By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
The State Department has approved the construction of a multibillion-dollar pipeline from Canadian oil sands to refineries in the United States, prompting an outcry from environmental groups opposed to oil sands development.
Extraction of the oil in Alberta has drawn opposition because it scars vast tracts of land and uses large quantities of energy and water. The projects have contributed to a sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions by Canada, which as a result will not meet its own climate change targets.
"By approving this pipeline, we are committing to another generation of dependence not only on fossil fuels but on the dirtiest, most greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels," said Sarah Burt, an attorney for Earthjustice. "We thought that the Obama administration would walk the walk on this, but it appears that that's not happening."
But the State Department said Houston-based Enbridge's proposed pipeline -- which would extend about 326 miles from the Canadian border near Neche, N.D., to Superior, Wis. -- would promote trade with a friendly neighbor and reduce reliance on oil imports from other nations. Officials added that, within U.S. borders, the line would meet U.S. environmental standards.
"This will advance a number of strategic interests of the United States, including expanding available supplies of energy, also increasing trade with a stable and reliable ally such as Canada, a positive economic signal during a difficult economic period," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who issued the permit Aug. 3, said that concerns about "higher-than-average levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil sands crude" would be "best addressed in the context of the overall set of domestic policies that Canada and the United States will take to address their respective greenhouse gas emissions."
The State Department has permitting authority under executive orders issued in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and in 2004 by President George W. Bush. The environmental group Earthjustice said it would file suit challenging the permit, arguing among other things that Congress has authority over interstate or international commerce.
Environmental groups also said U.S. refineries would have to deal with high levels of toxic chemicals such as mercury, nickel and lead in petroleum from the oil sands.
Michael Levi, author of a Council on Foreign Relations study of the Canadian oil sands, said the biggest environmental issues were in Canada and did not fall under State Department jurisdiction. "The Obama administration made clear that it's not going to go about its climate policy in a crude, blunt way," he sad. "It understands that it needs to work cooperatively in order to achieve its long-term goals."