Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Obama Administration Confused about Its Own Flawed Keystone XL Process


Friends of the Earth

By Kim Huynh

Either Press Secretary Jay Carney was confused at the June 4 daily White House briefing and misspoke, or the Obama administration has abandoned any semblance of adhering to a legal review process for the southern segment of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, stretching from Cushing, Okla. to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

As part of a response to a question about President Obama’s approach to the Keystone XL pipeline, Carney answered:

“The portion that begins at Cushing and goes to the Gulf, as you know—and maybe you were on the trip—the president has not only—the administration not only has approved the various permits that needed to be approved at the federal level, but the president has urged that that process be expedited.”

It should be news to the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the permitting process for the southern segment, that President Obama has given TransCanada, the Canadian oil company backing Keystone XL, the green light on the “various permits…at the federal level” that it needs to begin construction. If true, it would definitely be news to landowners and community leaders along the path of the pipeline through Oklahoma and Texas who are fighting for a voice in the review process, let alone basic information from the Army Corps of Engineers about TransCanada’s permit applications.

By Carney’s account, the Obama administration isn’t even following the already weak and flawed process set out by the Army Corps of Engineers to consider TransCanada’s application for the southern leg of Keystone XL. Assuming he misspoke, Carney’s words nonetheless add to an alarming array of evidence that the Obama administration is paving the way for TransCanada to get a rubber stamp—and pre-judging the outcome—rather than pursuing the rigorous, science-based and transparent review that the public deserves.

Carney’s comments aside, where does the Keystone XL southern segment preview process stand?

TransCanada split the transboundary and southern legs of its Keystone XL pipeline project into two parts following President Obama’s rejection of its presidential permit in January 2012. All signs indicate that TransCanada split Keystone XL into pieces in order to get a head start on the southern leg and evade a thorough review of its environmental impacts while its reapplication for the northern leg is vetted.

Three Army Corps of Engineers district offices—in Tulsa, Okla., Ft. Worth and Galveston, Texas—are charged with reviewing TransCanada’s applications for the southern leg of Keystone XL. The Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that TransCanada submitted its applications to the Corps district offices in Galveston and Tulsa for Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12) coverage on May 11, triggering a 45-day deadline by which the Corps must approve or deny the permits. The Corps can approve or reject the permits before the 45 days are over but if the agency does not respond within the 45 days, the permits are automatically approved by default, allowing TransCanada to proceed with construction.

In response to mounting media scrutiny from reporters like Elana Schor at E&E and Ramit Plushnick-Masti at the Associated Press, Corps officials recently confirmed that the 45 days will run out on June 26 for the Galveston office and on June 28 for the Tulsa office, while the Ft. Worth office is still evaluating TransCanada’s application materials for that district. 

It’s become overwhelming clear that TransCanada pursued NWP 12 coverage to further evade a thorough, science-based review of its pipeline’s likely impacts—as NWP 12 allows for blanket approval of all pipeline water crossings without public review or input—and that the Army Corps is working alongside TransCanada to facilitate a rubber stamp for the southern segment pipeline permits.

In a November 2011 letter to the Galveston district office of the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA Region 6’s Associate Director in the Ecosystems Protection Division, Dr. Jane Watson, determined that at least 61 water crossings in the Galveston district alone were ineligible for NWP 12 coverage:

“[O]f the 101 crossings that require preconstruction notification to the Corps, it appears that approximately 60 crossings of waters of the U.S. would each result in greater than a ½ acre loss of waters of the U.S., and would therefore not be eligible for authorization under NWP 12.”

Dr. Watson’s letter further clarifies that individual Clean Water Act Section 404 permits are required for the southern segment of Keystone XL—a permitting process that would ensure a minimum requirement of environmental review and public input through the National Environmental Policy Act.

