The department will have to conduct one more assessment — of whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in the “national interest” — before making a final permit decision by the end of the year.
The proposed TransCanada pipeline, which could transport as much as 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada’s “tar sands” or “oil sands” fields in Alberta has strained President Obama’s relationship with his environmental base and become a proxy for the broader climate debate. Protesters from across the country have gathered daily in front of the White House since Saturday, resulting in 275 arrests so far.
Oil sands contain a viscous oil called bitumen in formations of sand, clay and water, and to extract it, companies expend more energy and water than they do to tap other crude deposits. Unlike conventional oil drilling, exploiting these resources is more like strip mining and requires tearing up large stretches of forests in northern Canada.
Canada’s environmental ministry issued a reportlast month predicting that tar sands production will double in the next decade, causing greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s oil and gas sector to increase by a third between 2005 and 2020.
“This is the primary test for Obama and the environment in the period between now and the election,” said Bill McKibben, who co-founded the advocacy group 350.org and spent two nights in jail after being arrested Saturday at the protest. “This is his chance to do something on his own, without interference from Congress.”
But the project’s advocates — including United Association general president William Hite, whose union represents plumbers and pipefitters in North America — said it would employ thousands of Americans while supplying oil from a close ally. “It’s a job engine for the country at a time when we need the jobs, and until we do something else, we need the oil,” Hite said in an interview. “I don’t see how we can turn it down.”
In an e-mail, State Department spokeswoman Wendy Nassmacher declined to comment on the Final Environmental Impact Statement beyond saying that it is “scheduled to be released later this month.” But she noted the agency would hold a 90-day public comment period as it began its “national interest” review of the permit application.
“The State Department is committed to a rigorous and transparent process, and we look forward to the public meetings,” she wrote. “Although we expect to make a decision on whether to grant or deny the permit before the end of the year, we will not make a decision until we have completed this thorough review process.”