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Updated: Keystone XL Alternatives

November 11, 2011

Now that the State Department has announced that it will consider alternatives to the proposed KXL route, the next big rush is to figure out what alternatives exist.  Back when the original Draft Environmental Impact Statement was being drafted, alternatives were given short shrift.  The first, the “no action” alternative, merited only a few pages of cursory and dismissive discussion.  Other alternatives (see the original document on Plains Justice‘s site) included:

  • Using other existing, modified or proposed pipeline systems (or non-pipeline forms of transportation, like trucking) to meet the proposed need and purpose; and
  • Alternatives to segments of the proposed route (identified as the Steele City, Gulf Coast, and Houston Lateral alternative segments, and a Cushing extension alternative), not different routes altogether.
None of the alternatives considered appears to offer an option to the route across the Sandhills and Ogallala aquifer.  That kind of alternative would require going back to the drawing board entirely. If that’s so, the new environmental analysis will be completely different from what’s gone before and will raise completely new issues.  From the beginning, TransCanada’s argument has been that the shortest route had to have the least environmental impact, because any meandering would just increase the affected mileage.  This may be true, but it does raise the question: if this route is the best we can do, should we be doing this at all?
UPDATE: The following is the text of comments on the subject of alternative routes, drafted by Plains Justice and submitted to the State Department on July 2, 2010 on behalf of:

Friends of the Niobrara • Honor the Earth • Intertribal Council on Utility Policy • Nebraska Chapter of Sierra Club • Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition • Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society • Northern Plains Resource Council • Plains Justice • Prairie Hills Audubon Society • Wachiska Audubon Society • Western Nebraska Resources Council

The central problem with the DEIS analysis of alternate routes is that no U.S. agency at the state or federal level actually has the authority to change the full pipeline route in response to the DEIS. There is some jurisdiction within agencies such as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to guide route decisions, but even that authority was abdicated during the application review process (see below) because the applicants had already chosen a route without reference to Montana standards. Other states along the route have no routing authority, except some de minimis discretion at the county level. Performing an analysis of alternative routes for the purely theoretical purpose of NEPA review, when no agency has authority to act on the conclusions, is a sham and an abuse of the NEPA process that gives participants an entirely false impression that their participation might somehow influence the outcome.

In one instance of sham review of alternate routes, Montana DEQ collaborated with the Applicant to invent alternate routes after the proposed route had already been chosen. To comply with the requirements of the Montana Major Facilities Siting Act (MFSA) and Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), at Section 4.3 the EIS considers five alternate routes in Montana. According to the EIS, Keystone did not appear to examine the preferred Montana routine criteria and preference for the use of public land until after it had selected Alternative SCS-B as its proposed route…. Thus, MDEQ worked with Keystone and the third-party EIS contractor to develop two new alternatives (the CND and CSD alternatives) in a manner that provided clear documentation of the steps taken and factors considered, as indicated in Sections I-2.1 and I-2.3.[1]

Conveniently, these two after-the-fact alternate routes were rejected. Development and review of alternate routes that takes place after the proposed route is chosen can hardly provide the meaningful consideration of alternatives required by state and federal law. To the contrary, it is another sham with no purpose other than to paper over the NEPA, MEPA and MFSA processes.

The EIS also fails to consider existing pipeline routes, including the route of the recently completed Keystone pipeline, which begins in Alberta and would require only a relatively short additional section to reach the Gulf coast. At no point does the DEIS attempt to justify the additional disruption, destruction and risk of an entirely new pipeline route.

Finally, the DEIS gives insufficient consideration to alternate routes that would have less impact on water resources. The “Western Alternative,” is one such alternative that may be both practicable and less damaging to water resources.  The DEIS admits that “[p]otential positive attributes to this alternative include the avoidance of the Missouri River crossing just to the east of the Fort Peck Reservoir and the avoidance of crossings of reaches of the Niobrara River that have been included with the federal Wild and Scenic River program.”[2] However, the route still crosses the Niobrara, one of Nebraska’s most treasured natural resources. Not mentioned, but also a potential reduction in impacts to water resources of this more westerly route, is the avoidance of vital and sensitive prairie potholes generally located in the more eastern portions of Montana and South Dakota.


[1] DEIS at I-2.4.2.

[2] DEIS at 4-17.

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