In President Obama’s statement denying TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, he said, “The rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment.”
The President referred to a five-page Department of State (DOS) report that echoed why he decided in November 2011 to postpone the decision until after the 2012 election. Despite a rigorous, three-year environmental review with multiple comment periods, the Department of State recommended that the current route was not satisfactory and additional review was necessary to study and reroute the pipeline around Nebraska’s Sand Hills region.
Land owners in Nebraska voiced their concerns, DOS listened, and TransCanada volunteered to reroute the pipeline. None of this should lead to a denial of the permit application or force TransCanada to resubmit its permit application.
Here’s the kicker. In the Executive Summary of the DOS Final Environmental Impact Statement, the agency said that route variations can change throughout the construction process. It reads:
Additional route variations and minor realignments may be added in response to specific conditions that may arise throughout the construction process. (Emphasis Added).
In other words, DOS acknowledged minor realignments and route variations can be made if needed without changing environmental risk. Since Nebraska and the company already agreed to reroute the pipeline in a way that would satisfy Nebraskans’ concerns, President Obama could have easily granted conditional approval to commence construction. The irony here is that the command-and-control rigidity of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) still could allow environmental activists to challenge the project. Given this unnecessary regulatory hurdle-despite the exhaustive environmental review-Congress could pass legislation approving Keystone, allowing TransCanada and Nebraska to handle the rerouting.
And that process of rerouting the pipeline is already well underway. Last December, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality released a detailed map of the Sand Hills region and conveyed the areas for TransCanada to avoid.
Knowing all that, let’s take a step back. First, Nebraska already has miles of natural gas, crude, refined products, and petrochemical pipelines crossing the state’s purportedly sensitive Ogallala aquifer, specifically including pipelines in the Sand Hills region.
Second, DOS acted as though Nebraskans’ concerns about the Ogallala aquifer and Sand Hills region were a new development causing the agency to pull back on the project. In fact, DOS analyzed the pipeline’s impact and the possibility of the spill, the effects on soil and possible alternative routes to avoid the Sand Hills, along with countless other potential environmental risks. With respect to the Sand Hills region and potential oil spills, the DOS Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), released in August of 2011, reads:
“An example of a crude oil release from a pipeline system into an environment similar to the Northern High Plains Aquifer system occurred in 1979 near Bemidji, Minnesota. While the conditions at Bemidji are not fully analogous to the Sand Hills region, extensive studies of the Bemidji spill suggest that impacts to shallow groundwater from a spill of a similar volume in the Sand Hills region would affect a limited area of the aquifer around the spill site. In no spill incident scenario would the entire Northern High Plains Aquifer system be adversely affected.”
On soil erosion and reclamation in the Sand Hills region, experts from the University of Nebraska as well as input from the State Resource Conservationist with the National Resources Conservation Service and the Nebraska Department of Roads all provided valuable information to properly maintain the Sand Hills region. From the FEIS:
“Of particular concern is the soil of the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which is particularly vulnerable to wind erosion. To address this concern, Keystone developed and agreed to construction, reclamation, and post-construction procedures specifically for this area in consultation with local experts and state agencies. The goal of the Sand Hills region reclamation plan is to protect this sensitive area by maintaining soil structure and stability, stabilizing slopes to prevent erosion, restoring native grass species, and maintaining wildlife habitat and livestock grazing areas. Keystone agreed to monitor the right-of-way through the Sand Hills region for several years to ensure that reclamation and revegetation efforts are successful.”
DOS studied a number of alternative routes to minimize or completely avoid the pipeline crossing over Sand Hills. The department worked with the Bureau of Land Management and state agencies where the pipeline passes through and made more than 340 minor realignments to the pipeline route.
There is absolutely no reason to delay the entire project when DOS explicitly signed off on additional route variations that could occur throughout the construction process.
Since President Obama chose not to grant conditional approval, Congress should authorize the pipeline application as submitted by TransCanada, in which the rerouting could be managed successfully by TransCanada and Nebraska state officials to alleviate any concerns.
America needs these jobs and this energy today, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have them.
Nicolas Loris is a Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. Loris studies energy, environment and regulation issues such as the economic impacts of climate change legislation, a free market approach to nuclear energy and the effects of environmental policy on energy prices and the economy.
Photo Caption: Road signs in Sidney, Nebraska.