WASHINGTON — At long last, a final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline could be around the corner.
The project cleared a key hurdle Friday when the State Department released the final version of its environmental impact statement.
In line with previous reports, the latest study downplayed the environmental risk posed by TransCanada's pipeline.
A significant part of that assessment is based on the premise that the oil sands of Alberta would be coming out of the ground and burned with or without the pipeline.
“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” according to the report.
The study also found that while the pipeline still crosses parts of Nebraska's Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer, any spills would have a limited impact on water quality.
The oil industry and other pipeline supporters seized on those parts of the study and said President Barack Obama has no excuses for further delaying the long-stalled project.
“Let's get this done — it's time to bring over five years of regulatory review to an end and build this critical new piece of North American energy infrastructure,” said Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer.
Pro-pipeline forces say the project represents an economic boost, jobs, increased property taxes for local governments and a move toward energy independence. The State Department report found that spending on the pipeline would support about 42,100 jobs directly and indirectly. About 3,900 of those would be direct one-year construction jobs in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, according to the report.
Several members of the Nebraska's all-GOP congressional delegation issued statements calling for quick approval.
“It would be a disgrace to allow extreme ideologues to obstruct this critical project that will create jobs and help us down the path of energy security,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a champion of the pipeline on Capitol Hill.
Still, environmentalists said some key points in the report represented what they described as “grudging movement” toward their arguments against the pipeline. One concession, they said, was the report's acknowledgment that the pipeline might drive the development of the oil sands if oil prices dropped below a certain level.
That could give Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry the kind of wiggle room they need to determine that the project is not in the national interest.
Obama has said the project would only serve the national interest if it does not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
Environmental groups point out that the pipeline would create just 50 permanent jobs, according to the report. The project represents nothing but environmental risk, they say, in the form of increased greenhouse gas emissions and water-fouling oil spills.
It's a thorny political issue for Obama. Approving the project would upset many of his core supporters who focus on protecting the environment. Rejecting it could hurt red-state Democrats facing tough re-election battles this fall.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for example, tweeted after the new report's release that it's time to build the pipeline.
Both sides vowed to keep up the pressure as the State Department moves into a 30-day comment period.
Environmental groups were planning protests and vigils for next week.
“Our side continues to gain ground because landowners and environmentalists are working together,” said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, which opposes the pipeline. “The shift in the environmental review is real, and now it's up to us to make sure our voices are finally heard in this final stretch of the fight.”
The level of lobbying can be seen in the public input the department already has received. After releasing a draft of the environmental impact statement last year, the State Department reported receiving more than 1.5 million public comments. Fewer than 17,000, however, were considered “unique submissions.” The rest — about 99 percent — were form letters sponsored by various groups.
The State Department has yet to release the results of an internal investigation into conflict-of-interest issues raised by the environmental groups. Pipeline opponents say the consultants who have worked on the environmental reviews have business ties to TransCanada and the oil industry.