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State Department Sticks Another Fork In Keystone XL Pipeline

As Yogi Berra would say, it ain’t over ’til it’s over, but as far as the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline is concerned, you might as well stick a fork in it: it’s done. Capping off a run of bad news for the ultimate “dirty fuel” project, last Friday the State Department presented a strong indication that its support for the Keystone XL project is in serious jeopardy. Earlier this year, if you may recall, State issued an environmental impact statement favorable to the project, but now our friends over at The Hill have confirmed that the agency’s internal watchdog has launched an investigation into the consultant that prepared the document.

The gist of the inquiry is a conflict of interest alleged by several environmental groups, which uncovered a linkage between the consultant and the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of the oil industry, as well as financial ties to the pipeline developer.

Bad New For The Keystone XL Pipeline

For those of you new to the topic, the Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed pipeline under the ownership of the Canadian company TransCanada. It would transport diluted bitumen (aka dilbit) from tar sands oil fields in Canada down through the heartland of the US, to Gulf Coast refineries for the export market.

state department investigating Keystone XL pipeline EIS

Fork by Mike Dot Mike.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, State Department approval is required, and to that end State commissioned an environmental impact statement (EIS).

Problems with the Keystone EIS bubbled up as soon as it was released, this past March. Though it’s not necessarily unusual for a government agency to have a consultant prepare technical documents, in this case the EIS seemed to go out of its way to paint a rosy picture.

The shortcomings were so egregious that the Department of Environmental Protection contributed a last-minute comment to the public review process, in which it politely but firmly smacked down the EIS for serious flaws in the analysis.

Some sleuthing by Brad Johnson (check out his post on soon revealed that the consultant behind the release, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), was paid by TransCanada, though that information had been scrubbed from the public statement. ERM is also a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, as reported on DeSmogBlog.

It’s worth noting that a similar conflict of interest issue came up at the end of 2011 when TransCanada chose the consulting firm Cardno Entrix for EIS work, an episode at thalso touched off an internal State Department inquiry.

In the latest development, Zack Coleman at reported last Friday that State Department spokesman Doug Welty has confirmed an internal “fact-finding” investigation into the financial ties between ERM, TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute, although the effort has not yet escalated into criminal territory.

If State decides that the EIS requires a re-do, the result could be a crippling delay in the project.

Even More Bad News For The Keystone XL Pipeline

The blow would be even more severe in the context of two other factors involving the Obama Administration. First is the appointment of John Kerry to helm the State Department, which occurred after the EIS was under well way. A longtime environmentalist who has forcefully supported action on climate change, Kerry is also co-author of This Moment on Earth, a book on environmental leaders and activists.

While Kerry’s climate advocacy alone isn’t enough to sink the pipeline, it does mean that a second look at the EIS is all but guaranteed.

The second factor is President Obama himself. After hedging on the pipeline in the runup to the 2012 elections, he came out swinging against the pipeline in a major address on climate change earlier this summer. The Keystone XL pipeline was the only fossil fuel project he named in the 6,000-word speech.

The President followed up in a July 24 New York Times interview, in which he blew up the job-creating argument that Keystone advocates have been pitching.

But Wait, There’s More

With support for Keystone dying on the vine at the top of the Administration, a recent run of bad news related to tar sands oil in general certainly hasn’t helped matters along.

Underscoring the risks of tar sands oil development is a major oil leak and consequent environmental damage in an Alberta tar sands field that has been going on for weeks, with no word yet on how it can be stopped.

A lawsuit by a Michigan brewery has brought renewed attention to the 2010 Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline disaster. According to a new EPA report, the ongoing cleanup will have to continue indefinitely in order to remove oil embedded in sediment. The lawsuit follows on the heels of last spring’s ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Arkansas.

The “hidden” side of tar sands oil refining finally had a dramatic debut on the public stage just last week, when a huge dust cloud rose over Detroit from an improperly stored mountain petroleum coke. Petcoke is a high-sulfur fuel that is a byproduct of the tar sands oil refining process, which piles another layer of fossil fuel pollution on the tar sands oil heap.

Go ahead, stick a fork in it.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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