The State Department gave a crucial green light on Friday to a proposed 1,711-mile pipeline that would carry heavy oil from oil sands in Canada across the Great Plains to terminals in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
The project, which would be the longest oil pipeline outside of Russia and China, has become a potent symbol in a growing fight that pits energy security against environmental risk, a struggle highlighted by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In reaching its conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands deposits in Alberta would have minimal environmental impact, the administration dismissed criticism from environmental advocates who said that extracting the oil would have a devastating impact on the climate and that a leak or rupture in the 36-inch-diameter pipeline could wreak ecological disaster.
Opponents also said the project would prolong the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, threaten sensitive lands and wildlife, and further delay development of clean energy sources.
The State Department said in an environmental impact statement that the pipeline's owner, TransCanada, had reduced the risks of an accident to an acceptable level and that the benefits of importing oil from a friendly neighbor outweighed the potential costs.
Final approval of the $7 billion project will not come before the end of the year, after public hearings and consultation with other federal agencies. But the State Department report gave every indication that the administration was prepared to see Keystone proceed. The pipeline is expected to open in 2013 unless delayed by lawsuits or other challenges.
For many in the environmental movement, the administration's apparent acceptance of the pipeline was yet another disappointment, after recent decisions to tentatively approve drilling in the Arctic Ocean, to open 20 million more acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil leasing and to delay several major air quality regulations. The movement is still smarting from the administration's failure to push climate change legislation through Congress.
Analysts and environmental advocates said these decisions had opened a wide and perhaps unbridgeable breach between the Democratic president and environmentally minded voters.
Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, urged Obama to veto the project despite the State Department's willingness to see it proceed.
"The decision-making authority is solely the president's,'' he said. "Keystone XL is a huge issue for our young leaders at the Sierra Club, but they're also watching the president's actions on other critically important environmental and public health protections. It will be increasingly difficult to mobilize the environmental base and to mobilize in particular young people to volunteer, to knock on thousands of doors, to put in 16-hour days, to donate money if they don't think the president is showing the courage to stand up to big polluters.''
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension would connect Canada's oil sands to several vital refineries around Houston and the Gulf Coast that are designed to refine heavy crude oils. Keystone XL would also connect the synthetic fuel to a vast pipeline network that snakes out from the Gulf of Mexico to several large metropolitan areas around the Eastern Seaboard.
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental, said in a telephone news briefing that the environmental impact statement released yesterday was not the last word on the project.
The president must make a final determination that the project is in the nation's economic, political, energy security and environmental interest, she noted.
But the report does conclude, she said, that "there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the pipeline's corridor'' if the project's operator follows all relevant laws, although she said that some American Indian cultural resources and the habitat for some plants and wildlife could be adversely affected.
TransCanada has insisted that its pipeline will be as safe as any in North America.
It has refused to change its application in the face of critics who say the half-inch thick pipe wall in the pipeline is insufficiently sturdy for maximum flow pressures, a claim the company denies.
TransCanada agreed to 57 conditions set by the Department of Transportation last spring, including burying the pipeline 4 feet below the surface, committing to frequent aerial and ground monitoring and setting the maximum distance between shut-off valves at 20 miles.
"We believe we are building the safest pipeline in North America,'' said Terry Cunha, a TransCanada spokesman.
Copyright 2011 The Boston Globe