Keystone XL & the National Environmental Policy Act: Let's Clarify a Few Things

The recent news that the Keystone XL Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) downplayed climate impacts was disappointing. The SEIS states that the extraction rate and demand for crude oil-sands will not actually increase as a result of building the Keystone XL pipeline. In that scenario, the extraction rate used to calculate estimates of GHG emissions in the SEIS are unrealistic. The estimates economists came up with for GHG emissions resulting from the Keystone XL pipeline are therefore, according to the SEIS, not realistic. Economists used a market analysis to predict that the pipeline won’t actually result in an increase in GHG emissions. So they are saying that because building the Keystone XL pipeline won’t actually make a difference in demand, more oil won’t actually be extracted.

It seems to me that this reasoning contradicts the main argument for building the Keystone XL pipeline: to provide the US with cheaper oil. If oil prices drop as a result of building the Keystone XL pipeline, Americans will more than likely consume more oil, which WOULD lead to an increase in demand (therefore leading to an increase in GHG emissions). It’s much more complicated than that, but I won’t go any further in depth.*

Despite the disappointment, there is some good that comes out of the fact that climate impacts were analyzed at all. There is currently no requirement that federal agencies take climate impacts or greenhouse gas emissions into account in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a lot more complicated than you might think. The act itself has very little guidance on how to actually prepare an EIS. The regulations for NEPA compliance are issued by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is a part of the Executive Office of the President.

Another basic yet important premise is that NEPA is not an action-forcing act. That means that Federal agencies are required to go through the NEPA process if they are undertaking projects that are “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”. However, federal agencies are NOT required to actually implement the alternative that has the least harmful impacts; they are merely required to consider what those impacts may be. It’s quite a lot more complicated than that, but for the sake of keeping this blog short, that is enough information to understand the point I’m trying to make.

So, shouldn’t climate always be considered in an EIS? The CEQ has released a document suggesting that it should be considered—and how and when to consider it—but there is still no requirement that an EIS address climate or GHG impacts of a federal action.

The lack of a requirement for climate impact analysis isn’t really any different from the hesitancy and difficulty in considering climate in any other decision. In general, an EIS focuses on much more localized impacts, such as those it will have on the local community where the action is being taken. The consideration of  a projects impacts, however, is complicated when an action will affect a large geographical region. Of course, it’s even more complicated to take the entire Earth and its atmosphere into consideration.

But it seems as if NEPA was actually written in a way that, in the modern world of climate awareness and advanced climate science, would require climate impact analysis. The act itself states that the purpose of NEPA is: “…to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation…” Climate seems to fit pretty well into that purpose.

The remaining problem is that there is still a great deal of misinterpretation of climate data. The recent (and ongoing) public outcry about the Keystone Xl climate impacts are evidence that there are a lot of different ways to analyze the climate impacts of an action.

Much of the actual execution of preparing an EIS is guided by precedent. It gives me great hope for the future that the CEQ has at least drafted a document to guide the inclusion of climate in an EIS, and it is even more inspiring to see that many agencies have already included climate impacts in their EIS. Let’s hope that President Obama can climb his way over any hurdles and make a balanced decision about Keystone XL based on the climate impacts that have been predicted by scientists outside of the preparation of the SEIS.


*A lot of environmental majors do not graduate college with marketable skills. Having a solid understanding of NEPA is a marketable skill. If you have the chance, I highly recommend taking a course that will teach you about the National Environmental Policy Act and how to prepare Environmental Impact Statements.




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