The US Department of State on Friday raised no major objections to the Keystone XL (KXL) oil pipeline and said other options to get the oil from Canada to US gulf coast refineries are worse for climate change.
The latest environmental review stops short of recommending approval of the project, but the review gives the administration of US President Barack Obama political cover if it chooses to endorse the pipeline in spite of opposition from many Democrats and environmental groups. State department approval of the 2,735km pipeline is needed because it crosses a US border.
The lengthy report says Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed, regardless of whether the US approves Keystone XL, which would carry oil from western Canada to refineries in Texas. The pipeline would also travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The report acknowledges that development of tar sands in Alberta would create greenhouse gases but makes clear that other methods to transport the oil — including rail, trucks and barges — also pose a risk to the environment.
The US Department of State was required to conduct a new environmental analysis after the pipeline’s operator, Calgary-based TransCanada, changed the project’s route though Nebraska. The Obama administration blocked the project last year because of concerns that the original route would have jeopardized environmentally sensitive land in the Sand Hills region.
The administration later approved a southern section of the pipeline, from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Texas coast, as part of what Obama has called an “all of the above” energy policy that embraces a wide range of sources, from oil and gas to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
The pipeline plan has become a flashpoint in the US debate over climate change. Republicans and business and labor groups have urged the Obama administration to approve the pipeline as a source of much-needed jobs and a step toward North American energy independence.
Environmental groups have been pressuring the president to reject the pipeline, saying it would carry “dirty oil” that contributes to global warming. They also worry about a spill.
Industry groups and Republicans hailed the report, saying the Obama administration was moving closer to approving Keystone XL, which has been under consideration since 2008.
“No matter how many times KXL is reviewed, the result is the same: no significant environmental impact,” said Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry.
The report “puts this important, job-creating project one step closer to reality,” Durbin said.
Environmentalists blasted the report.
“This analysis fails in its review of climate impacts, threats to endangered wildlife like whooping cranes and woodland caribou, and the concerns of tribal communities,” said Jim Lyon, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
“By rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, President Obama can keep billions of tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution locked safely in the ground,” he added.
The draft report begins a 45-day comment period, after which the department will issue a final environmental report before US Secretary of State John Kerry makes a recommendation about whether the pipeline is in the national interest.
Kerry has promised a “fair and transparent” review of the plan and said he hopes to decide on the project in the “near term.” Most observers do not expect a decision until summer at the earliest.
Canadian Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver said on Friday that Canada will respect the US review process and noted the importance of the pipeline to the Canadian economy.
“Canada’s continued prosperity will be determined by our ability to diversify markets for our energy products,” Oliver said.
Obama’s initial rejection of the pipeline last year went over badly in Canada, which relies on the US for 97 percent of its energy exports.