State Department Briefing on Alternative Routes for the Keystone XL Pipeline

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 10, 2011. 

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us. We are pleased today to have Assistant Secretary Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who will discuss the Keystone pipeline. She’ll have some opening remarks, followed by your questions. Just a reminder that this call is on the record. And with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Dr. Jones for some opening remarks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining this call. This afternoon I wanted to share with you a decision that the Department has taken, and we’ve taken a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline project to seek additional information regarding potential alternative routes. And these potential alternative routes that we would be looking into will be within the state of Nebraska.

When we released the Final Environmental Impact Statement in August, at that point we began the national interest period, which we kicked off with a period of extensive public comment. During that period, we had meetings in the states where the potential – the states that the potential pipeline would cross through as well as in Washington, D.C., and we also met with many of the state officials.

During that time, we heard a lot of comments and a lot of concern about the route through the Nebraska Sand Hills. And what that resulted in was another trip out to Nebraska and more consultations. And what we’ve heard is from many of the public in Nebraska as well as comments across the nation about the concern of the route going through these fragile landscape in the Sand Hills.

We have, under NEPA, looked at many alternatives. But at the time that we were doing that, we had not had discussions with the Nebraskans or heard these significant public comments. So we have decided really to focus on looking at alternative routes that would minimize or avoid the Sand Hills, and we had not done that in the Environmental Impact Statement. We feel that this additional information will be very important in contributing to our national interest review. So we are going to pursue that information at this time.

We’ve been doing these national interest discussions as well as this outreach based on what is in the executive order, which gives the State Department the authority to grant or deny these permits. And it defines the process where we are asked to go out and get comments and meet and talk to local officials.

So with that, let me stop but just reiterate with one point. One of the reasons we are deciding to take this time to look for this additional information is because we are committed to conducting a very thorough and comprehensive and rigorous and transparent process to get to our final determination.

So I’ll stop there and open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, we’re ready to begin the questions.

OPERATOR: Great. Our first question comes from Brett Harris with the Business News Network. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Dr. Jones, in the final impact assessment or the Final Environmental Impact Statement that the State Department put out earlier this year, it said that a number of other routes were already looked at in the process and that the existing route seemed to be the best one not only in terms of economic efficiency but in terms of environmental efficiency and environmental risk. So I’m just wondering what has changed between now and then. Is this just simply a reaction to the groundswell of concern from Nebraska?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, we’re really in a different period of review right now. The Environmental Impact Statement, which is done under NEPA, is really a technical analysis, and we did look at a number of routes. And what we did was look at whether there were any reasonable or really environmentally better routes than the one that was proposed. We did not look at that time at a specific route that did not go through the Sand hill region.

Now, in the national interest determination period, we are looking at a broad range of factors beyond the environmental impact, and we are looking at what citizens have to say and what the situation is across all of the states. One of the things that became clear to us as we were out in Nebraska was that, unlike many of the other states that the pipeline might pass through if it were to be approved, Nebraska does not have in place a regulatory framework that really allows them to participate in siting where the pipeline may go. And the citizens in the state of Nebraska have been so concerned that there’s been a special session called of their legislature to look into this.

So this decision that we’re taking is based on the process, the national interest process, where we are responding to what we have been hearing and we are looking at a route that we didn’t look at before but which we need to look at and do more analysis of because of what we had been hearing.

QUESTION: Just as a quick follow-up, just to be clear, you’re looking at a different route within Nebraska, not rerouting it around Nebraska?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. It is the Sand hill region in Nebraska that has been the focus of so much discussion.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, we’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joseph Morton with Omaha World Herald. Your line is open.


OPERATOR: Joseph, your line is open, if you could please check your mute button.

QUESTION: Sorry about that. Sorry about that. Yeah, just a quick follow-up, first of all, on that last comment. So the route that will be looked at will be one that hasn’t been studied yet in any of the environmental reviews to date?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: That’s correct. And it’s route or routes. What we are really looking at is an approach that would minimize or avoid the Sand hill region of Nebraska. Right now, the proposed route goes right through some of the Sand hill areas.

QUESTION: But some of the previous routes that were studied would have avoided the Sand Hills, but this – you have kind of a whole new route in mind?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, the alternatives that were looked at in the Environmental Impact Statement, yes, some of them avoided that area completely. But none of them followed the original route and then – or the proposed route – and then looked at what was happening in Nebraska. One of the messages we heard from the state of Nebraska, including the governor, was that there was support for the pipeline but not the particular route that was in place through their state. And so the route that’s in place in other states, many of them have worked with the applicant already to define those routes, for instance in Montana and South Dakota. So we’re really looking at the route that comes into Nebraska, and so yes, it would be that segment of the route that we have not studied yet in any way.

