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Guest Post: Why Obama Rejected Keystone XL

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Keystone XL should be approved. It is an economic, geopolicitcal, and even an environmental no-brainer, but it was still rejected. Why? Many are claiming that President Obama was swayed by the protestors outside the White House, or by environmental groups, or that he just hates oil and doesn’t want to create jobs. As an oil engineer that has worked in the Obama White House, I can tell you that none of these reasons are true.

So why was Keystone XL rejected?

The blame partially falls on the State Department, partially on the citizens and representation of Nebraska, partially on Congress, and partially on the review process itself.

Now, in order to start a major infrastructure project in this country – say, a pipeline, coal mine, or refinery – the project has to first go through an approval process, including the submission of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This statement is usually several hundred pages long, summarizing a comprehensive scientific and environmental study of the impacts of the project. In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, this process was not completed in time, so the proposal had to be denied. In other words, the rejection was a bureaucratic/procedural decision. It was not a logical decision. It was not even a political decision.

But why did it happen this way? And why, given three years, could the State Department not have enough time to complete the review? The answer lies in the procedure.

To help you understand why this happened, I made this (relatively) brief timeline of the steps involved in the Keystone XL project submission and review process:

  1. September 2008 – The Keystone XL project is proposed. Over the next several months, scoping meetings are held to establish what potential impacts should be addressed in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The lead agency, the State Department, consults with multiple federal agencies, state agencies, Indian tribes and others.
  2. 2009 – Once it is established what should potential environmental impacts should be studied, these impacts are explored and reviewed. This takes over a year.
  3. 2010 to 2011- The EIS goes through several rounds of review, public comment, revision and re-release.
  4. August 2011 – The Final EIS is issued. Around this time, significant resistance to the project highlights a concern over the routing of the pipeline. The pipeline passes over sensitive ecological areas in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and alternative routes that address the concerns had not been investigated.
  5. Fall 2011 – The State Department states that it will take another year to investigate alternative routes.
  6. December 23, 2011 – Congress passes the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011. A section of the act states that the President has to make a decision on Keystone XL in 60 days.
  7. January 2012 – Given the deadline to make a decision on the pipeline, the State Department determines that there is not enough time to investigate alternative routes. Even though the proposed route is determined to be more in the national interest than not building a pipeline at all, the State Department must recommend that the proposal be denied.

The net result: There is not enough time to review a significant concern, so the proposal is denied.

If effective alternatives to the Nebraska routing issue had been presented earlier on – by anyone: State, TransCanada, or the citizens of Nebraska – or if Congress had not put an artificial deadline on the State Department, this project would likely have been approved.

Now, this review process serves an important purpose. Projects with the potential for significant environmental impacts should be carefully reviewed. We can’t go around building whatever we want, wherever we want, with no approval process, otherwise things like the Gulf oil spill or the Fukushima Nuclear disaster would happen much more frequently on our soil. We certainly don’t want that. These reviews take a lot of time, especially on projects as big and important as the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is unfortunate that it took this long, and it is even more unfortunate that it was denied. I support building Keystone XL for practical scientific reasons, which I outlined in my previous article: Keystone XL? It’s Not an Environmental Question.

However, all hope is not lost. TransCanada has said that they will re-apply for the permit, and still plan to build the pipeline. I believe this will happen. For the sake of the economy, the country, our relations with Canada, and the environment, let’s hope it does.

For more information on the EIS review process, you can visit the Keystone XL page on the State Department website.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of Keystone XL protest march by tarsandsaction and used under this Creative Commons license.

About the author:

Scott McNally has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas. He has worked as an Environmental Engineer for Valero Energy Corporation, a Project Engineer for Shell Oil Company, and an energy and climate research intern for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This is Scott’s fourth guest blog post at Plugged In – he was invited to be a guest blogger by Plugged In’s Melissa C. Lott. You can reach Scott via e-mail at scottmcnally at gmail dot com.

About the Author: Plugged In Guest Author - An energy research engineer who has worked in oil and gas, environmental engineering, renewable energy, and energy and environmental policy for the Obama Administration.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 15 Comments

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 11:39 am 02/1/2012

    I am glad the Obama administration is trying to do this right and is thinking about our environment; unlike the Bush administration who rushed into everything and ended up with the gulf oil spill. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.

    Link to this
  2. 2. knappen 11:41 am 02/1/2012

    “For the sake of … the environment, let’s hope [the pipeline is built].”

