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Friday, January 31, 2014

Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Clears Significant Hurdle

The long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada moved a significant step toward completion Friday as the State Department raised no major environmental objections to its construction. The finding is likely to be welcomed by Republicans and some oil- and gas-producing states but is sure to further rankle environmentalists already at odds with President Barack Obama over his energy policy.

The department report stops short of recommending approval of the $7 billion pipeline, which has become a major symbol of the political debate over climate change. But the review gives Obama political cover if he chooses to endorse the pipeline in spite of opposition from many Democrats and environmental groups. Foes say the pipeline would carry “dirty oil” that contributes to global warming. They also worry about a spill.

NPR National Desk Correspondent Jeff Brady joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the imminent report.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And coming up, we'll check in on Thailand ahead of elections there this Sunday. There are fears that protestors could try to block voting, and the country has already taken a big economic hit because of the unrest.

YOUNG: But we start with perhaps another milestone for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, at least the 179-mile northern leg that would bring oil from Canadian oil sands south through Montana and into Nebraska. There are reports that the State Department's environmental review of the Keystone Pipeline is in its final stages and could be released as soon as today.

The White House has said that it's still undecided about approving a permit for the northern segment of the line. The final call would go to Secretary of State John Kerry, because the pipeline crosses borders, and then on to the president. NPR's Jeff Brady has been following all of this. And Jeff, do we know what the State Department's report is studying?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Sure, this report will lay out, in detail, the environmental effects of this proposed pipeline. So a key question is whether it will significantly increase the kinds of pollution that contribute to climate change. The oil that the Keystone XL would carry, it's a big issue here. It's mined from oil sands in Alberta, and making it usable involves things like heating it up, and that process emits more pollution than the traditional ways that companies drill for oil.

And since this pipeline crosses the border from Canada into the U.S., it needs what's called a presidential permit. The State Department has a role in the process of issuing a permit like that, and under federal law, the government has to examine the environmental consequences of any big decisions that it makes, like approving a new pipeline. So this report is that examination of the environmental consequences.

YOUNG: Well, how does it differ from the report that came out last March? That's when the State Department released a 2,000-page review of the pipeline and found it would have a small impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions and future tar sands expansions. So how might this report be different from that one?

BRADY: Yeah, you know, these environmental review processes can get pretty complicated, but essentially, that was an interim step on the way to this statement about the environmental consequences. And that interim step allowed all the interested parties to sort of understand where the State Department was headed in its assessment. So then maybe they could offer some more information that would help the government make its final evaluation.

And in the meantime, President Obama has said that - he said this last June in a speech, that he won't approve the pipeline if it would significantly contribute to the problem of carbon pollution. So that's a key thing that a lot of people are going to be looking for when the State Department releases its findings.

YOUNG: Well, we know how heated this is. We know that opponents of the pipeline - led by environmentalist Bill McKibben - disagree with whether or not getting oil from tar sands is a pollutant. They think it is very much a pollutant. Supporters of a pipeline point to these recent train disasters. They say a pipeline will be safer. So tell us more about what opponents are saying.

BRADY: Sure. Opponents are really concerned about how much pollution this oil releases when it's being produced, because like I said, you've got to heat it up, and heating it up requires energy. And producing energy releases more pollution into the environment.

But you also have the folks who support this. You're talking about the oil industry, here, but also labor groups who stand to benefit from this project. This is going to create a lot of jobs, and a lot of those unions have been suffering as the economy has suffered, and they're saying, well, wait a minute. We need those jobs, and we really need them now. So they're out there supporting this pipeline.

YOUNG: Opponents are also saying that while a train disaster is terrible, as we've seen, if a pipeline breaks, it can get into the water system. So there's a lot of debate, here. We mentioned that President Obama will have the final say, after Secretary of State John Kerry signs off - if he does - on this. What's the - is there a deadline for this?

BRADY: There's no deadline, and the Obama administration has been very clear that they will not rush the process. And this has been a long process for the company, TransCanada - that's the company behind the pipeline - over five years now. This is a big project, more than $5 billion to construct this pipeline. They first applied for it five years ago, as I said.

And they really thought that this process would be over by now. But environmental activists have really made this pipeline a big issue, and they're out there opposing it.

YOUNG: Jeff Brady, NPR national desk correspondent, as we await the State Department's new environmental review of the Keystone pipeline, set to come out today. Jeff, thanks so much.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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