OIL AND GAS:

State Department to release final review of Keystone project next month

The State Department said today that its final environmental review of the politically volatile Keystone XL pipeline plan is slated for release next month, opening a 90-day window for other agencies to weigh in and potentially refer the issue to President Obama's desk.

The $7 billion Keystone XL line, which would nearly double U.S. imports of crude from the Canadian oil sands if it wins a permit from the State Department, is driving increasingly fierce lobbying on Capitol Hill and public questions in the six states that it would cross en route to the Gulf Coast. House Republicans are set to shine a still-brighter spotlight on XL by taking up a bill next week that would commit the State Department to a final ruling by Nov. 1.

Daniel Clune, a top official in State's international environmental and scientific affairs bureau, told reporters today that the House legislation is "unnecessary" from his department's perspective, "since we've already committed publicly to finishing this process by the end of the year, which is 60 days after November 1."

According to the time frame Clune outlined today, agencies such as the Energy Department or U.S. EPA -- which in April aired several concerns with the State Department's second round of environmental review of the pipeline -- would have 90 days following its August announcement to weigh in with their comments. Any federal agency could then move to refer the Keystone XL permit to the White House, a step that green groups undoubtedly considered when planning high-profile civil disobedience on Pennsylvania Avenue next month (Greenwire, June 23).

After the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on Keystone XL is unveiled, State plans to hold public meetings in the capitals of the six states affected by the project as well as in the Capitol, in the refinery-rich Texas city of Port Arthur and in the Nebraskan Sandhills. That ecologically vital region has become the locus of grass-roots opposition to the pipeline, which conservationists argue could put Nebraska's water supply at risk in the event of a rupture or leak.

"There is no rush for an artificial deadline of the end of the year if we do not have analysis that will help protect farmers and communities along the pipeline path and the already beleaguered communities around the Gulf Coast refineries," Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Enternational Program Director Susan Casey-Lefkowitz wrote in a blog post today that slammed the pipeline as failing "to fit in a clean energy economy."

Damon Moglen, climate director at Friends of the Earth, echoed that sentiment in a statement that blasted the State Department's timetable as "a foolhardy rush to judgment" in light of the recent pipeline rupture in Montana's Yellowstone River (E&E Daily, July 21).

NRDC, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups have ratcheted up their bid to derail the XL permitting process in recent months, an advance that mirrors the House GOP move to weigh in on the pipeline via legislation. The public briefing led by Clune today appeared aimed at defusing some of that political tension by clarifying the decades-old protocol that determines State's decisions on border-crossing pipelines such as XL.

Stating that pipeline safety, economic and national security variables would all play a part in State's decision, Clune added: "There's no mathematical equation in which you plug in numbers for each of these factors ... it's for the decisionmaker to consider all the information that we've gathered during this long and thorough process and balance all the competing facts."

The identity of that decisionmaker within the State Department, meanwhile, remains unknown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to tap a designee to issue the final permitting decision on XL, a role that recently departed Deputy Secretary James Steinberg played on recent permits, but Clune said that post is not yet filled.

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