QUESTION: Okay. And you – previously, the State Department had sort of suggested it was the state’s role to look at siting and routes, and not the State Department. Is this kind of a case of you guys needing to step in because Nebraska doesn’t have that regulatory framework?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, we are looking for additional information because we don’t have information about a route that would avoid the Sand Hills and because there is such an interest from the state officials and from the citizens of Nebraska. We do recognize that the legislature is in special session now, and we know that this is under discussion, but we need this information to make sure that the national interest review that we do is truly comprehensive and has all the information we need to come to a decision that’s very well-informed. And we would work very much with the Nebraska legislature as they’re going through their discussions.

MODERATOR: Operator, we’ll go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from Tom Zeller with the Huffington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?


QUESTION: Yes, great. Thanks. I just want to clarify – I know we’ve kind of belabored this from the very beginning of the conversation, but you’re saying that the original EIS did not consider routes that did not go through the Sand Hills, although when I look at the EIS, I see lots of routes that were considered that did go around the Sand Hills and were set aside in favor of this one, which did go through the Sand Hills. But now it sounds like you’re saying the opposite. I just want to clarify that point.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: No, we’re not saying the opposite —

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: What we’re saying is we did not look at a route that was in Nebraska that specifically avoided the Sand Hills. We looked at a route that was much further west and we also looked a route that crossed further to the east, north of Nebraska. And so we did not look at a route that avoided the Sand Hills but was contained within the state of Nebraska.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: And that’s a discussion that has come forward in all of the public outreach we have been doing in our discussions with state and local officials.

QUESTION: And this route, if I can just follow up, this route or routes that you’re considering – the origins of that come from state or from stakeholders’ comments, or where does the idea for these routes come from?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: It comes from – the idea for the routes comes from stakeholders and public comment and state officials. I mean, we don’t draw routes. The applicant would have to sit down and talk with the – with state officials and, I think, decide what would be the route that they would think would be most appropriate. What we do is we look at what is best for the national interest, and we feel we don’t have this piece of information. And we’re being responsive to what we’ve heard from the public.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jill Dougherty with CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I’m looking at some of the statements by various groups, and the American Petroleum Institute, of course, has a very strong comment. And they say that this is about politics and a radical constituency opposed to any and all oil and gas development – keeping them in the President’s camp in November for the election. I know that you’re on the technical side, scientific side, but the question just begs to be asked, which is why should we not interpret this as a step by the President to try to shore up some liberal groups that are opposed to this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: This decision is based on the process that we have been going through. This is not a political decision. We have been – in this national interest determination – out there as listening to what the public has to say, and this message about the Sand Hills of Nebraska has been coming strong and increasing intensity over the discussion we’ve been having since the end of August, when we released the Final Environmental Impact Statement. What is driving us is this process. If you look at what’s happening in Nebraska, I think you can see that this is something that has been gathering much more attention, much more public concern, and we don’t have a route that would avoid what many feel is a unique resource in Nebraska, and we feel we need that to make the correct decision.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you would like to ask a question, as a reminder, please press *1. Once again, to ask a question, press *1. Our next question comes from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Jones, who actually made the decision to explore the additional – or the additional routes, and thereby effectively delay any final decision on the matter? What person within the U.S. Government made that decision? And then, secondly, did U.S. President Obama or anyone else in the White House play any role in that decision?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: The first part of your question is, in the past, the decisions regarding permits have been made by the Deputy Secretary of State, and this decision to pursue additional information was approved by our Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. And so that’s the first part of your question.

The second part is, regarding the White House, the White House did not have anything to do with this decision, except we consulted with them once we were moving toward it. But they did not direct us to make this decision or – this is – this authority is delegated to the Secretary of State through the executive order.

QUESTION: So not only did they not direct you to make the decision, but once you informed them that this was your decision, they did not make any effort to affect the decision in any way?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: No, they did not. The Secretary apprised the President of the decision of our moving in this direction earlier this week, and there was no effort to, sort of, influence our decision. It was our decision.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Deborah Solomon with the Wall Street Journal. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I know you’re on the technical side, but, I guess I’m curious, was there any consideration given to the fact that this is set to create however many jobs, if you want to say 20,000 or whatnot, but that delaying the decision would delay these jobs in the middle of a pretty bad economic moment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, as I’ve been mentioning, we’re in this national interest review period, and the economic impact of this project is one of the considerations that we are certainly looking at. So we are studying the number of potential jobs that could be created. And I’m sure you’ve been following this, but the range of the number of jobs that could be created has been estimated to be at the low end about 4,000 and at the high end about hundreds of thousands.

