TransCanada applies again for permit to build Keystone XL pipeline

The Canadian company that wants to build the first pipeline to move tar sands oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast has launched a third attempt to obtain American permission for cross-border construction.

TransCanada Corp. announced Thursday that it had filed the permit application with the U.S. Department of State.

The current leader of the American government’s executive branch, real estate developer and reality television star Donald J. Trump, expressly invited the re-application earlier this week after years of deliberation led to two rejections of the pipeline project by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Trump issued an executive memorandum on Jan. 24 that imposes a 60-day deadline for the State Department to decide whether to grant the permit application.

As of Friday the State Department lacks any senior leadership. Former Exxon-Mobil chief executive officer Rex Tillerson, nominated by Trump to succeed former secretary of state John F. Kerry, is awaiting a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the staff of senior diplomats and foreign service officers who lead the department’s 13 divisions has been gutted. The regime demanded, and received, the resignations of at least seven senior department officials this week.

Replacements for most of those senior staff members will have to be nominated by Trump and then confirmed by the Senate, a process not likely to be completed by the time the deadline Trump imposed for considering TransCanada’s application is reached.

 

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Trump executive memoranda seek to expedite permits for GHG-intensive Keystone XL, Dakota Access pipelines

President Donald J. Trump has issued several executive memoranda aimed at speeding up consideration by federal agencies of the greenhouse gas-intensive Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Two executive memoranda released late Tuesday relate to the controversial projects.

According to a report in the Washington Post, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Trump acted because he is “very, very keen on making sure that we maximize our use of natural resources to America’s benefit.”

Because they aim to aid completion of two projects that would facilitate the burning of more than 1.2 million barrels of oil per day and raise the risks of serious environmental damage from spills and leaks, the directives are likely to reignite intense arguments over both pipelines.

The Trump memorandum related to the Keystone XL pipeline invites that project’s developer, the foreign firm TransCanada Keystone Pipeline L.P., to “to promptly re-submit its application to the Department of State for a Presidential permit for [its] construction and operation.”

The permit is necessary because the Keystone XL pipeline would cross the Canada-United States border.

It also imposes a 60-day deadline on the State Department’s consideration of any permit application, suggests that a 2014 environmental impact statement prepared for the project be considered sufficient to comply with applicable federal environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and waives all requirements to notify other agencies of the permit application and to wait for their responses before proceeding to a decision.

Trump used language designed to preserve discretion granted to the secretary of state to approve or deny any application TransCanada files.

“Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect . . . the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof,” the memorandum says.

At present there is no pending application for a permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline across the Canada-U.S.  border. The Obama administration State Department rejected such an application on Nov. 6, 2015.

Arguments about the economic and environmental impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline raged, and were considered by the Obama administration, for years after it was first proposed by TransCanada in 2008.

The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected an initial environmental impact statement in July 2010 because it failed to adequately evaluate plans to respond to oil spills, pipeline safety issues, or potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project.

After a second EIS was prepared in 2011, the State Department delayed consideration of a permit to consider impacts on the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.

The Obama administration then rejected the pipeline construction application in January 2012.

TransCanada re-applied for the permit later that year. The 2014 EIS referred to in Trump’s memorandum was prepared after that second application.

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Three phases of the Keystone XL pipeline are complete. Only the fourth phase, which is planned to run from a point near Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, is not yet complete. That portion of the project was blocked by the Obama administration. Graphic courtesy TransCanada L.P. and Wikimedia.

The 1,204 mile-long Keystone XL pipeline would run from a terminal near Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect to both a second pipeline that would carry crude to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and to a third that would move oil to collection points in Illinois.

With a maximum carrying capacity of more than 800,000 barrels per day of crude oil extracted from Alberta’s tar sands – a process that has caused extensive destruction to Canada’s 1.3 billion acre, wildlife-rich boreal forests – and the Bakken basin of eastern Montana and western North Dakota, Keystone XL would cause an annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere of 147 million to 168 million metric tons.

Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of tar sands oil, which is extracted from a highly toxic mix of bitumen, clay and sand, would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of 7.8 coal fired power plants, according to a State Department document explaining the Obama administration’s 2015 rejection of the pipeline permit application.

Keystone XL would also open up foreign markets to tar sands crude for the first time.

“Keystone actually is really driving an expansion of tar sands oil extraction,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, chief program officer at Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “You have to look not only at the emission of what goes through the pipeline, but also opening up a market that would not otherwise exist.”

Climatologist James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who first drew significant attention to anthropogenic climate change in the late 1980s, has warned of the consequences of encouraging combustion of the Alberta tar sands crude. He wrote in May 2012 that facilitation of its use by construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would mean “game over” for the planet’s equable climate:

“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon – 240 gigatons – to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. – a level that would, as Earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.”

In addition to the climate impacts of the project, then-secretary of state John F. Kerry also explained that the Obama administration had concluded that few jobs would be created by its construction or operation and that the project would not significantly lower the cost of fossil fuel energy.

