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

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

The release of the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline initiates the final stage in the permitting process: the 90-day National Interest Determination. The multiple reasons to oppose granting a construction permit include an overriding national interest in forestalling the development of a major new fossil fuel source that will exacerbate global climatic disruption and undermine the transformation of the energy system to decarbonized sources.

The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on the KXL project remains essentially unchanged from the earlier Draft SEIS in contending that the pipeline would not significantly alter total global emissions of greenhouse gases. The SEIS concludes that, with or without the KXL pipeline, the Canadian tar sands will be extracted and transported to market. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, notes (Keystone: The Pipeline to Disaster) “the 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.

So now we come to the battle over the National Interest Determination. The SEIS is a big step in the process, but in releasing it, the State Department stressed that the wheel is still in spin on a final decision on the permit. The Washington Post reported:

[State Department] officials cautioned that they are still weighing whether the project would meet the test of President Obama’s broader climate strategy.

The report “is not a decision document,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. “This document is only one factor that will be coming into the review process for this permit” sought by TransCanada, an energy giant based in Calgary, Alberta. …

Jones, the State Department official, said the report “presents considerable analysis, but it does not answer the broader question about how a decision on the proposed project would fit into the broader national and international efforts to address climate change or other questions of foreign policy or energy security.”

She added that the study relied on assumptions about pipeline capacity, oil prices and transportation and development costs that were “uncertain and changeable.” …

“Secretary Kerry is just really beginning his involvement in this process,” Jones said. “There is no timeline for his deliberations.”

The State Department website for the Keystone XL project outlines this procedure:

The Presidential Permit review process now focuses on whether the proposed Project serves the national interest, which involves consideration of many factors including: energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; foreign policy; and compliance with relevant federal regulations and issues. During this time, the Department will consult with, at least, the eight agencies identified in Executive Order 13337: the Departments of Defense, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 30-day public comment period begins on February 5, 2014 and will close on March 7, 2014. During this period, members of the public and other interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on the national interest determination to http://www.regulations.gov.

Earlier in the KXL environmental assessment process, some of the leading climate scientists sent letters to President Obama calling on him to deny the permit, in the national interest and in the interest of the planet:

Letter from scientists calling on Obama to block the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline (August 19, 2011)

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. [emphasis added]

A year ago they reiterated their call:

Scientists call on President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline (January 15, 2013)

Eighteen months ago some of us wrote you about the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, explaining why in our opinion its construction ran counter to both national and planetary interests. Nothing that has happened since has changed that evaluation; indeed, the year of review that you asked for on the project made it clear exactly how pressing the climate issue really is.

We hope, as scientists, that you will demonstrate the seriousness of your climate convictions by refusing to permit Keystone XL; to do otherwise would be to undermine your legacy. [emphasis added]

James Hansen
Research Scientist
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society
The Earth Institute, Columbia University
Ralph Keeling 
Scripps CO2 Program Scripps Institution of Oceanography
John Harte
Professor of Ecosystem Sciences
University of California
Jason E. Box
Byrd Polar Research Center
John Abraham
Associate Professor, School of Engineering
University of St. Thomas
Ken Caldeira
Senior Scientist. Department of Global Ecology
Carnegie Institution
Michael MacCracken
Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs
Climate Institute
Michael E. Mann
Professor of Meteorology
Director, Earth System Science Center
The Pennsylvania State University
James McCarthy
Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography
Harvard University
Michael Oppenheimer
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs
Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences
Princeton University
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago
Richard Somerville
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
George M. Woodwell
Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist
Woods Hole Research Center
Mauri Pelto
Department of Environmental Science
Nichols College
David Archer
Professor, Department of Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago
Dr. Ted Scambos
Lead Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
Terry L. Root
Senior Fellow
Stanford University
Alan Robock, Professor II 
Distinguished Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences
Rutgers University


A policy with scientific integrity and commensurate with the magnitude and urgency of the problem of global climate disruption would call for leaving the tar sands in the ground. If the tar sands can find a way to the market, they will be fully developed. If we can’t say no to this, where will we draw the line? If we allow essentially unlimited development of fossil fuel sources, including unconventional sources such as the tar sands, what hope would there be for expediting the necessary phase-out of fossil fuels and the fundamental transformation to a clean energy system? And thus, what hope would there be for meeting the U.S. responsibility to seek to prevent disastrous climate change?

See also:

Michael Mann in The Guardian: Approving Keystone XL could be the biggest mistake of Obama’s presidency

350.org: President Obama Has All He Needs to Reject Keystone XL

Natural Resources Defense Council: Next Up for Keystone XL: The Question of National Interest Will Show That the Tar Sands Pipeline Must Be Rejected

Tom Steyer letter to Secretary of State John Kerry

DeSmogBlog: State Department Releases Flawed Keystone XL Final Environmental Review In Super Bowl Friday Trash Dump

Earlier CSW posts:

Comments to the State Dept on the Keystone XL pipeline Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (April 22, 2013)

Scientists urge State Dept to consider climate change in new Keystone XL pipeline review

McKibben on Keystone XL, the Obama problem, and fossil fuel divestment

Where are the Keystone XL pipeline whistleblowers?

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline demonstrators surround White House – pipeline permit decision blocked until 2013

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”