    International Global Climate agreements prohibit the use of tar sands. There would not be a prohibition if these were sources of energy that was environmentally neutral.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Nag nostic 11:47 am 02/1/2012

    Nice try.
    The President has latitude when weighing proposals of this nature, and presidents have made decisions in the past that overrode bureaucratic judgements. Obama punted because of political concerns within his base, and the upcoming presidential election. It was mighty convenient of the State Department to say it would take one year to decide about Keystone and any alternative routes. That year will end right after the upcoming election.
    So simple to see, yet so many refuse to. They’d rather obfuscate than acknowledge the truth.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Nag nostic 11:52 am 02/1/2012

    JamesDavis, your depiction of reality is not accurate. It seems to be based on an idealized view events, informed by your political preferences.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Owl905 11:58 am 02/1/2012

    That’s a pretty lame apology for the mess TCPL and the TParty lobby made. The extreme myopia of the EIS focus is very much misplaced. The Tar Sand stuff was meant to be processed into low-grade diesel for the global markets. It had nothing in it for the USA except the addition of surplus pipeline capacity. The article also lowballs the gun-to-the-head confrontation introduced by the Senate.

    Keystone was mothballed because it’s a weak proposal, with a dangerous level of risk, with very little benefit to the American market.

    Link to this
  6. 6. scottmcnally 12:27 pm 02/1/2012

    We have two options here.
    1. Transport the oil through a pipeline.
    2. Transport the oil across oceans in oil tankers.
    American pipelines are the safest, most reliable, most environmentally friendly way to transport oil. Period. The oil is going to be produced whether we like it or not. We have no control over that. Canada is not part of the USA, and we can’t just tell them to stop.

    True, some of the diesel that is produced from Keystone oil will be exported because there is no market for diesel in the US, but all of the gasoline will stay here. Approx 70-80% of the refined products will end up in US markets.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Ourania 3:02 pm 02/1/2012

    I would like to see a rebuttal, or the other side of this story written by a competent environmental ecologist. The opinions of someone who is working for oil and energy companies are automatically suspect when it comes to the environment.

    Link to this
  8. 8. alan6302 3:26 pm 02/1/2012

    The new engines claim to be cleaner; however, they emit higher nanoparticle levels. Nanoparticles are the most dangerous element of the emissions.

    Link to this
  9. 9. gwmckenzie 4:12 pm 02/1/2012

    “If the Nebraska Routing issue had been identified earlier on …”?

    Let’s be real here. The following is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Keystone XL Project (Alternatives Considered – Major Route Alternatives)

    “The analysis of route alternatives considered 14
    major route alternatives. Figure ES-8 depicts the
    alternative routes considered. The analysis of
    alternatives routes was conducted following the
    approach to assessments of alternative pipeline
    routes used by the Federal Energy Regulatory
    Commission. As a result, the analysis began with a
    screening process that first established criteria for
    screening alternatives, then identified potential
    alternatives that met the criteria, and determined
    whether or not they would (1) meet the purpose of
    and need for the proposed Project, and (2) be
    technically and economically practicable or feasible.
    For those alternatives meeting the criteria, DOS
    assessed whether or not the alternative offered an
    overall environmental advantage over the proposed
    Due to public concern regarding the Ogallala Aquifer
    (Northern High Plains Aquifer system) and the Sand
    Hills region, 5 of the alternative routes were
    developed to either minimize the pipeline length over
    those areas or avoid the areas entirely. These
    alternative routes consisted of I-90 Corridor
    Alternatives A and B, Keystone Corridor Alternatives
    1 and 2 (which are parallel to all or part of the route of
    the existing Keystone Oil Pipeline System), and the
    Western Alternative.
    The assessment considered the environmental
    characteristics of the areas that these alternatives
    would cross, including the presence of aquifers, the
    depth of wells, developed land, forested areas,
    wetlands, and streams and rivers.
    The Western Alternative was eliminated since it was
    financially impracticable. Although the other four
    route alternatives could have been eliminated based
    on consideration of economical and technical
    practicability and feasibility without further evaluation,
    they were nonetheless examined further with an
    emphasis on groundwater resources. The I-90
    Corridor and Keystone Corridor alternatives would all
    avoid the Sand Hills; however, they would not avoid
    the Northern High Plains Aquifer system, and they
    would not avoid areas of shallow groundwater.
    Instead, these routes would shift risks to other areas
    of the Northern High Plains Aquifer system and to
    other aquifers.
    In addition, these alternatives would be longer than
    the proposed route and would disturb more land and
    cross more water bodies than the proposed route. In
    addition, I-90 Corridor Alternatives A and B require
    crossing Lake Francis Case on the Missouri River
    which would pose technical challenges due to the
    width of the reservoir and the slope of the western
    side of the crossing area.
    Keystone Corridor Alternatives 1 and 2 would cost
    about 25 percent more than the proposed Project
    (about $1.7 billion more) and implementation of either
    of those alternatives would compromise the Bakken
    Marketlink Project and the opportunity to transport
    crude oil from the producers in the Bakken formation
    to markets in Cushing and the Gulf Coast.
    Based on the above considerations and as described
    in Section 4.3 of the EIS, DOS eliminated the major
    potential route alternatives from further consideration.”