Most legislators on Capitol Hill have favored the Keystone XL pipeline despite the climate and other environmental objections, including possible impacts on water supplies, that have been raised against it. The 114th Congress passed a bill that would have forced approval of the Keystone XL permit in Jan. 2015. Obama vetoed it the next month.

Earlier Congresses had considered measures aimed at speeding up consideration of the project.

Trump also issued another executive memorandum aimed at expediting consideration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of an alternative route for the Dakota Access pipeline.

In that memorandum, Trump commanded the secretary of the Army to

“instruct the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), including the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, to take all actions necessary and appropriate to:

“(i) review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act, as amended, 30 U.S.C. 185; permits or approvals under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1344; permits or approvals under section 14 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, 33 U.S.C. 408; and such other Federal approvals as may be necessary;

“(ii) consider, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, whether to rescind or modify the memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works dated December 4, 2016 (Proposed Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing at Lake Oahe, North Dakota), and whether to withdraw the Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in Connection with Dakota Access, LLC’s Request for an Easement to Cross Lake Oahe, North Dakota, dated January 18, 2017, and published at 82 Fed. Reg. 5543;

“(iii) consider, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, prior reviews and determinations, including the Environmental Assessment issued in July of 2016 for the DAPL, as satisfying all applicable requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq., and any other provision of law that requires executive agency consultation or review (including the consultation or review required under section 7(a) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. 1536(a));

“(iv) review and grant, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, requests for waivers of notice periods arising from or related to USACE real estate policies and regulations; and

“(v) issue, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, any approved easements or rights-of-way immediately after notice is provided to the Congress pursuant to section 28(w) of the Mineral Leasing Act, as amended, 30 U.S.C. 185(w).”

The President’s repeated use of the phrase “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted” indicates that the Army Corps of Engineers may retain its authority to complete the preparation of an environmental impact statement that examines alternative routes for the Dakota Access pipeline, as ordered by the Obama administration in Dec. 2016.

On the other hand, the language in Trump’s Dakota Access memorandum requires the Army Corps of Engineers to decide quickly whether to proceed with the EIS and grant the developer, Energy Transfer Partners L.P., permission required to build underneath Lake Oahe.

A Sept. 2016 opinion by a federal district judge may reinforce any determination by the  Trump administration to reverse a decision by the Obama administration three months later to proceed with an environmental impact statement. The Army Corps of Engineers said that it would complete the EIS on alternative routes because of the objections against the project lodged by native American nations in the Dakotas.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, the then-assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

The Dakota Access project is considered by many native Americans to raise the risk that an oil spill would contaminate their water supply or flood tribal burial sites and other sites of cultural importance.

The September ruling by Judge James E. Boasberg  rejected arguments that the tribes had not been adequately consulted about the possible impacts on cultural resources during the permit review process, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act:

“[T]his Court does not lightly countenance any depredation of lands that hold significance to the Standing Rock Sioux. Aware of the indignities visited upon the Tribe over the last centuries, the Court scrutinizes the permitting process here with particular care. Having done so, the Court must nonetheless conclude that the Tribe has not demonstrated that an injunction is warranted here.”

Native American nations opposed to the Dakota Access did not argue that the Army Corps of Engineers had violated NEPA or any other applicable federal law in the extent of communication and discussion with them that had occurred or by initially proposing to apply a nationwide permit under the Clean Water Act to the project.

The Obama administration’s Dec. 2016 determination to undertake a full environmental impact analysis necessitated the denial of the permission to cross Lake Oahe needed by Energy Transfer Partners L.P., which is what likely drove Trump’s decision to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider whether to complete the EIS.

Planned to wind from its origin in North Dakota and through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil tank farm near Patoka, Illinois, Dakota Access would abut lands of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

dakota-access-pipeline-route-courtesy-wikimedia
This graphic shows the route of the proposed Dakota Access pipeline, which is complete except for the portion that crosses Lake Oahe in North Dakota. Image by NittyG (own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52776844).

The developer’s proposal to bury the pipeline beneath the bed of Lake Oahe in North Dakota has raised fears of water pollution and other environmental damage from pipeline leaks and other mishaps.

Dakota Access would permit the consumption of at least 470,000 more barrels of crude per day.

Most, or even all, of the oil carried by the two pipelines could be exported. Congress enacted legislation in 2015 that ended a longstanding prohibition on transport of American crude overseas.

A spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners L.P. refused to say, when asked by a reporter for The Intercept in Sept. 2016, that the company would remain committed to prior claims that all of the oil transported in it would be supplied to the U.S. market.

Environmental conservation community leaders vowed Tuesday to continue their opposition to both projects.

“The world’s climate scientists and its Nobel laureates explained over and over why it was unwise and immoral,” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, said in a statement. “In one of his first actions as president, Donald Trump ignores all that in his eagerness to serve the oil industry. It’s a dark day for a reason, but we will continue to fight.”

Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh vowed an all-out battle, saying that the two pipelines “pose a grave threat to our water, communities, and climate.”

“We will use every tool available to help ensure that they are not built,” she said.

One legal academic who specializes in the application of federal environmental law said that he is not convinced that a court would defer to Trump’s executive orders.

