WASHINGTON -- The State Department released a draft environmental impact assessment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline Friday, suggesting that the project would have little impact on climate change.
Canada's oil sands will be developed even if President Barack Obama denies a permit to the pipeline connecting the region to Gulf Coast refineries, the analysis said. Such a move would also not alter U.S. oil consumption, the report added.
The lengthy assessment did not give environmentalists the answer they had hoped for in the debate over the project's climate impact. Opponents say a presidential veto of the project would send a powerful message to the world about the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and make it more difficult for Canada to export its energy-intensive oil.
But the detailed environmental report -- almost 2,000 pages long -- also questions one of the strongest arguments for the pipeline, by suggesting that America can meet its energy needs without it. The growth in rail transport of oil from western Canada and the Bakken Formation on the Great Plains and other pipelines, the analysis says, could meet the nation's energy needs for the next decade, even if Keystone XL never gets built.
In a news conference Friday, Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said the department had not made any conclusions about the project. "We feel that we need to have a public debate," Ms. Jones said.
The president is unlikely to make a decision on TransCanada's permit application until midsummer at the earliest. The analysis will be subject to at least 45 days of public comment once it is published next week in the Federal Register, and the State Department will have to respond to hundreds of thousands of comments before finalizing its environmental impact statement.
The State Department will also have to conduct a separate analysis of whether the project is in the national interest, a question on which eight other agencies will offer input over 90 days.
Jim Lyon, vice president, conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the department's analysis "fails in its review of climate impacts, threats to endangered wildlife like whooping cranes and woodland caribou, and the concerns of tribal communities."
Mr. Lyon added, "Without access to major U.S. export terminals from Keystone XL and other routes, tar sands production will be substantially slowed."
Canada's U.S. ambassador, Gary Doer, said he and other Canadian officials are "going to use the common sense that's in this report" to press their case for the pipeline. The United States imports 866,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, he said. "Why not get those 866,000 barrels a day from Alberta, Montana and North Dakota?"
The Keystone XL has sparked opposition along the pipeline route -- where it crosses rivers, ranches and farms -- and across the country, where critics said it would facilitate exploitation of Canada's oil sands, or tar sands. Because extraction of bitumen from those sands is an energy-intensive process, it emits more greenhouse gases than extraction of oil from conventional reservoirs.