U.S. EPA raised significant concerns today with the environmental effects of a controversial $7 billion pipeline proposal, emboldening the plan's critics and upping the ante for political clashes over Canadian oil sands crude that risk derailing the project for good.
Green groups and other foes of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would nearly double U.S. imports of Canadian oil sands crude if approved, had looked to EPA for the strongest possible judgment of a supplemental environmental review released by the State Department in April. Those hopes were mostly answered in a letter unveiled today that rates State's extra review as "insufficient" and asks for more analysis of the emissions, environmental justice and safety impacts of the pipeline.
In her letter to State, EPA enforcement chief Cynthia Giles pointed to last year's 800,000-gallon oil spill in Michigan in seeking more data on the chemical diluents added to the Canadian crude before its transport in the pipeline -- substances whose identity could be considered "proprietary information," according to the April environmental review.
"We believe an analysis of potential diluents is important to establish the potential health and environmental impacts of any spilled oil, and responder/worker safety, and to develop response strategies," Giles wrote.
That reference to the 2010 pipeline rupture in Michigan aligns EPA with some of Keystone XL's most vocal opponents, one of whom contended today that the pipeline is "the next Deepwater Horizon disaster in the making."
"These [diluents] are going to end up affecting the safety of our communities and the safety of our water and wildlife habitats -- we have the right to know what's in them," added the National Wildlife Federation's senior vice president, Jeremy Symons, today regarding the chemicals added to the oil in Keystone XL.
"The only question before the Obama administration is whether this pipeline is in the national interest," Symons said. "If [Keystone XL's sponsor] won't even tell us what chemicals are in this pipeline, they shouldn't get that permit."
The company aiming to construct the 1,700-plus-mile pipeline, Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp., challenged conservationists' arguments that Canadian oil sands crude presents a steeper safety challenge than other fuels now refined in the United States.
"We do not add anything to the crude oil," TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha noted via email, pointing to third-party analyses that found sulfur, vanadium and nickel present in Canadian crudes in comparable amounts to Venezuelan, Nigerian and Alaskan counterparts.
"We are still evaluating all of the many additional issues that the EPA letter raises for [State] and we will continue to work with [State] as it proceeds," Cunha added.
In addition to the questions about chemical diluents in the proposed pipeline, Giles of EPA also asked State to expand its review of how Keystone XL would affect lower-income areas near Gulf Coast refineries -- the ultimate destination of its oil sands crude -- and wetlands along its six-state route southward.
With respect to the hot-button debate over the increased carbon emissions generated by oil sands crude compared with conventional fuels -- a difference that pipeline supporters describe as minimal but critics paint as much higher -- EPA asked State to consider mitigation measures that could trim Keystone XL's greenhouse gas footprint.
"We appreciate your agreement to identify practicable mitigation measures" for the pipeline, including the use of "green power" at its pumping stations and offset work on the Canadian side of the border, Giles wrote to State.
In a separate summary of its comments, EPA wrote that "progress has been made in responding" to its objections to the review of Keystone XL, suggesting that the final environmental impact statement from State could take some of the wind out of green groups' sails. But Symons and his fellow anti-pipeline campaigners took heart in State's announcement that a half-dozen public meetings would be held in areas affected by the Keystone XL before the release of a final permitting decision.
"We ask that if it is going to be done, it is done right," Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, told reporters today. "So far, the State Department has not done it right."
Click here to read a copy of EPA's comments to State concerning Keystone XL.