* Critics want longer comment period, may take legal action
* Senators want approval of pipeline in hands of Congress
By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, March 6 After the Keystone XL oil
pipeline cleared an important hurdle last week, critics of the
project are searching for ways to force more of the delays that
have dogged it for more than four years already.
The State Department said Friday that TransCanada Corp's
pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Texas would not
add to global greenhouse gas emissions because oil sands crude
will make it to market whether or not the project is built.
That interpretation neutralized a major argument that many
environmentalists have put forward against the 800,000 barrel
per day pipeline: that once built it would usher in greater
development of the oil sands, where production is
The public has 45 days to comment on the State Department's
review. Once that step is taken the department has 90 days to
determine whether the project is in the national interest, with
a decision expected in August or later.
"We think 45 days is very insufficient given the 2,000-plus
pages of analysis," said Danielle Droitsch, head of the Canada
Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the
groups fighting Keystone. Greens will write letters to officials
seeking to extend the comment period to 120 days, she said.
Environmentalists have reason to hope. In the years a
decision has been pending on Keystone, the State Department has
repeatedly delayed the process because of environmental
In mid-2010 State twice extended the comment period on an
earlier environmental review after groups complained they did
not have enough time to analyze it. Then it delayed the project
for 90 days after the Environmental Protection Agency urged
consideration of emissions from refineries in Texas and damage
from potential oil spills.
Greens hope the State Department will embrace fresh delays
because John Kerry, who took over from Hillary Clinton as
Secretary of State in February, has long supported tackling
global warming. "One would hope that Kerry ... would be more
than happy to spend more time talking about this," said Damon
Moglen, the climate director at Friends of the Earth.
RISK THEIR BODIES
An oil analyst said he expected the Obama administration to
move toward a national interest decision this summer, but that
some backers of the project fear more delays.
"What Keystone proponents fear is slow-walking the decision
to death," said Robert McNally, the head of the Rapidan Group,
who worked in the White House as an adviser to former President
George W. Bush. "Some fear the administration could decide to
prolong the permit review process indefinitely, until
TransCanada gave up."
TransCanada, though, seems unfazed. Chief Executive Russ
Girling said last week that the line could be built by late 2014
or early 2015 if a final decision comes by midsummer.
On Capitol Hill, Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North
Dakota, is working with a majority in the 100-seat chamber to
find a way to move legislation that would give Congress the
power to decide the fate of Keystone. It is unclear whether they
have the votes to do so, and President Barack Obama would likely
veto the bill.
Still, environmentalists say the State Department review has
served as a rallying cry. Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for
350.org, a group that has led demonstrations against the
pipeline at the White House, said members will picket Obama and
Kerry at home and abroad during the public comment period.
He said 350.org has been contacted by thousands of people
willing to risk their bodies to stop the pipeline, and the group
will train them in civil disobedience. Protests could take place
in Washington, along the route of the proposed pipeline, and at
TransCanada offices in Houston and near Boston, he said.
Once the State Department completes its review, greens could
also file lawsuits to delay the national interest decision.
Legal action could target the National Environmental Policy Act
and clean water and endangered species laws.
Still, legal actions have not stopped construction of the
southern leg of the Keystone pipeline. Building of that portion,
which does not need a State Department permit because it does
not cross the national border, has crossed the half-way point.
Adele Morris, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution,
said Keystone opponents could hit the jackpot if they force long
enough delays and U.S. oil prices, always unpredictable, fall
The current price of U.S. oil, at around $90 a barrel, is
high enough to support oil sands development, which is more
expensive than many other petroleum sources.
Investment activity could falter if prices fell sharply, but
would pick up again when oil prices rose. "Keystone's opponents
are welcome to protest, but ultimately the price and demand for
oil are more likely to impact the pace of oil sands
development," Morris said.