Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives

Guest Post: Why Obama Rejected Keystone XL


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.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article