And so what we are trying to do right now is to conduct the analysis that gets us to a number that we know is accurate. These are short-term jobs. I know they’re important to the construction industry, and I know they’re important to local communities. So we will continue to study that question as part of our overall effort to conduct a very comprehensive national interest review.


MODERATOR: Okay. Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Nathan Vanderklippe with Globe and Mail. Your line is open.

QUESTION: It’s to follow-up on the question of what alternative route you’ll be looking at. I know the — what is I believe is called the I-90 alternative looked at, jogging across a little bit in South Dakota and then avoiding the Sand Hills in Nebraska. Are you suggesting that you want to keep the route identical through North Dakota through South Dakota but change it only in Nebraska?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: That’s accurate. The only alternate routes we’ll be looking at are those which will affect Nebraska. The routes in Montana and South Dakota, those states have interacted with the applicant and suggested modifications that they felt were necessary. So we are looking at the route just in Nebraska at this time.

QUESTION: And what exactly is – has there been an order made to TransCanada? I mean, have they been ordered to file an amended EIS with this new route? Have they been ordered only to study a new route with the potential of the State Department still approving the existing route? What’s the nature of what’s happened here today with regard to State and TransCanada?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, during the national interest period we can – we have the authority to ask for additional information that we think is necessary. So we’re going to be working with TransCanada to discuss this further, and we’re just making the decision today and we’re going to be working with them going forward to sort of go through the steps of what’s going to be needed.

Certainly, TransCanada is the one with the expertise to sort of think about where a route could best go. So they will be the ones who will be out there talking to the Nebraskans and sorting this through. We will be working with them, but this decision has just been made very recently.

MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Cody Winchester with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. According to the statement you’d sent out, this would push the conclusion of the final EIS into the first quarter of 2013. Some of the company officials have testified that this kind of delay would effectively kill the project given how their shipping contracts are structured, complaining that this project has been – or this process has been unfair to them. Is that something you’d care to respond to?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, in the Media Note we do give sort of an estimation based on what we have seen with prior projects of this nature – and that’s just an estimation. I think the company has their own affairs and interests to sort of look into. We’re going to continue to work with them. We haven’t heard anything definitive from them about where they are about all (inaudible) just had some initial contacts. So I can’t really say more than that or – it’s an estimation. I think the company has to look at the timing. But what we do is we have to sort of look at making sure we do the best job we possibly can for the U.S. and the national interests of the country.

QUESTION: One quick follow-up. To clarify, this new environmental impact statement, is that going to be conducted for the entire route for the pipeline or just for the – where it would be rerouted?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: It would just be for the new – the suggested alternative route or routes. So it would only be really what’s called a supplemental environmental impact statement.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Operator, we’ll go for the next question, please.

OPERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from Sheldon Alberts with Postmedia News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the call. I guess I was looking for a little more explanation regarding the route. Why is it that none of the previous environmental impact studies looked at the issue of the Sand Hills in more depth prior to the final study being released in August? There were abundant concerns raised by folks in Nebraska about the Sand Hills. I’m wondering if this doesn’t represent a failure by the State Department to do its job during the initial process.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, I think a couple of points I’d like to make. There are two different processes. The NEPA environmental impact process is a technical analytical process, and we looked at a number of routes and we analyzed them and we came to the conclusion that none of those were reasonable or environmentally better than the proposed route, based on a number of different criteria. So we followed the process of NEPA and correctly fulfilled and completed the environmental impact statement. And some of those routes, you’re correct, did avoid the Sand Hills. But they were the ones, as I had said earlier, which were far to the west or crossed north of Nebraska before going to the east.

What happens in the national interest period is it’s different from the environmental impact statement period. It’s a period where we are looking at what citizens have to say, what state and local officials have to say, what tribal officials have to say, and we look at more targeted kind of questions in a way that connect to the national interest, the bigger picture. We do this with eight other agencies that we work with. We look for their views.