    So after taking a whopping 3 years to assess TransCanada’s application, and after considering and rejecting 14 route alternatives – the State Department concludes that it doesn’t have enough time? For what, other than getting re-elected to another term?

    The full Executive Summary of the EIS is here:

    Link to this
  10. 10. scottmcnally 6:50 pm 02/1/2012

    gwmckenzie – You are absolutely right, and it appears that DOS is contradicting themselves somewhat. Thank you for pointing this out.

    The press release explaining the rejection says, “As a result of this process, particularly given the concentration of concerns regarding the proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, on November 10, 2011, the Department announced that it could not make a national interest determination regarding the permit application without additional information.”

    In the EIS, the alternatives you described above “would not avoid the Northern High Plains Aquifer system, and they would not avoid areas of shallow groundwater.” So those alternatives were thrown out.
    Basically, they evaluated a bunch of alternatives that were really similar – none of them eliminated, or even significantly reduced the danger to this one area, so they were all eliminated.

    The EIS also says, “DOS does not regard the No Action alternative to be preferable to the proposed project.”

    In other words, lets build a pipeline, but do it right.

    But you are correct, the Nebraska issue was brought up earlier, and alternatives were presented. However, none of the alternatives actually adressed the concern at hand.

    Thank you for bringing this up, I will correct the wording in the post.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Jehovah Akbar 3:47 pm 02/2/2012

    We have two options here.
    1. Transport the oil through a pipeline.
    2. Transport the oil across oceans in oil tankers.


    Link to this
  12. 12. vebiltdervan 4:02 pm 02/2/2012

    Scott wrote, “… Keystone XL? It’s Not an Environmental Question…”.

    This seems to be the theme of both of Scott’s OpEd pieces here (this one & the previous one last November).

    I’m sorry, but that’s simply not correct. Just because the EIS review pointed out that environmental problems were even worse with alternative XL pipeline routes, that does not mean that the original proposed route is environmentally OK. It’s not.

    The prinicipal environmental threat is to the Ogalalla aquifer, which is arguably the most important aquifer in North America. Just because there is no economically viable way of avoiding the aquifer’s recharge zone doesn’t mean we should therefore proceed with building it.

    Link to this
  13. 13. gwmckenzie 5:39 pm 02/2/2012

    The EIS is more or less a statement of what the risks are, not a recommendation in and of itself. The responsibility to make a decision rests with DOS, which in turn claimed they did not have enough time, which in my opinion is hogwash.

    Had the DOS determined that the risks were simply too high, the project should have been rejected on that basis. It wasn’t.

    Further the decision was made “without prejudice” and TransCanada was invited to reapply with a new route – hardly what one would expect if the project was intrinsically unsafe, or if the environmental risks along the existing route were deemed unmanagable (other routes were all deemed greater risk in the EIS).

    This looks like a political football that was deliberately thrown out of bounds in hopes of delaying the game until after the November elections. Of course, if you really think that the environment will benefit from importing an equivalent amount of oil by tanker through the Gulf of Mexico, then you’ve achieved a major victory.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Ian St. John 4:18 pm 02/11/2012

    Facts are that the Keystone project was given an unrealistic time-line. Thus this is just a delay cause by Republican games. You can tell that the backers were given advanced warning of the delay so that they would be ready to reapply for the permit without a backlash.

    The pipeline certainly has to be routed away from the critical aquifers. Frankly, there is a well understood overcapacity of pipeline from Canada to the US, but it doesn’t go to Texas. This is all about Texas politics and their belief that they have and should have a ‘monopoly’ on oil refining.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Quinn the Eskimo 4:16 pm 07/7/2012

    Besides, should the Keystone XL pipeline leak you’ll only spoil the fresh water for a dozen states. Natch’ it worth the risk. What could go wrong? Let’s bury the pipe so when it leaks the smell won’t bother anyone. Natch’

    Link to this

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