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By Candice Bernd
August 31, 2011
Caption : Environmentalists say the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement is deeply flawed regarding the Keystone XL pipeline project.     

Environmental activists fighting the construction of a massive oil pipeline from Canada to Texas say they’re undeterred by a statement from the State Department arguing the Keystone XL pipeline would have a minimal impact on the environment—a stance those protesting the project say is highly flawed.

The Tar Sands Action, the main campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, had its biggest day of civil disobedience on Monday when 140 activists were arrested in front of the White House, including leading climate scientist and NASA administrator James Hansen, who has called the pipeline the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

The total number of arrests is nearing the 600 mark as the sustained two-week sit-in continues.

(Tar Sands Arrestee: ‘We had reason to stand up.’)

TransCanada’s controversial $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline would transport 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Texas area, a 1,700 mile trip.The refinement of the tar sands produces up to twice as much green house gases as regular crude.

The State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement, released late last week after more than two years of research, gave the project its first major authorization. It will still need to be OK’d by other agencies and ultimately be approved by President Obama.

“[The statement] hasn’t really changed the equation at all,” says Tar Sands Action Spokesman Daniel Kessler. “The State Department has given their stamp of approval, but now it’s up to the people to give their stamp of approval, and we think a lot of people across the country are going to say no to this pipeline.”

(Get Involved: Daily Sit-Ins or 'Cap Off' Saturday Rally)

The State Department report concedes that the pipeline would intrude on many Native American lands and could have impacts on low-income communities, but ultimately concludes that the overall impact would be small.

Further, the report states that “spills are likely to occur during operation over the lifetime of the proposed Project,” including some large spills. Spills would have the greatest impact on the people who live closest to the land—Native Americans—and the State Department has yet to fulfill tribal consultation requirements.

The report argues that any spills would be remediated by TransCanada and calculates a “maximum spill volume” of 2.8 million gallons if the structure were to have a major failure.

The State Department has also been in conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency over earlier drafts of the report, which the EPA said didn’t address the impacts on air and water quality among many other issues. The EPA is reviewing the latest statement.

(On CampusProgress.org: Challenging the Tar Sands)

The recent report also downplays the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be emitted by the pipeline. Greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands would, according to the statement, remain constant over time or “may decrease over time.” But the State Department cites industry analysis and relies on a methodology the Sierra Club has refuted wholesale in a 135-page statement.

“The State Department is really not equipped to do the environmental review. They just don’t have the expertise,” says Brant Olsen, the director of the Rainforest Action Network’s Freedom from Oil campaign. “The argument that they’re making is essentially that the oil from the tar sands is going to be burned with or without the pipeline, and I just think that is myopic at best.”

Olsen says the point is to move the industry away from burning dirtier sources of fossil fuels, like tar sands, and he says the pipeline represents a major industry shift away from that direction.

(Photos: Tar Sands Action Sit-In)

Some legislators have also questioned the State Department’s recent findings.

In a letter to the agency, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, says that “absent the expert opinion from our government’s wildlife experts, it appears that the State Department has not taken a comprehensive look at the potential impacts of this project to our nation’s most vulnerable wildlife.”

TransCanada has spent hundreds of thousands lobbying in Washington to win approval for the project. One of its chief lobbyists, a strong proponent of the pipeline, is Paul Elliot, the former deputy director of now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

President Obama is expected to decide whether the pipeline is in the country’s national interest by the end of this year. The State Department plans to hold 13 public hearings about the pipeline between Sept. 26 and Oct. 6 in cities across the U.S.

And activists say they hope Obama will reject the project—a nod to his campaign promise of bringing new “leadership on climate change”—despite the State Department’s report.

“This pipeline represents an opportunity for Obama to signal that he will move the country toward a cleaner energy path and away from the industry objective of digging deeper and deeper into the bottom barrel,” Olsen said.

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