Yet, to inoculate Dr. Watson’s determination that the southern segment of Keystone XL is ineligible under NWP 12, TransCanada now claims to have changed the route of its pipeline and to be proposing different techniques to deal with stream and wetland crossings. Army Corps official Vicki Dixon has said, “There would not be a public hearing or notice that would go out as far as the route goes ... it certainly appears that [TransCanada has] minimized the impacts at this point."

What TransCanada and the Corps seem to be missing is that changing the route of the southern segment a few hundred feet or using a new technique—one that hasn’t been proven environmentally safer—doesn’t reduce the cumulative environmental impacts of the pipeline.

The tweaks referenced certainly do not respond to or account for the wide range of concerns repeatedly raised by citizens and landowners, who’ve been blithely stonewalled in their requests for basic information about the application, timeline and process for the permits. While Army Corps spokespeople have informed reporters calling them up that TransCanada has changed its southern segment route, landowners and other citizens have been told they’ll have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests and have been denied meetings. If TransCanada has changed its route, shouldn’t people in its path be the first to be informed?

On a phone briefing last Thursday, David Daniel, president of Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines and a landowner in East Texas, joined an indigenous community leader from Oklahoma, environmental experts and grassroots groups in speaking to the opaque and furtive process overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers:

“We are the most impacted and we carry the primary burden and yet we have been left with being made invisible and feeling like lab rats on our own properties. We are fed up with the tactics, we demand transparency and an end to the stonewalling.”

The public has the right to know the particulars of a process through which a pipeline that would have massive impacts on land, water, public health and our shared climate may be approved any day now. Friends of the Earth and CREDO Action have together generated more than 115,000 signatures on a petition to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, urging her to intervene in the Corps’ handling of the southern segment to ensure a permitting process that is transparent and rigorous as required by bedrock environmental law.

As the clock ticks on TransCanada’s southern permit applications, one thing is very clear: The Obama administration’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will have far-ranging consequences for communities’ drinking water, public health and local economies all along its path as well as for our shared climate. The pipeline, in carrying the world’s dirtiest oil—tar sands oil—to the Gulf Coast for export, would help ignite the carbon bomb in Canada’s tar sands, further fueling climate disruption.

Carney’s statement on June 4 referred to the southern leg of Keystone XL as the “domestic” portion—which is accurate in terms of land area traversed, but misses the larger point. As the key segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, the southern leg of Keystone XL would provide the industry one of the crucial links to relieving the current glut of tar sands oil in the Midwest by piping it down to refineries and international shipping ports on the Gulf Coast for export. The project would inflate oil industry profits while threatening our heartland with costly spills, amplifying the already-debilitating air pollution in refinery communities on the Gulf Coast, and vastly drive the expansion of climate-destabilizing tar sands development and consumption.

Visit EcoWatch's KEYSTONE XL page for more related news on this topic.


EcoWatch Daily Newsletter


By Zak Smith

It is pretty amazing that in this moment when the COVID-19 outbreak has much of the country holed up in their homes binging Netflix, the most watched show in America over the last few weeks has been focused on wildlife trade — which scientists believe is the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is about wildlife trade and other aspects of wildlife exploitation, just as surely as the appearance of Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian flu and probably COVID-19 in humans is a result of wildlife exploitation. As a conservationist, this is one of the things I've been thinking about while watching Tiger King. Here are five more:

1. We are in a biodiversity crisis.

A million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including tigers. The leading drivers of species decline and the impending collapse of ecosystems are ocean and land use changes (like converting wildlands into other uses, usually agricultural) and the direct exploitation of species (like taking animals out of the wild for eating, "medicinal" purposes, or status motives). It is for these exact reasons that there are more tigers in cages in the United States than there are in the wild. Developers continue to destroy tiger habitat and, in the not-so-distant past, hunters shot and killed tigers for sport or for trade in tiger products (and some still do illegally).

