With the public comment period for the State Department's draft environmental statement drawing to a close, debate over the approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline has started heating up again, not least because of two recent spills involving Canadian crude oil.
Although the Obama administration seems to be leaning toward approving the pipeline, according to experts, navigating the political climate surrounding the issue promises to be difficult, especially with the president's comments about stemming the progress of climate change.
"The politics of this are tough," Obama said at a recent fundraiser.
Here's a breakdown of what's at stake when it comes to greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline:
First off, what exactly is this pipeline?
The much-loved (or much-maligned, depending how you look at it) Keystone XL pipeline includes two main stretches: the 1,179-mile northern leg and the 485-mile southern leg. Together, the two sections would transport oil from Canada's oil sands region to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The construction of the southern leg—which connects oil-hub Cushing, Okla. to the Gulf Coast—is already underway and could be finished as early as the end of 2013. The pipeline would have a total capacity of about 830,000 barrels of oil per day, according to some estimates.
So who's onboard with the pipeline, and who wants to put the kibosh on it?
On one end of the spectrum sits the president's own party, many of his supporters and environmentalists who argue the pipeline would delay the nation's progress toward using more renewable energy and less fossil fuels.
Opponents also say the pipeline would encourage the development of Canada's oil sands, a low-quality product that requires an energy-intensive process to extract the crude oil. According to some estimates, producing a barrel of oil sands crude emits about 15 percent more greenhouse gases than conventionally produced oil.
There is also concern that any spills along the pipeline's route could result in catastrophic damage to the surrounding areas. Critics pointed to two spills last week – one in Arkansas and one in Minnesota – that dumped thousands of gallons of Canadian crude oil, forcing the evacuation of almost two dozen homes.
But proponents say if the oil doesn't flow through the United States, it will go abroad to countries like China. Moreover, the pipeline is supposed to create jobs. Lots and lots of jobs.
How many jobs?
Supporters say the project could ultimately create 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, while some critics have estimated a paltry dozen or so. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The State Department has estimated between about 5,000 and 6,000 jobs would be created.
Why is it taking so long for this to be approved?
Apparently there are a lot of boxes to check off when you're trying to build a multi-billion-dollar trans-border oil pipeline. For starters, the northern leg crosses the U.S/Canada border, so it needs the State Department's stamp of approval to move forward. To grant the permit, the State Department has to review a bunch of things including if constructing the pipeline could harm the environment and if the pipeline is in the nation's best interest.
The whole process started four years ago, but screeched to a halt in early 2012 after President Barack Obama vetoed the permit on the grounds that the analysis of the pipline's potential environmental impacts wasn't thorough enough.
Taking environmental concerns into consideration, TransCanada—the Calgary-based pipeline operator—revised the route, skirting Nebraska's fragile Sand Hills region, a major point of contention with the original route. After Gov. Dave Heineman, R-Neb., approved the new route, the State Department released its most recent draft environmental impact statement, which determined if the environmental impacts of building and operating the pipeline were manageable.
The comment period in which the public and other interested parties can pipe up and send their two cents about the project is almost up – the State Department will take those comments into consideration when finalizing the environmental impact statement and then conduct a national interest evaluation to determine whether the pipeline is in the nation's public interest.
The final decision on the pipeline is expected as early as late summer.