“Some people think it’s a matter of snapping fingers, but the courts don’t work that way,” Professor Patrick Parenteau of Vermont Law School told Inside Climate News Tuesday, referring to the Dakota Access project. “There has to be a bona fide, legitimate reason why not proceeding with the assessment that just a month ago the United States government said in court was necessary in order to comply with the law. Why all of the sudden it is not?”

Trump’s precipitous actions on the fourth full day of his presidency overturns decisions taken after years of deliberation and study by his predecessor’s administration and follows a pattern of dishonest rhetoric about the validity of scientists’ understanding that fossil fuel consumption is driving climate change.

In Nov. 2012 businessman Trump labeled climate change a “Chinese hoax” aimed at destroying U.S. manufacturing capability. In Nov. 2016, the regime’s incoming White House chief of staff, lawyer Reinhold R. Priebus, publicly said that the 45th President regards climate change as a “bunch of bunk.”

NOTE: This post was updated on Jan. 25 to reflect that President Trump issued executive memoranda, not executive orders, and that the content of those memoranda allows some agency discretion in handling the pipeline projects.

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Obama clarifies succession to leadership at several environmental, science policy agencies

As is customary at the end of a President’s tenure, Barack Obama issued several executive orders and memoranda late last week that clarify the succession of leadership at federal agencies. Included were directives affecting the Council on Environmental Quality, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Environmental Protection Agency.

The question of EPA’s leadership succession was the only one of the three to be addressed via executive order. Obama set out sixteen potential chief managers of the agency in the event the administrator or deputy administrator dies or resigns.

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Gina McCarthy has been the 13th administrator of EPA since July 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

While current administrator Gina McCarthy and acting deputy administrator Stan Meiburg have not said that they will leave office before noon on Friday – the time and date on which Obama’s administration ends – their successors may not be confirmed by the Senate before then.

EPA has not had a permanent deputy administrator since August 2014, when two-decade agency veteran Bob Perciasepe resigned to lead an environmental advocacy organization.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has nominated Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to lead EPA. Pruitt’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are scheduled to begin on Jan. 18.

Once McCarthy leaves office on Friday, and if Meiburg also exits, then the succession at EPA will progress through the agency’s general counsel and then the assistant administrators for the Offices of Solid Waste, Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Air and Radiation, Water, and Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

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Christy Goldfuss has led CEQ since 2015. Image courtesy The White House.

The Council on Environmental Quality, which is part of the Executive Office of the President, has not had a chairperson in place since Michael Boots resigned in March 2015.

Obama’s memoranda of Jan. 13 provides that the organization’s managing director, chief of staff, general counsel, associate director for National Environmental Policy Act, and, finally, other associate directors in order of appointment will succeed to its leadership.

Current managing director Christy Goldfuss has been leading CEQ since Boots left the White House staff. She is a former deputy director of the National Park Service and once worked as a staff member for the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The CEQ chair is subject to Senate confirmation.

Obama also ordered Friday that the associate directors for national security and international affairs, technology, science, and environment and energy will succeed, in that order, current OSTP director John P. Holdren if a new director is not in place by noon on Jan. 20.

john-holdren-photo-courtesy-the-white-house
Dr. John P. Holdren, a physicist and aerospace engineer, has led OSTP since 2009. Image courtesy The White House.

If the associate directors are no longer in office at that time, then OSTP’s chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and assistant director, and general counsel would be next in line.

Like CEQ, OSTP is part of the White House staff. Its director is also subject to Senate confirmation.

Trump has not named the next OSTP director.

Obama orders federal agencies to factor sea level rise into construction planning

President Barack Obama wants federally-funded construction projects to be more flood resistant, a response to the likelihood that sea levels will rise as Earth’s climate changes.

The White House announced Friday that Obama signed an executive order that will require buildings, roads, and other structures to meet one of three criteria: siting according to the “best available, actionable climate science,” construction of non-critical facilities at least two feet above the 100-year flood elevation, or construction at a contour above the 500-foot flood elevation.

“The [f]ederal [g]overnment must take action, informed by the best-available and actionable science, to improve the [n]ation’s preparedness and resilience against flooding,” Obama wrote in the order.

A fact sheet released by the Council on Environmental Quality explained that the executive order does not affect the National Flood Insurance Program‘s standards. Instead, according to the fact sheet, the standards required by the executive order “will apply when [f]ederal funds are used to build, or significantly retrofit or repair, structures and facilities in and around floodplains to ensure that those structures are resilient, safer, and long-lasting.”

Obama acted several days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that coastal storms in the northeastern region of the country are intensifying as sea levels change and the climate changes.

“Hurricane Sandy brought to light the reality that coastal storms are intensifying and that sea-level change and climate change will only heighten the vulnerability of coastal communities,” Brig. Gen. Kent D. Savre, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, said in a statement accompanying release of the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study Report.

The National Climate Assessment, which was released by the White House last year, also warned that sea level increases are inevitable as anthropogenic climate change continues.

Obama’s order is the first substantial change in the flood protection standards applicable to federally-funded facilities since President Jimmy Carter first addressed the problem in 1977.