2. We must fundamentally change our relationship to nature.

Transformative change is necessary to limit species extinctions and secure human well-being (functioning ecosystems provide the clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants and healthy coastal waters humans need to survive). Transformative change in this context means "a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values." We aren't going to halt the loss of species and strengthen ecosystems if we continue to treat wild plants and animals as expendable and renewable resources that we can use however we want. The tigers and other animals in Tiger King are exploited for profit and personal interests. Regardless of how they may be respected, coveted, or cared for, they are still treated as exploitable objects, which reinforces other destructive attitudes toward nature. A tiger cub is something to be held and photographed, a wetland is something to be filled and built upon, a rhino is something to be killed so we can use its horn for fake medicine. It's a view of nature as being in service to human wants, an attitude that is destroying our planet and one that must change.

3. Most wildlife trade should be banned and we should protect more wild places.

As noted above, ocean and land use changes and direct exploitation of species are causing an extinction crisis and threaten the ecosystems we depend on for human well-being. In line with our exploitative mindset, we've been stuck for centuries with economic and social patterns that allow unfettered use of wild places and wildlife until there's a problem. We need to flip that model on its head and only use wild places and wildlife if we can affirmatively demonstrate that such use won't contribute to the biodiversity and climate crisis. Tigers and the other animals appearing in Tiger King wouldn't be endangered today and wouldn't require "sanctuaries" if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and taken them from the wild for food, pets, "medicine" and trophies.

To set things right, we should ban most wildlife trade and protect more of the natural world. I say "most" wildlife trade to account for the exception of well-managed fisheries. NRDC has long sought to limit irresponsible wildlife trade (fighting for imperiled species internationally, supporting state efforts to limit trade, providing recommendations to China on revisions to its wildlife law), and now we must go further by banning most trade. In addition, we should support efforts to set aside vast swaths of ocean, land and terrestrial water to rebalance the functioning of our natural world. That's why NRDC and others support an initial call of protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans, lands and water areas by 2030. In China, we're protecting areas in a way that helps tigers by supporting the government's development of a National Park system, with targeted efforts on one of its pilot parks, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, which provides an important habitat for China's struggling populations of Amur tigers and leopards.

4. Not​ all sanctuaries are sanctuaries.

A lot of so-called sanctuaries are dumpster fires; they serve no purpose other than exploitation of animals for profit, and the animals suffer needlessly. It doesn't look like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — the park formerly owned by Joe Exotic — is a sanctuary, though it styles itself as being one, so the public may be confused. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, legitimate sanctuaries "do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in." Legitimate sanctuaries can play an important role in saving imperiled species, promoting animal welfare, and educating the public. But those that do not meet strict standards are part of the problem, not the solution. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provides accreditation for sanctuaries that abide by a set of policies, including the maintenance of a nonprofit/noncommercial status. Big Cat Rescue, which is featured in the Tiger King series, "has held GFAS Accreditation status since 2009."

5. Changing our relationship to nature must include a just transition.

Throughout the world and in the United States, millions of people use nature in destructive ways for their livelihoods. I don't say this with judgement; often, people are just doing what we've always done — business as usual — which is unfortunately destroying the planet. Workers in the fossil fuel industry, fishermen in unsustainable fisheries, clearcutters in the tropics and boreal forests, and even people working at fake sanctuaries depend on the current system of exploiting nature to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of other people who depend on healthy, thriving ecosystems for their livelihoods and at the expense of human well-being overall. If we want to succeed in charting a new path for our planet, we must commit to making people and communities whole. The rampant exploitation appearing on the screen in Tiger King isn't just of wildlife — it is also of many desperate people brutalized by a political and economic system providing few options. We're not going to successfully realign our relationship with nature if we don't provide the necessary support for people and communities to transition to more sustainable, ethical means of providing for themselves and their families.

So, watch Tiger King and see if for you, like me, it informs the horror of the current moment, then maybe think about building a different world when we come out of this — a vibrant, natural world filled with wildlife and wonder, where we orient ourselves around preserving nature, not exploiting it, and embark on a new human journey.


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