On January 31, the U.S. Department of State released a long-awaited supplementary report on the environmental impact of the construction of TransCanada’s (NYSE:TRP) proposed Keystone pipeline, and its findings paved the pay for federal approval of the project. The assessment concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline — with its capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day — would not substantially accelerate carbon pollution. The report also appeared to indicated that if the pipeline is not built, oil would be extracted from pristine Alberta forest at the same rate, but it would instead be transported to the Gulf Coast refineries by rail. With the environmental impact understood, it is up to Secretary of State John Kerry to recommend to President Barack Obama whether to approve the project, and as the nation awaits his decision, protesters are pushing the Obama administration to reject the pipeline.
To many experts in the energy sector, the State Department’s discovery that the construction of the Keystone pipeline will do little to impact that amount of oil drilled in Alberta’s Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin is hardly surprising. “At the end of the day, there’s a consensus among most energy experts that the oil will get shipped to market no matter what,” Robert McNally, an energy consultant who was a senior energy and economic adviser to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times. “It’s less important than I think it was perceived to be a year ago, both politically and on oil markets.” Still, opponents of the project have made clear that their concern for its environmental impact has not lessened. After, the transport of oil by rail has hazards as well; as the use of railroads in oil transportation has increased, so too have the incidents of explosions of rail cars carrying oil.
The latest demonstration saw the arrest of 300 protesters on Sunday, reported Politico. Students from as many as 80 colleges gathered initially at Georgetown University and marched toward the White House after making a stop at Kerry’s home in Washington. Some came dressed in painter’s scrubs covered in black paint, meant to represent hazmat suits covered in oil, while others held signs bearing slogans like “Keystone XL: pipeline to hell” and “Keep your oil out of my soil.” Upon reaching the White House, many protesters took plastic zip ties to affix themselves to the fence surrounding the presidential residence. Remaining protesters stood around them holding banners. Together, they chanted: “Hey, Obama, we don’t want no pipeline drama.”
Meanwhile, blocks away at the Lafayette Square Park, approximately 50 laid down on a black tarp, creating a visual representation of a “human oil spill,” reported Politico. From the perimeters, other protesters threw plastic lobsters, fish, and birds that were covered in black paint onto the “spill.” Law enforcement soon blockaded the scene.
This is “a youth-organized action to tell President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline,” Nick Stracco, who participated in the XL Dissent demonstration, told CNN. “Because the youth vote was a crucial part in both of his elections, we know that we elected him and we voted for a climate champion, not another pipeline president.” Similarly, Smith College freshman and an organizer of the event, Aly Johnson-Kurts, told Politico shortly before she was arrested at the White House that, “The youth really understand the traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient … so we needed to escalate.” Still, some students did not express much confidence that Obama would deny the project given the country’s pressing economic problems.
Economic problems — namely, the large numbers of still-unemployment Americans — is among the reasons the Republican party supports the construction project. “Another day and another government report that finds no reason to continue blocking this common-sense, job-creating project,” Brendan Buck, a spokesperson for House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, wrote in an email to the Times. “It’s long past time the president stop pandering to his extremist allies and just approve it so we can get people back to work.” It is important to note that the number of jobs the project will create is limited. According to the Cornell Global Labor Institute, the pipeline would create about 3,900 construction jobs over two years.
The approval of the application to build the Keystone XL project — the 1,700-mile, $5.3 billion pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries — has not yet reached the end of its journey, complicated by pressure from environmentalist groups concerned for the impact on carbon pollution and from congressional lawmakers eager for the White House to come to a decision. In December 2011, led by ranking Republicans, Congress passed a law giving the Obama Administration a 60-day deadline to approve or reject the application, but President Barack Obama rejected the application, noting that the deadline for the decision had “prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact.” So, Keystone filed a new permit application, and the State Department prepared a supplement to its 2011 environmental impact report. The original report found that there was insufficient time “to obtain the information necessary to assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.”
It is because the pipeline will cross an international border that its construction depends on the approval of the president, while determining whether the pipeline is in the national interest and can be built safely is the responsibility of the State Department.
“This is the most scrutinized pipeline in the nation’s history,” Brigham A. McCown, a former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told the Times after the State Department’s January 31 announcement. “The fact that it’s lasted as long as it has means one of two things. They’ve either done a very good, thorough job, or they’ve slowed it down due to political pressure.”
While it may be the most scrutinized pipeline in history, the project is not as politically important as it once was, as McNally noted. As the Times learned through sources close to the president, Obama does see his response to environmental issues as part of his legacy, he does not believe the pipeline is a central part of his policy efforts any longer. Rather proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal-fired power plants — currently the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — is at the top of his agenda. Of course, those new regulations do not have the same political symbolism of the pipeline, but they would have a greater impact on limiting U.S. greenhouse gas emission by closing hundreds of coal plants and halting construction of new plants.
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