So what we’re doing now is, having heard we’ve heard, that the Sand Hills, in addition to what we pointed out in the FEIS, we did call it out as an area that was very sensitive that had some qualities that would make it somewhat fragile. And we spoke to some mitigation methods and issues that the applicant was agreeing to do. But in the sum of talking to the citizens of Nebraska, hearing from state officials, and, as I said earlier, broader comments, it’s clear that this is a very important issue for the state, it’s a very unique area, and we did not have a route that was just in the state of Nebraska that avoided the Sand Hills.

So we are looking at something that is new and that we had not done before, even though we had done all of the appropriate work on alternative routes under NEPA. But we are now responding to this fact that we didn’t look at a route in Nebraska that avoided the Sand Hills.

QUESTION: Okay. So we’re going back to another technical analytical process then. I’m just a little confused as to how, if nothing was turned up in the first one, what’s changed in that other than the political questions that were raised and the concerns from the people of Nebraska following the EIS – the final EIS.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: But the concerns of the people are a legitimate factor to respond to. I mean, this area in Nebraska is a resource to the people. It’s something that it is – we heard loud and clear that it’s a unique area for the state and the alternative route will be — that we examine will be different from anything we have looked at before. And the other piece of this is that the state officials, the governor and the legislators, are very concerned to the point where they have gone into a special session to see what can they do to try to put some kind of regulatory framework in place, because they don’t have them.

So I think the answer is that we have come to this decision during the national interest period, which is different from the NEPA environmental impact statement period, and we have now to look at this route that is in – just in the state.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Juliet Eilperin with Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, Assistant Secretary. Just two things. One thing, can you talk about whether – how much you would be examining the greenhouse gas implications for the extraction of this oil as part of this supplemental impact statement? It sounds like your – that that’s not a factor.

And just a follow-up on what you’ve been saying, again – and I know this point has been made, but there were plenty of Nebraskans who submitted public comments as part of the Environmental Impact Statement specifically citing the Ogallala Aquifer. I believe that was probably the main source of objections that people from Nebraska were citing. So are you saying that it just wasn’t as relevant when you were doing a NEPA assessment as the national interest assessment? So I was hoping you could handle those, too. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Thank you. Taking the second one first is — the whole issue of the aquifer was raised throughout the Environmental Impact Statement and the Ogallala Aquifer runs broadly across and around the state of Nebraska. I think it’s the uniqueness of the Sand Hills and some of the particular natural features that are there, which we did call out in the SEIS, that I think make it very unique to the people of Nebraska.

When we did the SEIS, the routes that we looked at and compared, we didn’t see, under the NEPA regulations, there was nothing really reasonable or environmentally better than the proposed route. Now, the concern of the citizens and the concerns of the state officials and the governor have raised this to an issue that is more in the national interest kind of determination period where we’re trying to be responsive to what the citizens are looking into and kind of look at the bigger picture here. And we don’t have a description of a route that would avoid the Sand Hills but is only in the state of Nebraska.

Their support – the governor has come out, as I said before, and said he supports this pipeline but not the route. So to get to the other question you raised, the purpose of what the review that we’re going to be doing is specifically to look at the alternative routes through Nebraska. It wouldn’t be broader than that.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, we have time for about two more questions, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Elana Schor with Greenwire. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. My question deals with who would be in charge of this supplemental EIS. The third party contractor that your folks had worked with, Cardno Entrix, has been the subject of a whole lot of criticism from environmentalists and from senators as having kind of too close a financial tie with TransCanada. Do you plan to seek a new contractor to help with this SEIS, a new bidding process? How will that work?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Well, we recognize that this work is going to be very – remindful that this work is very unique to Nebraska, so we’re going to try to get the work done in a way that really gets us the information that we need. And, more specifically, in response to your question about Cardno Entrix, we conducted all of our work with that third party contractor according to the guidelines and the regulations and – well, we feel there is and we believe there is no conflict of interest there whatsoever.

QUESTION: So but does that mean you would consider them as a potential partner on the supplemental or —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: They would be considered as anyone else would be.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator. We have time for one more question please.

OPERATOR: Our last question comes from Olga Belogolova with National Journal. Your line is open.

QUESTION: My question is actually the same one that was just previously asked, so I’m fine.


MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, we have – hold on one second. Do we have more questions, Operator?

OPERATOR: We do have other questions in the queue at this time.

MODERATOR: Okay. Operator, we’ll go ahead and take one more question then.

OPERATOR: All right. And it comes from Anthony Yazaki with NHK. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. My question’s actually been asked and answered already. Thank you.


MODERATOR: Okay. Great, Operator. Well, thank you all of you for participating in today’s call. And again, just a reminder that that call – this call was on the record. Thank you very much.

Source: state.gov