U.S. Department of State headquarters, Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Department of State headquarters, Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons)

Secretary Kerry already knows the answer to the question of whether granting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest: the pipeline is not in the U.S. interest and it is not in the global interest. Climate Science Watch Director Rick Piltz submitted the comment below on the State Department’s Presidential Permit Application: TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P, National Interest Determination.

From the State Department’s Summary:

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P. applied on May 4, 2012, to the U.S. Department of State (“State Department”) for a Presidential Permit that would authorize construction, connection, operation, and maintenance of pipeline facilities on the U.S./Canadian border in Phillips County, Montana for the importation of crude oil. The border facilities would be part of a proposed 875-mile pipeline and related facilities (the Keystone XL project) that is designed to transport up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Alberta, Canada and the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. The pipeline would cross the U.S. border near Morgan, Montana and continue through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, where it would connect to existing pipeline facilities near Steele City, Nebraska for onward delivery to Cushing, Oklahoma and the U.S. Gulf Coast region.

Background information related to the application may be found at http://www.keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/. On January 31, 2014, the State Department released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“Final SEIS”) for the proposed Keystone XL project. The application and the Final SEIS, along with other documents, are available through the State Department’s web address for the project shown above.

Executive Order 13337 (69 FR 25299) calls on the Secretary of State, or his designee, to determine if issuance of a Presidential Permit would serve the national interest. This decision will take into account a wide range of factors, including energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; foreign policy; and compliance with relevant federal regulations and issues.

The State Department invites members of the public to comment on any factor they deem relevant to the national interest determination that will be made for this permit application. Along with other factors such as those listed above, these comments will be considered in the final national interest determination. The public comment period will end 30 days from the publication of this notice.

What we submitted on March 6:




I believe Secretary Kerry already knows the answer to the question of whether granting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest: the pipeline is not in the U.S. interest and it is not in the global interest.

There are multiple reasons to deny a permit. Most urgently, there is an overriding national interest in forestalling the development of a huge new fossil fuel source that will exacerbate global climatic disruption and undermine the transformation of the energy system to decarbonized sources. Granting a pipeline permit would expedite the full-scale development of the tar sands and their movement into the global market.

Secretary Kerry has long paid attention to the concerns expressed by the leading climate scientists about human-caused global climatic disruption. In 1991-1992 he joined with then-Senator Gore who was chairing roundtable hearings on detailed climate science issues before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space. It was rare to see other members in attendance, learning from the leading scientists in these seminar-like hearings, except for John Kerry. The Secretary has long-understood the importance of connecting climate science to policymaking.

Secretary Kerry no doubt knows that, earlier in the Keystone XL environmental assessment process, leading climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to deny the permit. The letter said, in part:

The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit. It takes a lot of energy to extract and refine this resource into useable fuel, and the mining is environmentally destructive.  Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.  It makes no sense to build a pipeline system that would practically guarantee extensive exploitation of this resource.

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the Earth’s climate system and to its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground. …

If the pipeline is to be built, you as president have to declare that it is “in the national interest.” As scientists, speaking for ourselves and not for any of our institutions, we can say categorically that it’s not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.[1]

The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on the project remained essentially unchanged from the earlier Draft SEIS in contending that the pipeline would not significantly alter total global emissions of greenhouse gases. The SEIS concluded that, with or without the KXL pipeline, the Canadian tar sands will be extracted and transported to market, whether by rail or via an alternative pipeline through Canada. This conclusion was used as a basis for evading essential questions about the implications of full-scale development of the tar sands for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

This conclusion was arrived at in an SEIS prepared by a contractor with conflicts of interest within the oil industry. These conflicts were misrepresented to the State Department and the public, and subsequently appeared to be whitewashed by the Department’s own investigation. This matter should be of concern to Secretary Kerry.

The Secretary is no doubt aware that the conclusion in the SEIS that the pipeline would not significantly contribute to net emissions of greenhouse gases is very problematic and has been strongly challenged by independent analysts. In particular, there are serious questions about the costs and viability (not to mention the safety) of rail transportation alternatives that would have to be scaled up substantially in order to transport the more than 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil that the proposed pipeline would be designed to carry. In addition, there is significant opposition to within-Canada tar sands pipeline alternatives.

Statements by oil industry executives and analysts suggest that, without the KXL pipeline, development of the tar sands would be slowed and limited. The considerable pressure exerted on behalf of the pipeline by industry interests and the Canadian government clearly indicate its importance for full-scale tar sands development. It belies the conclusion in the SEIS that this question has already been settled and is essentially independent of any decision on the pipeline permit.

