Examining The State Department's Keystone XL Pipeline Report

A State Department report on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline released last week has been lauded as a green light for construction. However, further research into the document has cast a shadow on its positive interpretation. 

Economic benefits?

The 2,000-page Environmental Impact Assessment itself does not make a clear recommendation for or against the pipeline's construction for either economic or environmental reasons. Some findings within the report seem to quell fears of major pollution, which has been the concern of many activists and environmentalists who oppose construction. 

“The document clearly shows the project will have minimal environmental impacts,” said Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, as quoted by the Washington Times. He also called the study “one of the most thorough and pragmatic project reviews in our nations history.” 

It also received praise from Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, who said the report proves "there is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day." 

This "positive" takeaway boosted TransCanada stock, as shares rose on the first trading day after it was published. 

However, as the Vancouver Observer noted, the report may just as well sway readers the other way. The report concluded that rejecting the pipeline would have no major impact on jobs or oil supply.

"Substantial impact"?

Within the report, the major claim of "minimal environmental impacts" is only applied to the pipeline itself. Seeing as Canada will develop the oil regardless of whether or not the pipeline is constructed, says the report, the rise in emissions is irrelevant.

“Approval or denial of the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area,” the report said.

The report does explain the higher pollution rates of tar sands, stating that the extraction, shipping, and refining processes specific to this kind of oil will create greenhouse gas emissions 5 to 19 percent over that made by conventional crude.

However, as a recent Bloomberg article stated, the pipeline decision may sway investors, which in turn could slow development of the pipeline. 

“Companies are certainly going to wait and see what the decision on Keystone is before moving ahead with development,” said Robert Schulz, a business professor at the University of Calgary, to Bloomberg.

The sentiment is echoed by activists, who agree that the construction of the pipeline is directly linked to the development of the tar sands and believe stopping the pipeline will directly stop further emissions.

“The State Department’s assumption that tar sands development does not change with or without this pipeline is wrong and laughable,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska in an e-mail message to the New York Times. “Why would TransCanada spend billions on building the pipeline and millions on lobbying unless this piece of infrastructure is the — not a — but the linchpin for the expansion of tar sands?”

Conflict of interest?

The veracity of the report itself has also been questioned as two consulting firms involved in drafting it have deep oil industry ties and could benefit from the Keystone XL's construction. 

"I think the question of conflict of interest is a legitimate one," said David Driesen, an economic and environmental law professor at Syracuse University, to Inside Climate News. "[If consulting firms are] used to working for industry clients, it's possible they would subtly orient their analysis in a certain way, and that could be reflected [in it]." 

The Obama administration is expected to announce its decision on the construction of the international northern leg of the pipeline sometime this summer. Construction on the southern leg, however, is half completed.