Five years after TransCanada Corp. first filed for approval for its Keystone XL pipeline, the country might soon know the answer.
The U.S. State Department last week released its 11-volume final supplemental environmental impact statement on the project. The report did not include a recommendation on whether the pipe should be approved, but it sought to answer many of the questions posed about the plan.
Possibly one of the most important answers in the report addressed the question President Barack Obama raised in June when he said carbon emissions will be “absolutely critical” in his decision on whether to approve the project.
The State Department’s answer as to whether Keystone will lead to increased carbon emissions: Yes, but the alternative likely would be worse.
Over the past week and a half, the answer has been used by both proponents and critics to support their side of the argument.
The report found that Canada’s oil sands generate about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional crude oil.
The Sierra Club and its Beyond Oil campaign have opposed oil in general and Keystone specifically.
“We’re in the business of trying to accelerate the pace at which America gets off oil,” campaign director Michael Marx told The Oklahoman. “We’re basically doing everything possible to make it economically more feasible to transfer to clean energy. That means when we see the third-largest oil reserve in the world in Canada, and we see how environmentally destructive it is there ... that oil is No. 1 on our hit list.”
While the State Department found that Canadian oil development likely will lead to increased emissions, it also stated that oil sands development is likely to continue with or without Keystone XL. If the pipeline is not built, the oil likely will move by rail, ship or both, which would produce 28 percent more emissions than the pipeline, the report stated.
The finding supports the stance of many in the oil and natural gas industry.
“The oil will find a market,” said Jeff Hume, vice chairman of strategic growth at Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources Inc. “I think we would be better served by allowing that to come via pipeline. It takes less energy to move oil down a pipeline than to move it by rail or ship.”
The proposed line would include an access point for Bakken oil in North Dakota to enter the pipeline. Continental is the largest producer in the Bakken.
Continental has endorsed the line, but has said the project is not essential to the company’s operations in the Bakken. Most of the oil in the area today is transported by rail.
“We’re for the pipeline, but if it isn’t built, it will probably help our bottom line because there would not be as much competition at Cushing,” Hume said. “But we’re for open markets and open prices. We think that will help our economy.”
The proposed 875-mile pipeline would extend from Morgan, Mont., to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect to an existing pipeline that leads to Cushing. The Keystone Gulf Coast pipeline from Cushing to the Houston area became operational last month.
The proposed line would transport about 800,000 barrels of oil a day, about 4.2 percent of the country’s daily consumption of about 18.8 million barrels.
1.5 million comments
The State Department report also detailed and answered every question it received from the public.
The agency said it received 1,513,249 emails, letters, cards e-comments and instances of public testimony.
The vast majority — 1,496,396 — of comments were copies of form letters sent from individuals on behalf of trade groups and environmental organizations. The form letters included 76 different standard messages from 38 different entities, including nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and many other groups, the report stated.
An additional 16,853 submissions “were not identified as form letters but rather as unique submissions.”
Altogether, the more than 1.5 million submissions contained 13,548 “unique, substantive comments,” which the State Department addressed point-by-point over more than 1,600 pages.
The comments skewed in favor of the opposition, which represented 57 percent of the correspondence.
While the ongoing five-year process has drawn criticism from all sides for the delay, Oklahoma City University’s Steve Agee praised the way the department handled the comments section of the report.
“Economists always argue for transparency,” said Agee, dean of OCU’s Meinder’s School of Business. “It’s appropriate for the report to answer those questions. People can read the report and understand it and judge for themselves what’s right and what’s not.”
Keystone XL pipeline
•Sept. 19, 2008: TransCanada submits an application to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
•January 2011: TransCanada agrees to adopt 57 project-specific conditions for design, construction and operation of the pipeline.
•Nov. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama announces that no decision on the pipeline will be made until after the 2012 election.
•Dec. 23, 2011: U.S. House and Senate approve a bill requiring approval of the pipeline within 60 days unless the president determines it does not serve the national interest.
•Jan. 18, 2012: Obama rejects TransCanada’s application for a presidential permit.
•Feb. 27, 2012: TransCanada announces plans to proceed with the Gulf Coast pipeline from Cushing to the Houston area.
•May 4, 2012: TransCanada reapplies for a presidential permit.
•Jan. 22: The Gulf Coast pipeline becomes operational.