Keystone XL Opponents’ Scrambled Response to the State Department’s FEIS

Late Friday afternoon the State Department released its long-awaited Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on Keystone XL. As with the previous four statements, the State Department found, once again, that Keystone XL would have a negligible impact on the environment, clearly passing President Obama’s climate test.

In the wake of the news, Keystone XL opponents scrambled to respond – and the result was utter chaos.  Some claimed the report was biased from the beginning; others said it actually bolsters their case; others tried to downplay its significance. If anything, their reactions just show that their entire campaign is about politics, not the environment.

Here are the top five things you need to know about Keystone XL opponents’ response to the FEIS:

#1 Opponents admit they are counting on politics, not the facts

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told “Meet the Press” this week that President Obama will “insulate this process from politics.” The State Department made a similar statement: as spokesperson Jen Psaki told Politico, “Every lobbying group, on either side, should put their checkbooks away […] The secretary will make the decision based on the facts and after the department has completed the established process.”

But that’s not what Keystone XL opponents are banking on.

As anti-oil sands spokesperson Kenny Bruno told Politico, “Pipeline critics, he said, have ‘the winds at our backs’ because the decision is ‘no longer in the hands of lower-level bureaucrats in the State Department. It’s in the hands of climate champions Barack Obama and John Kerry.’” In other words, forget what the hard-working non-partisan folks at the State Department have to say – we’ve got our political friends who will help us.

The Wall Street Journal put it this way: “But Mr. Obama has cared more about the lobbying of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, who is threatening to cut off Democrats if Mr. Obama approves the pipeline. Talk about feeding the 1% while trashing the middle class.”

So it’s no wonder that a Bloomberg poll from late last year found “More than twice as many — 61 percent versus 28 percent — blame the delay in approving the pipeline on potential political problems it would create with environmental groups rather than on ‘legitimate concerns’ about an increase in carbon emissions.”

#2 Opponents say that State’s conclusion that Keystone XL will have a negligible impact on the climate actually means that it won’t

Immediately after the release of the FEIS, the NRDC published a blog post with this headline: “Final environmental review for Keystone XL tar sands pipeline acknowledges significant climate impact and sets stage for rejection.”

NRDC makes this argument on the grounds that in a scenario of lower oil prices and the failure of every other pipeline, the climate impact of Keystone XL could be “equivalent to the tailpipe emissions from 5.7 million passenger vehicles.”

But Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations answered that claim over the weekend, saying:

“The logic in the final EIS (as in the draft) is straightforward: blocking the Keystone XL pipeline is unlikely to significantly affect oil sands production because oil sands has other ways of getting to markets. But the final EIS, unlike the draft one, stress tests that claim, pushing it to identify conditions under which it would fail. It finds some, but they’re narrow.”

As Levi points out, all other pipelines “need to consistently fail for Keystone to matter.”  Rail, too, would have to fail, and for that to happen the oil price would have to be between $65 and $75 (that must also be a long run estimate).  Because having all those conditions come together is highly unlikely, Levi explains that State “treats this possibility as an outlier.” As Levi concludes, if President Obama wants to reject Keystone XL on those grounds, he’d “need to thread a very small needle.”

And opponents’ threading of the small needle is failing to convince.  Just take Jonathan Chait’s latest column, “Keystone Pipeline to Be Built Because There’s No Reason Not To” which comes to this conclusion: “So, what public policy reason is there to block the pipeline? There really isn’t one. Indeed, the environmentalists’ obsession with Keystone began as a gigantic mistake.”

#3 State Department report destroys Tom Steyer’s primary talking points

We can see why Tom Steyer is so upset, considering that the State Department refuted just about every charge that he and his team have made over the past year.

Not only did the FEIS find that Keystone XL will have little impact on the climate, it finds that it will not be an export pipeline as that option is “unlikely to be economically justified.”  The FEIS also debunks Steyer’s claim that prices would go up in the Midwest:

“Midwest product prices are derived from Gulf Coast prices, both of which are in turn driven by international (rather than U.S. inland) crude oil prices. Enabling (additional volumes of) WCSB crudes to flow to the Gulf Coast would not change this dynamic.”

Finally, contrary to Steyer’s claim that Keystone XL will create few jobs, the FEIS concludes that the pipeline will create “approximately 42,100 jobs across the United States.”

Remember just before the FEIS was released, the Washington Post Fact-Checker published a rather devastating critique of Steyer’s last anti-Keystone XL ad, giving it four Pinocchios.  As the Fact Checker points out, “this ad does not even meet the minimal standards for such political attack ads. It relies on speculation, not facts, to make insinuations and assertions not justified by the reality.”

Of note, this critique comes just after the New Yorker said that Steyer’s previous ads may be “good political theater” but they “lacked context” and were simply “stunts.”

#4 EPA to the rescue? Not so fast

Some Keystone XL opponents are now pinning their hopes on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Reuter’s quotes one opponent from the NRDC saying, “The EPA has been very consistently critical. If the report does not make significant changes from the draft version released last March, the EPA would be in a position to be critical in its review.”

What cannot be ignored, however, is that in testimony before Congress, then acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said that EPA actually had given the State Department’s review a “passing grade.”

Even EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged that opponents’ efforts are not about the climate.  Remember late last year she told Boston Globe reporter David Able “If there’s oil there, someone will find it and use it.”  That interview came just days after she said that EPA’s work on climate will not be affected by Keystone XL. As she put it, “No one project is going to take that away from us.”

#5 Without the facts on their side, activists vow to continue civil disobedience and increase political pressure

Well before the FEIS came out, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth Ross Hammond told Bloomberg News that “If that report comes out and it says Keystone is not going to have a significant climate impact, it will be hard for Obama to ignore his own agency’s finding.”

So what’s their next move?  Without facts on their side, opponents are threatening to use civil disobedience and political pressure to influence the decision.

As Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska promised, “There’s no question, if the president approves this permit, that there will be civil disobedience”

They also openly admit that they’re working to ensure that there will be financial consequences for anyone who doesn’t do what they want.  As Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University and a contributor to Kerry’s past campaigns said, “I’m working with an informal network of political donors that will be pushing Kerry to do the right thing.”

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