Environmentalists Suffer Another Blow in Keystone XL Battle

Eric Pianin

Environmentalists suffered another setback this week in their long crusade to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, as pressure builds on the Obama administration to set aside its reservations and support development of a pipeline to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Marcia McNutt, the former head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and now editor-in-chief of the highly regarded Science magazine, endorsed the pipeline three weeks after the State Department issued a much anticipated final environmental assessment that bolstered the case for advocates of the project.

Related: Keystone Pipeline: Job Creator or Environmental Menace?   

The report concluded that the proposed 875-mile pipeline connecting Alberta, Canada and U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast probably wouldn’t alter global green-house gas emissions. That’s because even if Obama were to block the pipeline construction, the Canadians would continue to develop their oil sands and transport the crude across the United States by truck or rail.

McNutt, who headed the USGS from 2009 to 2013 and previously opposed the project, wrote in a Science editorial, “I believe it is time to move forward on the Keystone XL pipeline.” She said approval of the project could be made conditional on Canada’s agreeing to reduce its oil industry’s carbon emissions.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups have vigorously opposed the pipeline – warning of the dangers of oil spills, serious damage to wildlife and ground water, and worsening climate change. According to one estimate, replacing conventional crude oil with tar sands from Keystone XL would add 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over the pipeline’s 50-year estimated lifespan.

Related: What Is the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline?

The idea of Canada taking steps to counterbalance the pipeline's climate impact has been publicly discussed, but officials on both sides of the border have not laid out what specific policies could satisfy the Obama administration, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as part of a North American summit in Mexico, Obama told reporters that they had “discussed a shared interest of working together around greenhouse gas emissions.”The president said the issue of climate change “has to affect all of our decisions at this stage” concerning Keystone XL. “So I welcome the work that we can do together with Canada.”

McNutt is the second former Obama administration official to come out in favor of the pipeline in recent weeks. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on February 5 that he thought the administration should approve the project.

The petroleum industry, labor groups and many Republican and Democratic lawmakers who favor the pipeline insist it would generate tens of thousands of well-paying jobs while pumping billions of dollars into a still struggling U.S. economy. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka  said  recently that, "We think that anything that's going to create jobs, help the country and do it in an environmentally sound way ought to be done." American Petroleum Institute officials say approval of the full pipeline could “support 42,000 jobs” and “put $2 billion in workers’ pockets during its construction.”

Related: Big Labor’s Mounting Feud with Barack Obama

In an interview Friday with National Public Radio, McNutt said that while she is “totally sympathetic” to environmentalists’ arguments, “on the other hand I’m a pragmatist.” She said that nothing she has heard or read convinces her that blocking the project would prevent Canada from moving ahead with oil production. Moreover, she said,  transporting the crude oil by pipeline would be cheaper and safer in the long run.

Because the administration would have to issue a permit to allow construction, environmentalists could demand safeguards that make it “the safest pipeline ever built,” McNutt said.

Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said today that while McNutt’s editorial was disappointing, she may eventually alter her views as the assumptions in the State Department environmental impact statement come under attack.

“I think many people, former and current administration officials, agree with us that [construction of] Keystone XL will have a significant impact on expanding tar sand production and associated carbon emissions,” he said.

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