Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline used to have a simple argument: The project would endanger Nebraska’s delicate Sand Hills region, a vast network of dunes and wetlands that have been designated a National Natural Landmark.
State leaders, including Republican Gov. David Heineman opposed the project on those grounds. President Obama cited the threat to water in the state before denying TransCanada Corp. a permit to build the pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Then TransCanada offered a new route that largely avoids the Sand Hills and won Heineman’s support. While oil spills remain a concern, environmental groups opposed to the pipeline have shifted their emphasis to the more complex charge that mining Canadian tar sands will result in more greenhouse gases and exacerbate global warming.
“The initial opposition was framed heavily in terms of its impact on water and the risks to the aquifer,” said Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future, a Washington-based research group. “They kind of downplayed the greenhouse gas issue. Now I think they’re coming up short in the public argument because there either isn’t the public foundation on this issue or the same intensity of interest.”
Lobbying on both sides of the debate has picked up in advance of a decision expected in coming months from the State Department, which has jurisdiction over the $5.3 billion project because it would cross an international border. The agency scheduled a hearing for Thursday in Nebraska where opponents and supporters are expected to appear.
Last month, 17 Democrats joined every Senate Republican in support of a non-binding resolution endorsing Keystone XL. On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Power voted 17-9 to approve and send to the full committee a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., that would allow the pipeline to be built without the Obama administration’s approval. Obama has said he would veto the measure.
Also Tuesday, groups fighting Keystone released research they said showed it would increase greenhouse-gas emissions by 181 million metric tons. That is equal to the emissions from 46 coal plants and 34 million vehicles, under estimates used by the Environmental Protection Agency. James Hansen, the former U.S. space agency scientist who has been urging policymakers to combat global warming since the 1980s, said building Keystone will mean its “game over for the climate.”
Refiners say failure to approve the pipeline may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation costs associated with U.S. imports of crude from the Middle East and other nations, as well as Canadian exports to Asia, could result in more emissions, according to the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a Washington-based group whose members include Exxon Mobil of Irving, Texas, and Valero Energy of San Antonio.
Environmental groups maintain that concerns over climate change have always been part of the attack on Keystone XL.
“We’re trying to appeal to a Democratic president who gave a State of the Union address where he said that climate change is a big problem,” Atwood said in an interview. “This is the moment in history where we have a small diminishing chance to reverse the trend toward catastrophic climate change.”
The State Department hasn’t helped on that score. On March 1, it issued an updated environmental assessment that concluded the project would have minimal impact on climate change because the oil would find its way to market with or without the pipeline.
Approval or denial “is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area,” according to the assessment.
An earlier assessment by the agency, released in 2010, raised concerns about the Sand Hills. The one released last month noted the change in the route adds 21 miles to avoid sensitive areas such as the Sand Hills.