Keystone Foes Say 1 Million Comments Show Grassroots Power
Keystone XL critics said they amassed more than 1 million comments against the pipeline to carry oil from Canada, showing what they called grassroots opposition to the $5.3 billion project.
Keystone will “contribute dramatically” to global warming and pose an “unacceptable risk to water,” according to a letter posted on the website of environmental group 350.org that visitors could electronically sign and submit to the State Department, which is reviewing the comments.
The department collected comments through yesterday on its draft environmental analysis that is seen favoring project supporters. Keystone foes said the level of opposition should give President Barack Obama cover to reject TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s pipeline, which is backed by oil companies and labor groups as a source of jobs and greater U.S. energy security.
“The president said that he needed a movement to compel him to act,” Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for 350.org, said in an e-mail. “People are more fired up about this issue than any other enviro issue in a generation.”
The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups also encouraged their members to submit comments opposing Keystone. The State Department plans to post all comments, although none were on its website yesterday.
Social media tools make it easier to rally on a particular issue, and therefore the effect of mass mailings is diminished, said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“That said, it still gives some measure of sentiment outside the Beltway and can at least cause legislators to think twice before casting a vote,” Zelizer said in an e-mail.
An administration rejection of Keystone would probably be challenged by Republicans in Congress who support the pipeline. Last month, 17 Democrats joined every Senate Republican in voting for a non-binding resolution endorsing Keystone XL. The House Energy and Commerce Committee last week voted 30-18 to approve and send to the full House a bill that would allow the pipeline to be built without the administration’s approval.
While the State Department’s March draft environmental impact statement makes no recommendation about building Keystone, it found that the pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast presented no significant environmental risks.
Its effect on climate change, for example, would be minimal because Alberta’s oil sands would be developed anyway. Tar sands mining and processing releases more greenhouse gases than drilling and refining conventional oils.
Environmentalists dispute the State Department assessment on the climate-change impact. Their position appeared to receive a boost in comments the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submitted yesterday to the draft analysis.
The State Department needs to conduct a more complete economic review to show that railroads and other transport options existed to carry Alberta oil sands to refineries if Keystone was rejected, the EPA said. It also said the State Department’s final environmental analysis should “more clearly acknowledge” that cleaning up oil sands crude is more difficult than conventional oil.
Polls by an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a research group based in Washington, found that 74 percent of Americans support approving the project, compared with 68 percent of Canadians in a separate survey. Most Americans said they care more about North American energy independence than reducing greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.
“It is in the best interests of all Americans to build the pipeline to ensure our long-term energy security, a dependable supply of Canadian oil to state of the art U.S. refineries and the creation of thousands of American jobs,” the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and 13 other groups said in comments to the State Department.
API also led a mass mailing effort through the website energycitizens.org that encouraged visitors to sign electronic letters encouraging Secretary of State John Kerry to approve the pipeline.
“Every day we continue to delay this important piece of U.S. energy infrastructure inhibits our economic growth and weakens American security,” the letter states.
Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based oil group, whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chevron Corp. (CVX), said the campaign generated about 230,000 comments to the State Department.
State Department officials will review the comments submitted since the draft analysis was issued March 1. Eight agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, will advise the State Department as it weighs whether Keystone is in U.S. interests.
The State Department has said it will also accept additional public comment during the next phase of the review before issuing a national interest determination.
Besides environmental risks, the review includes an evaluation of what Keystone means for U.S. energy security, the economy and foreign policy.
Since TransCanada applied to build the pipeline across the U.S.-Canadian border four years ago, the project has galvanized groups including 350.org and the Sierra Club in San Francisco that view Obama’s decision as a sign of his sincerity in meeting a second-term pledge to tackle climate-change risks.
The “most glaring error” in the State Department analysis is its “assertion that the tar sands will be developed at the same rate regardless of whether Keystone XL is built,” the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and 14 other groups critical of Keystone wrote.
The State Department is reviewing the project because it crosses an international border. Paul Bledsoe, a former White House aide to President Bill Clinton, said on issues like Keystone that become high-profile ultimately the decision rests with Obama.
“While various departments and agencies have technical authority over different regulatory matters, the political reality is on major issues the White House has the final say,” Bledsoe, who is now a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund, said in an e-mail. “In the White House-centric modern executive branch, everyone knows where the buck stops.”
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