The Environmental Protection Agency again raised concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline this week, calling the State Department's analysis of potential risks "insufficient." But despite the high-profile snub, does the EPA's opinion have any bearing on whether the pipeline finally moves towards construction or is destined for more delays?
According to some opponents of the pipeline, it means the world. Although the approval of the 1,179-mile pipeline – which would bring crude oil from Canada's oil sands region to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico – ultimately remains in the State Department's hands, other government agencies can add their two cents to the ongoing debate, forcing President Barack Obama to play peacemaker and make the final call.
The statement from the EPA opens that door and could lead to more delays, which is giving pipeline critics a confidence boost when it comes to derailing construction plans.
"It's importance cannot be overstated," Anthony Swift, international program attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters on a conference call. "The State Department and the administration have made it clear they intend to run a rigorous process using the best scientific evidence available," Swift said. "They can't do that by ignoring the findings of EPA, which has the most expertise in environmental reviews."
The draft environmental statement issued by the State Department at the end of February indicated that constructing the pipeline would have little impact on climate change, largely because the oil from Canada's oil sands region would be extracted with or without the pipeline. But, in a statement released Monday, the EPA suggests that the State Department's assessment might have underestimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the 830,000 barrels of oil that would move through the pipeline daily. It also raised concerns about the route and the potential for oil spills, despite assurances by pipeline operator TransCanada that the project is outfitted with state-of-the-art safety features.
These objections "give the State Department the opportunity to delay things because they could say, 'Gee, maybe we do need to look at those things,'" says Dan Kish, senior vice president at the Institute for Energy Research.
For those closely following the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, the latest EPA statement might seem like deja vu. In April 2010, the agency sharply criticized the State Department's first draft environmental impact statement, arguing that it didn't fully take the environmental impact of the pipeline into account.
TransCanada responded to the EPA's concerns Tuesday by reaffirming the State Department's initial findings in its most recent draft environmental impact statement.
"The State Department's [draft environmental impact statement] has again correctly concluded that the project will have no significant impacts to the environment," Shawn Howard, spokesman for TransCanada, said in a released statement. "Nothing in the EPA letter undermines the validity of that conclusion. TransCanada will continue to respect the State Department's ongoing process and will work to address any remaining questions that the department may have."
But enduring another round of questions and concerns from government agencies might not be all that's in store for TransCanada, as the drama continues to unfold. Even if the State Department goes ahead with approval for the pipeline, those opposed to the project could still file lawsuits attempting to halt construction.
"Litigation on this project was probably coming anyway, but the EPA provided more sound footing for these lawsuits," Nick Loris, energy policy analyst at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said in an email.