IS IT CHECK OR CHECKMATE?

Posted on December 2, 2014 by Annette Kovar

Back in September 2008, TransCanada Keystone Pipeline LP (TransCanada) filed what it probably thought at the time was a straightforward, routine application for a Presidential permit to build its Keystone XL pipeline. As almost everyone knows now, that pipeline would deliver thousands of barrels of Canadian crude oil to refineries on the U.S. gulf coast. The project appeared to be straightforward because the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been honed over many years. If not exactly expeditious, the NEPA process is well known and often used.  And the project appeared to be routine because there are many pipelines that already cross U.S. territory.

Yet, six years later, there still is no final decision on a permit. The review process has ballooned into an intricate one, attracting legislative and judicial attention and intervention at both the state and federal levels, not to mention increased public awareness. Normally, one would expect increased public attention and awareness to lead to better decision-making and hopefully that will be the case here. My question, though, is whether this public participation could have been integrated into the NEPA process earlier. A follow-up question might be whether it would have mattered once politics took over.

The delay in completing this project review is undoubtedly frustrating for many and has created a “moving target” conundrum with many other decision-makers now involved. Even with a decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court and a final Presidential decision on the permit, the congressional and federal legal challenges are unlikely to end. Has this project become so politicized that there can be no public confidence in the eventual outcome? Would there have been a better way to encourage public participation earlier?

Nebraska could have gotten involved sooner. The federal NEPA regulations allow a State or local agency “which has jurisdiction by law or special expertise with respect to any environmental impact involved in a [proposed project]” to become a cooperating agency, with the federal lead agency conducting the federal NEPA review.  In 2009, the Department of State invited local governments to weigh in on the permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline under NEPA by becoming a cooperating agency.

At that time, the pipeline route debate had not yet arisen and Nebraska could still participate in the NEPA process by providing comments. In addition, the federal NEPA regulations normally require a cooperating agency to use its own funds. Nebraska’s ability to fund its own NEPA-like review of the project was severely limited since the state had no similar NEPA-like requirement or source of funding at that time. Given the lack of controversy early on, the extra expense of becoming a cooperating agency seemed unnecessary when the opportunity to offer comment was an option.

Would Nebraska involvement at that earlier time have made a difference?  It’s hard to say.  Opposition to the pipeline route in Nebraska only started to come together when the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) came out in August of 2011 and TransCanada began contacting local landowners to obtain easements. The growing opposition led to Nebraska legislation essentially creating a cooperating role for Nebraska by providing adequate funding for preparation of a report to supplement the federal EIS. That report was published in January 2013.

In addition to Nebraska’s actions, the U.S. Department of State determined that more information was needed about alternative routes to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska.  This prompted Congress to adopt a provision forcing Presidential action on the 2011 EIS within 60 days.

The President then denied the permit for the reason that it didn’t allow sufficient time to review the proposed alternative route through Nebraska.  TransCanada re-applied in May 2012 with a proposed new route through Nebraska. This led to more state legislation, state legal challenges, a supplemental report issued by Nebraska in 2013, and a Final Supplemental EIS issued by the U.S. Department of State. But, there’s still no permit decision, as most parties are awaiting a final decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the state legislation.

This looks more like a schizophrenic chess match than responsible government. Is it just government avoiding a difficult and controversial decision? But, with so many wrenches thrown into this particular NEPA review, how could we expect the process to reach a final resolution in a timely manner? It is rare these days to find any public policy being made in a forthright and timely manner without competing vested interests impeding the administrative process in any number of “legitimate” ways.  Unfortunately, environmental issues are no different in this respect than immigration or health care. The Keystone XL pipeline is only one example where our Constitutional construct has given us lots of “checks” without much balance.  



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