With environmental concerns put to rest, will Obama finally approve Keystone?

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
Font Size:

On Friday, with Secretary of State John Kerry safely in faraway Ankara, Turkey, the State Department issued its draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) on the proposed Keystone pipeline project. The pipeline would bring oil from an already approved pipeline in Canada, across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, from where it would be transported in existing pipelines to the Gulf Coast for refining. Here’s hoping the secretary gains a better understanding of the issues examined in the four-volume report (building on 10,000 pages of earlier studies) than he apparently has of what he describes as the “elected government” of Iran.

The SEIS examines a wide array of the project’s likely environmental, social and economic impacts. The report is particularly focused on the impacts the project would have on climate change and the development of the crude oil deposits in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) of Alberta, Canada, and the Williston Basin of Montana and North Dakota.

Those issues are closely linked. Although there are greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (said to be a major cause of climate change) that will result from construction and operation of the pipeline, the biggest contributor to GHG emissions would be the development, transportation and ultimate burning of the crude oil still underground in Alberta. Keystone’s opponents contend that abandoning the pipeline and taking other measures designed to reduce the supply of fossil fuels will result in reduced GHG emissions and less climate change.

But the State Department SEIS concludes that “approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.” After examining a “No Action ‘Status Quo’ Alternative,” the State Department concludes that “production and transportation of WCSB and Bakken crude oil would remain unchanged.”

Bill McKibben, the founder and spiritual leader of 350.org, is in high dudgeon. 350.org has organized several protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the country. McKibben and others have managed to get themselves arrested at the White House in what he thinks of as the great tradition of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, in an email sent shortly after the release of the SEIS, McKibben proclaimed that Keystone is “the Stonewall and the Selma of the climate movement.” In the same email he describes Keystone as an “800,000 barrel-a-day fuse to one of the planet’s biggest carbon bombs” and describes the State Department’s findings as “nonsense.”

McKibben calls for volunteers to staff “a team of rapid responders coast-to-coast who can turn around with 24 hours notice and raise a ruckus” whenever and wherever Secretary Kerry or President Obama appears in public. 350.org plans for a massive day of action and training in May to “stick it to the pipeline.” So the president and secretary of state will be under plenty of pressure to nix the project.

The big question: Will President Obama, who has the final say, listen to those who have studied these issues for years, or will he allow himself to be swayed by the unfounded and desperate claims of the pipeline’s opponents? Judging by his conduct over the last several weeks in response to the budget sequester that he originally proposed, there is little reason for optimism. But then again, he does like playing golf with those big-money guys.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.