Secretary Kerry should not use the SEIS to duck the significance of the U.S. National Interest Determination for whether, or how much, of what has been termed the tar sands ‘carbon bomb’ stays in the ground or is ultimately added to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. A U.S. decision on the pipeline permit is likely to play a major role in the economics of whether full-scale development of the tar sands will be expedited.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, called attention to this “tragic, indeed fatal, flaw of the State Department review”:

The urgent planetary need is clear. The world has to wean itself from fossil fuel dependence in the coming 20-40 years. We simply can’t go on drilling, excavating, and burning every ton of coal, oil, and gas the fossil fuel industry finds. If we do so, the basic “carbon arithmetic” of CO2 buildup spells disaster. …

Using climate science, it is possible to calculate the tolerable limits on total future fossil fuel use. The basic idea is the need for the world to adhere to a “carbon budget,” meaning the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned while avoiding global warming by more than 2-degrees C.

The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn’t even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.[2]

From his long and honorable record of following the advance of scientific understanding of anthropogenic climatic disruption, and of the urgency of taking substantial policy measures to mitigate the threat, Secretary Kerry will doubtless understand and appreciate Dr. Sachs’s argument about the shortcomings of the State Department’s framing of the question thus far.

In order to have a greater than 50 percent chance of limiting the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees C above the preindustrial level, it will be necessary to leave most of the known reserves of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – in the ground. Doing that will require policy and management decisions that fundamentally alter the current trajectory, and will challenge the energy industry’s business model, which is based on recovering and burning more fossil fuels than a 2 degree atmospheric carbon budget would allow.

The unstated assumption of the SEIS on the implication of tar sands development is that the nations of the world will not implement policies needed to avoid potentially disastrous climate change. But what would be the implication of building, or not building, the KXL pipeline if the U.S. were committed to keeping as much as 80 percent of current fossil fuel reserves in the ground? It is difficult to see how developing, transporting, and refining the tar sands would be anywhere near the most economical (let alone environmentally acceptable) option for burning a strictly limited quantity of fossil fuel while expediting a phase-out.

With a commitment to phase out fossil fuels during the next several decades, while fundamentally transforming the energy system to clean sources, the tar sands would probably not be developed. A decision to grant a permit would be a failure to confront the urgency of this transformation, and a capitulation to industry interests at the expense of the national interest. The State Department’s contractor-provided SEIS does not address this issue, but Secretary Kerry’s National Interest Determination must.

Exerting U.S. leverage to seek to hold back tar sands development would strike an important blow on behalf of scientific integrity in policymaking and action commensurate with the magnitude and urgency of the problem of global climatic disruption.

Secretary Kerry has a first-rate record on supporting scientific integrity in climate change policymaking. Over the years he has shown a concern for maintaining a strong scientific research and assessment program on climate change – something to which few members of Congress pay much attention – both in proposed legislation and in calling out political interference with climate science communication.

For example, in 2006, then-Senator Kerry filed an amicus brief on behalf of an ultimately successful federal lawsuit brought by several environmental groups against the Bush administration, challenging the administration’s suppression of the National Climate Assessment process.[3] In 2007, at a Senate hearing on political interference with federal climate scientists, he called the Bush administration’s evasion and misrepresentation of climate science and its implications for policymaking “Orwellian.”[4]

As Rep. Raul Grijalva said recently, “If [the SEIS conclusion] that Keystone does not pose any environmental risks is allowed to stand, it will not just move Keystone closer to an unjustified approval; it will re-establish the Bush-era habit of tipping the scales in favor of corporations that want special treatment. Keystone is about more than one pipeline. It is about establishing once and for all whether we have moved on from the disastrous Bush-Cheney view of environmental policy.”

Proponents of the pipeline have engaged in a predatory relationship with Americans’ insecurity about unemployment to present what appear to be grossly exaggerated estimates of the job-creating benefits of the pipeline.

In addition, they have downplayed the very real likelihood of difficult-to-remediate spills from the pipeline, which would threaten to degrade and pollute land and water resources and have harmful impacts on human health and wildlife.

It has been argued that the pipeline and the tar sands oil it would deliver would enhance U.S. national security and energy independence. This argument is misleading. Secretary Kerry is well-aware of U.S. national security issues, and he knows the best way to strengthen national security vis-à-vis dependency on oil is to break the stranglehold of oil on the transportation system, by dramatically reducing demand and developing alternative transportation energy sources. Building new infrastructure like the KXL pipeline, to lock the system into decades more of supporting development of a major new source of oil supply, would take the U.S. in the wrong direction. This is true regardless of whether the oil is used in the U.S. or, more likely, exported.

