eastern Nebraska.
“As we have indicated in the past, we believe these alternative routes could further reduce risks to groundwater resources,” said a letter from the EPA.
The criticism came on the final day for public comments on the State Department's draft environmental analysis of the Keystone XL project, and promised to further complicate the four-year-old process to approve or deny the $7 billion project.
The EPA's letter was praised by opponents of the project, who said President Barack Obama has plenty of reasons to deny federal approval.
“(It) shows that despite multiple tries, the State Department is incapable of doing a proper analysis of the climate, wildlife, clean water, safety and other impacts of this disastrous and unneeded project,” said Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation.
A spokesman for pipeline developer TransCanada, meanwhile, said that the company explored 14 routes for the Keystone XL, and that the route chosen, because it is shorter than the alternatives, would have the least environmental impacts.
“The goal in pipeline construction is to disturb the least amount of land,” said spokesman Shawn Howard.
Routing the pipeline to parallel the smaller Keystone pipeline, he said, would not only increase costs but also increase crossings of streams and rivers, where risks to pipelines are higher, and impact other “sensitive” areas.
“There's no such thing as the perfect route,” Howard said.
The State Department anticipated that it would have to do more work and analysis as a result of public comments about the draft report, said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman for the department.
The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil daily from western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline crosses parts of six states, including Nebraska, where the proposed path was rerouted last year to lessen concerns about possible groundwater contamination.
Howard noted that the Keystone pipeline runs straight north-and-south across eastern Nebraska because it connects to a converted natural gas pipeline in Canada that TransCanada now uses to ship oil. That allowed a direct north-south route to the oil refineries in Texas.
“If we didn't have that first (natural gas) line, the other pipeline would have followed the route we have today,” Howard said of the northwest-to-southeast path of the Keystone XL.
Many pipeline opponents who object to the route have questioned why it cannot be moved farther east to run alongside the Keystone oil pipeline, which went into service in 2010.
The EPA letter indicated that although the new route avoids the fragile soils of the Nebraska Sand Hills, it still crosses over the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest supply of underground water in North America.
Following the route of the existing pipeline “would further reduce the potential for adverse impacts to critical groundwater resources,” wrote Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance for EPA.
The EPA also found the State Department's environmental review “insufficient” in analyzing water contamination if the pipeline leaked the heavy tar-sands oil and the chemicals used to dilute it. Finally, the EPA said the State Department underestimated the influence on global warming from mining and burning the heavy tar-sands oil known as bitumen.
The EPA letter came as the two sides in one of the nation's most hard-fought environmental battles engaged in something of a get-out-the-vote effort.
More than 30,000 Nebraskans, according to one pro-pipeline group, had offered support for building the Keystone XL oil pipeline by Monday. Meanwhile, a leading opposition group, Bold Nebraska, had rounded up 13,000 critical comments by Monday night. More than 800 Nebraskans also pledged to risk arrest to block the project.
Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence said it submitted 33,423 statements in support of Keystone XL to the State Department, which must sign off on the project because it crosses an international border. The organization gathered the comments through social media outlets and phone calls, said Barry Rubin of Omaha, spokesman for the group.
Credo, a mobile phone company that uses profits to fund liberal activism, said Monday that about 60,000 people have pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience to stop the pipeline, said Becky Bond, the group's political director. That number includes 830 Nebraskans, she added.
The State Department's preliminary analysis said Canada's oil reserves will be developed regardless of whether the pipeline is approved. The report also indicated that the pipeline's threat to water supplies would be relatively negligible.
The State Department now moves on to completing a final environmental assessment before giving other federal agencies up to 90 days to weigh in on whether the project is in the national interest. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will then make a recommendation to Obama on whether to grant a permit to the project
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