The long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline has cleared a major hurdle toward approval, a serious blow to environmentalists’ hopes that US President Barack Obama will block the controversial project running more than 1,900km from Canada through the heart of the US.
The US Department of State reported no major environmental objections to the proposed US$7 billion pipeline, which has become a symbol of the political debate over climate change.
The report stops short of recommending approval of the pipeline.
Republicans and some oil and gas-producing states in the US — as well as Canada’s natural resources minister — cheered the report. Opponents say the pipeline would carry “dirty oil” that contributes to global warming, and they express concern about possible spills.
The White House said the report is not the final step. A decision will be made only after various US agencies and the public have a chance to weigh the report and other data, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.
“The president has clearly stated that the project will be in the national interest only if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Lehrich said.
State Department approval is needed because the pipeline crosses a US border. Other agencies will have 90 days to comment before Secretary of State John Kerry makes a recommendation to Obama on whether the project is in the national interest. A final decision is not expected before summer.
Republicans and business and labor groups have urged Obama to approve the pipeline to create thousands of jobs and move further toward North American energy independence.
The pipeline would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
The pipeline is critical to Canada, which relies on the US for 97 percent of its energy exports and which needs infrastructure in place to export its growing oil sands production.
Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in January 2012, saying he did not have enough time for a fair review before a deadline forced on him by congressional Republicans. That delayed the choice for him until after his re-election.
The new report says oil derived from tar sands in Alberta generates about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming than traditional crude. However, the report makes clear that other methods of transporting the oil — including rail, trucks and barges — would release more greenhouse gases than the pipeline.
Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed regardless of US action on the pipeline, the report says.
TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling said he was pleased at the latest environmental review, the fifth released on the project since 2010.
“The conclusions haven’t varied. They are the same as before,” he said.
However, a top official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the report gives Obama all the information he needs to reject the pipeline.
“Piping the dirtiest oil on the planet through the heart of America would endanger our farms, our communities, our fresh water and our climate,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the group’s international program director. “That is absolutely not in our national interest.”