Speaking in Jakarta on February 16, Secretary Kerry called climate change a weapon of mass destruction. Calling attention to the threat of climate change impacts that will disrupt both industrialized and developing countries, he called for a global solution with the industrialized countries playing a leading role, but also urged developing countries to do more to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet Secretary Kerry is no doubt well-aware that, even as the U.S. takes steps to promote the development of clean energy alternatives, U.S. and Canadian energy corporations, with the support of their governments, are aiming to create bigger markets in Asia and elsewhere for fossil fuel exports.

And Secretary Kerry must know that the Obama administration is already playing a role in pushing tar sands oil exports as a ‘free trade’ issue, to which an investigative report in the February 13 issue of Rolling Stone called attention:

The tar-sands boom has the United States poised to become a top player in the global-export market for gasoline and diesel. And Obama’s top trade ambassador has been working behind the scenes to make sure that our climate-conscious European allies don’t shutter their markets to fuels refined from the filthy Canadian crude. …

“In backroom negotiations, [U.S. trade representative Michael] Froman has worked to undermine new European Union fuel standards intended to lower the continent’s carbon emissions. … [In written congressional testimony Froman] explained how he had turned the standards into a point of contention in negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a major free-trade pact being hammered out between the U.S. and the EU. Last October, Froman’s team even went before the World Trade Organization to demand that all globally traded petroleum products be treated ‘without discrimination.’

All in all, a number of U.S. fossil-fuel development and export policy positions suggest an administration that is attempting to straddle climate and energy policy in such a way that it wins support on the progressive side for having a proactive domestic climate policy while, in effect, failing to challenge the obstacle to climate change mitigation posed by corporate energy interests and their global ambitions. Those corporate interests are not the same as the national interest.

Despite the numerous constructive and important action items in the President’s Climate Action Plan, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of administration policy, in how what the administration calls its ‘all of the above’ approach to energy development is being implemented. Thus:

The Bureau of Land Management has leased to the coal industry 400 million tons of coal on federal land in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and the administration has defended the decision against a court challenge by environmental groups. And in Appalachia, mountaintop removal coal mining continues its destructive path.

Industry, with the full support of the administration, continues the fait accompli of radically expanded natural gas fracking across the country, with serious unresolved issues about fugitive atmospheric methane emissions and the potential for contamination of drinking water aquifers – and with no adequate federal regulatory structure in place.

Shell Oil is planning to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska. Oil leasing and drilling has picked up again in the Gulf of Mexico, following a hiatus after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout disaster in 2010.

U.S. coal displaced from power plants by natural gas is being exported to Europe to create its greenhouse gas emissions there, while new coal export terminals are proposed in the Pacific Northwest for shipping to Asia. The administration supports development of natural gas export terminals and the development of natural gas infrastructure abroad, which would lock in more decades of continued fossil fueled electricity. The oil industry pushes for export of U.S.-produced oil.

And the Keystone XL pipeline permit is pending — something that probably would have sailed through the permitting process without a hitch had a national protest movement not been organized to raise the relevant issues while raising the stakes politically on the decision.

How is this sort of ‘all of the above’ compatible with a serious strategy to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption? Now that the Obama administration is pledging to act with urgency to respond to the threat of climate change and acknowledging that this requires a commitment to a sustainable energy system, administration policy should be re-framed to show how it is driven by these commitments.

Scientific integrity and government accountability in climate change policymaking will require policy decisions that result in substantial fossil fuel reserves being left in the ground. Otherwise, what hope would there be for expediting the necessary phase-out of fossil fuels and the fundamental transformation to a clean energy system? The Keystone XL pipeline is an obvious and immediate opportunity to draw the line. Doing so will send a powerful signal to the world that the administration is serious about backing up its climate change rhetoric with hard-nosed action.

Secretary Kerry said recently that he is only beginning to focus on the pipeline permit – but, in fact, his whole career has led him toward the correct and courageous decision.

[1] http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2011/08/19/letter-from-scientists-calling-on-obama-to-block-the-keystone-xl-tar-sands-oil-pipeline/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-sachs/keystone-the-pipeline-to_b_4716229.html

[3] http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2013/02/07/john-kerry-and-climate-change-recalling-a-federal-lawsuit-against-the-bush-administration/