Pipeline company tweaks route to avoid EPA scrutiny of southern leg

The company that carries President Obama's blessing as it presses ahead with the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline has changed its route to avoid a requirement for U.S. EPA to weigh in on its Clean Water Act permit -- and the potential of the agency to object on environmental grounds -- according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The tweak to the path of what TransCanada Corp. now calls the Gulf Coast Project, a 485-mile Oklahoma-to-Texas leg of the original Keystone XL, came as a surprise to environmentalists who are battling long odds in a push to stop its construction. They point to a November letter from EPA's Region 6 that challenged TransCanada's attempt to apply for a less demanding permit known as NWP 12, but Army Corps regional official Vicki Dixon said the pipeline's new route would not require or receive EPA input.

TransCanada's revised Clean Water Act permit bid sidesteps "impacts to many of the wetlands that were previously going to occur with the proposal we had for Keystone XL," Dixon, regulatory program manager in the Army Corps' southwestern division, said in an interview yesterday. "What that means is that resource agencies [such as EPA] will not be notified or requested for their comment."

EPA's excision from the process alarmed activists at Friends of the Earth (FoE), which joined Public Citizen Texas this month in a personal plea to Administrator Lisa Jackson for a stronger role in XL's southern leg following the forced resignation of Region 6 chief Al Armendariz (E&ENews PM, May 3).

Kim Huynh, FoE's oil sands campaigner, blasted the Army Corps' "abysmal environmental record" and accused it of "facilitating this rubber-stamping" of part of the original Keystone XL. "Switching the route a couple of hundred feet or so is not going to change the fact that this pipeline still is going to have massive impacts on waterways," she said.


The local landowners working with FoE and Public Citizen are unable to get a copy of the new route from the Army Corps without filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request or procuring one from TransCanada, Dixon confirmed. Similar limits on disclosure of pipeline information inflamed environmental groups last year after federal safety regulators declined to release emergency response plans for an oil sands crude pipeline after green advocates filed a FOIA request (Greenwire, Feb. 4, 2011).

The $2.3 billion southern leg of Keystone XL is not expected to carry new oil sands crude into the country but rather to alleviate a glut of that heavy Canadian crude and oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation that is currently locked up in the Midwest. Its construction is proceeding without any plans for notification to local residents.

"There would not be a public hearing or notice that would go out as far as the route goes," Dixon confirmed, adding that based on "what we've seen so far ... it certainly appears that [TransCanada has] minimized the impacts at this point."

The NWP 12, or Nationwide Permit, under the Clean Water Act would allow the southern leg of the pipeline to go forward without a new environmental impact study of the sort Huynh and other activists want to see. Dixon described TransCanada's route changes as avoiding impacts to Texas' bald cypress and tupelo swamps, as well as drilling under certain waterways to eliminate the need for dredging and the release of related material.

EPA's six-month-old objection letter to the original route for the Gulf Coast Project recommended that it move under the statute's more rigorous Section 404 individualized permit process rather than NWP 12, which would have set in motion public hearings and further study. But the Army Corps' time frame is shorter, setting a 45-day window for each of its three affected district offices to rule on the southern leg of Keystone XL.

The corps' Galveston, Texas, office formally started its clock May 11, Dixon said, but its Tulsa, Okla., and Fort Worth, Texas, locations are still gathering more information.

While that clock ticks, environmentalists are examining whether to ask for court intervention.

"We're exploring what legal tools we might be able to use to stop this," Huynh said.

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