Proponents and critics of Keystone XL are unleashing a final flurry of pleas to persuade the government on the pipeline, which has become a flash point in a debate over energy development versus climate protection.
The public has until the end of today to be part of the official review of whether Keystone is in the national interest. After that Secretary of State John Kerry will weigh in and President Barack Obama will decide whether to approve or scrap the long-delayed $5.4 billion plan by TransCanada Corp. to bring fuel from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.
Most of the more than 15,000 comments submitted through yesterday reiterate arguments made during five years of review. Foes said the project would worsen climate change by promoting development of Alberta’s oil sands. Proponents said Keystone would help the economy and boost U.S. energy security.
“Keystone XL will result in no significant environmental, climate or cultural impacts, but it will create jobs immediately and significantly contribute to the U.S. economy,” the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group, and 11 other industry organizations wrote.
Approving the pipeline would “lock us in to dependence on this dirty fuel for decades,” according to a letter Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, asked visitors to its website to sign.
If new arguments were absent in the postings, the comments showed that Keystone generates significant interest, underscoring political risks for Obama eight months before midterm elections to determine control of the Congress.
Industry and environmental groups said they were planning to forward letters bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of their views.
“It’s hard to see what a winning strategy might be” for the president, said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in environmental policy.
If Obama approves Keystone, Rabe said, he risks upsetting his base of environmental supporters and major donors such as Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager who has waged a campaign against the pipeline for more than a year.
Labor groups and lawmakers from oil states -- including Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tough re-election race this year -- support the project.
“The Obama administration has all the evidence it needs to approve” Keystone, Cindy Schild, downstream operations senior manager at the API, said yesterday during a conference call with reporters.
The API, whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp., said it had gathered more than 500,000 signatures in support of the project.
A group of pipeline foes, including Academy Award-winning actor Jared Leto, sent Kerry a letter yesterday that urged him to stand against Keystone as he did against the Vietnam War as a young veteran.
Some of the same people held a conference call with two of Kerry’s deputies at the State Department to reiterate the case against the project, said Betsy Taylor, who runs a consulting group in Takoma Park, Maryland, on climate strategies. Leto had a conflict and wasn’t on the call, she said.
The comments posted on regulations.gov are part of a State Department review that weighs the environmental, economic and diplomatic impact of Keystone on the U.S.
The department is overseeing the review because Keystone crosses an international border.
Eight federal agencies have an additional 60 days to advise the State Department.
Kerry, who has a made combating the risks of climate change a priority as secretary, told reporters on Feb. 26 that he was starting a “very intensive evaluation” of Keystone.
Obama told state governors last week that he expects to decide sometime in the next couple of months.
“I urge you to reject calls for further delay, and move forward with approving the Keystone XL pipeline,” Gerald Pargac wrote in comments submitted for the State Department review.
“Approving Keystone XL is a pivotal moment,” wrote Angie Bashus. “It seals the coffin for global warming and many other environmental issues.”
An unidentified individual posted a series of “insider alerts” as part of the comment, pointing out possible ties that Keystone supporters had to the industry.
The national-interest review process began once the State Department released an environmental study on Jan. 31 that found Keystone doesn’t present a threat to the climate on its own because the oil sands would probably be developed anyway.
The study did say that oil sands production could be affected in a scenario where crude prices dropped below $75 a barrel, which would make transporting the fuel by train uneconomic. The review said such a scenario was unlikely.
The Environmental Impact Statement drew more than 1.5 million submissions during its open comment period. About 99 percent of those were letters sponsored by interest groups such as the Sierra Club and the American Petroleum Institute.
Most of the letters submitted for the national interest review are also likely to be form letters.
While agencies have a total of 90 days to weigh in, Kerry doesn’t face a deadline in making a recommendation to Obama. The project could also be slowed by a Nebraska court ruling that invalidated a law that let Republican Governor Dave Heineman approve the pipeline’s proposed route. The judge said only the state Public Service Commission had that power.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said he would appeal to the State Supreme Court.
Among people who posted comments were 29 members of the Nebraska unicameral legislature, a majority.
“The Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest and in Nebraska’s interest,” they wrote in a March 4 letter.
Some landowners in Nebraska have vigorously opposed the pipeline, because of the damage an oil spill could cause to farms and ranches along the route and an important drinking water aquifer underneath the soil.