While far from a full-throated endorsement, the State Department's assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline may have paved the way for President Obama to approve the controversial project.
The lengthy environmental impact study released Friday makes no recommendation on whether the pipeline should be built, but makes clear that big-picture environmental concerns — such as those related to greenhouse gases and global warming — are irrelevant on grounds that western Canada's oil sands will eventually be developed and made into burnable fuel.
Furthermore, the State Department says Keystone would have little, if any, impact on American demand for oil.
"We find in this draft that the approval or denial or any one crude oil transport project, including this proposed project, really remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of development of the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil in the U.S.," said Kerri-Ann Jones, the State Department's assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
Years of heated debate have surrounded the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline that would transport oil sands from Canada through the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Many in Congress, including a growing number of Democrats, have pushed the White House to approve the project not only because of its energy potential, but also the thousands of jobs it would create.
But approval of the pipeline would be a landmark defeat for the environmental movement, which just two weeks ago held a massive rally on the Mall and urged Mr. Obama to reject the project.
They had hoped the State Department would take a much tougher stance against Keystone with newly minted Secretary of State John F. Kerry, for years a loud voice on environmental issues, at the helm.
As Republicans and the oil and gas industry touted the draft report, green groups trashed it and vowed to redouble their efforts to stop Keystone.
The Sierra Club called the study "outrageous malpractice." Oil Change International, a key player in the fight against the pipeline, said the State Department had "absurdly" concluded that the project would have little impact on overall oil sands production.
The National Wildlife Federation said the analysis is "fatally flawed" and rejected its ultimate conclusion.
"If Keystone XL wouldn't speed tar sands development, why are oil companies pouring millions into lobbying and political contributions to build it?" said Jim Lyon, NWF's vice president for conservation policy. "By rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, President Obama can keep billions of tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution locked safely in the ground."
But environmental groups also are clinging to the flip side of the review and hoping it will convince Mr. Obama to kill the project.
The State Department's findings make a clear case that if the administration allows the project to go forward, the long-term impact of the project may result in a significant increase in the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere by U.S. consumers.
Emissions from the gasoline that is ultimately produced from Keystone's oil sands are "as much as 17 percent higher than gasoline from average mix of crudes consumed in the United States in 2005," the State Department stated.
Some see the two sides of the report as a clear contradiction.
"What they are saying is that regardless of what they do, the tar sands are going to be developed anyway, so they're saying the no-action alternative will have no impact, which is ludicrous," said Damon Moglen, who heads the climate and energy program at Friends of the Earth, which has long fought against Keystone.
Like many reporters trying to make sense of the 2,000-page report over the weekend, Mr. Moglen said he found the analysis "incredibly unwieldy and difficult to read."
Its complexity notwithstanding, Republicans are holding up the study as more evidence that the pipeline should be approved immediately.
"There is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "After four years of needless delays, it is time for President Obama to stand up for middle-class jobs and energy security and approve the Keystone pipeline."
The findings "confirm what we already knew — this pipeline is safe and in the best interest of the American people," reads a joint statement by Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee of Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee on energy and power.
"There are no legitimate reasons not to move forward on the landmark jobs project," the two Republicans said, again making the case that Keystone is an economic issue, not just a matter of energy production.
While environmental groups are trashing the study, pro-U.S. energy independence groups have found themselves in a new position: applauding the administration for what they view as a job well done.
"The document clearly shows the project will have minimal environmental impacts," said Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, adding that the study is "one of the most thorough and pragmatic project reviews in our nation's history."
He also said the report "clearly refutes this false choice" put forth by environmentalists that either the White House will safeguard the environment or build the pipeline.
Mr. Obama initially tried to delay a decision on Keystone until after last year's elections and then, when forced to make a final decision by a law passed by Congress, he rejected an application by the private firms that would carry out actual construction on the project.
A new application has since been submitted and approved by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman after the pipeline route was adjusted to avoid the most sensitive areas of his state.
State Department officials stressed on Friday that their findings are preliminary and will now go through public comments and a review phase, which could last for several months.
A final determination on the Keystone application is expected later this year, but it's unlikely it will come before summer.
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