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Good news for environmentalists who might otherwise be lamenting the State Department giving initial environmental approval for the Keystone XL pipeline: The government determined that the pipeline itself won't be damaged by climate change.

The highly controversial pipeline, lambasted by critics as a tremendously risky project for the environment, won a key victory with the release of the State Department's draft environmental impact assessment by the State Department. Release of the draft report late this Friday afternoon kicks off a 45-day period of public comment. You can read the executive summary of the report here if you plan to comment — and if the history of the proposal has taught us anything, it's that there will be a great deal of comment indeed.

At question is whether State should grant TransCanada, the Canadian firm hoping to build the pipeline, authorization to bring it across the U.S.-Canada border. TransCanada hopes to complete a route from the tar sands deposits of Alberta, Canada, down the middle of the country, and to the Gulf Coast. Proponents of the project tout the short-term job creation potential of such a major project, as well as the possible reduction of oil from Middle East if imports from Canada increase. Critics argue (generally in much stronger terms) that the project would substantially increase the use of an energy source that is much more carbon intensive than conventional oil sources — setting aside concerns over the possibility of a spill. The worst on-land spill in American history resulted from the rupture of a tar sands pipeline in Michigan.

TransCanada's initial proposal for the pipeline brought the pipeline across an environmentally sensitive region of Nebraska, prompting even that state's Republican governor to experess concerns about the project. A revised plan from TransCanada changed the proposed route to largely avoid those regions, prompting the state to approve the project — and removing a key reason for the State Department to nix the proposal.

As one would expect, the report is thorough. It notes that some 15,493 acres would be disturbed during construction — an area of about 24 square miles — and that the pipeline would cross over 1,000 bodies of water. It articulates the native species of plants and animals that would be effected by construction. And — of most concern to environmentalists — it considers how the project will affect and be affected by climate change. The project will create 240,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas while being built, and another 3.19 million metric tons each year thereafter — a figure that is less than one percent of the emissions from the country's coal-fired power plants.

Perhaps the most ironic part of the report is its assessment of what damage the pipeline might see at the hands of climate change. After outlining what climate change is expected to bring to the United States (warmer temperatures, more wildfires, etc.), it notes:

The pipeline would be buried deep enough to avoid surface impacts of climate changes (freeze-thaw cycles, fires, and temperature extremes).

This will no doubt be a great relief to activists.

But, as with nearly every part of this hard-fought issue, the report released today isn't a clear cut victory for either side. The Washington Post notes that the report undermines one of the key economic arguments made by pipeline proponents.

[T]he detailed environmental report — which runs close to 2,000 pages long — also questions one of the strongest arguments for the pipeline, by suggesting America can meet its energy needs over the next decade without it. The growth in rail transport of oil from western Canada and the Bakken Formation on the Great Plains and other pipelines, the analysis says, could meet the country’s energy needs for the next decade, even if Keystone XL never gets built.

The on-going delay in construction of the pipeline has led to a significant over-supply of tar sands oil in Alberta, causing prices to plummet and, according to some analysts, threatening the long-term economic viability of the project. The State Department's analysis above offers another reason for pessimism: even if built, the market may not return.

Critics will also cite the report's determination that construction would create about 42,000 jobs — but only 35 long-term.

To a large extent, today is only a sideshow to the main event, which will come with a final decision on the all-important cross-border permit. The State Department also indicated today that a final decision won't come until July or August. After all, the government needs to get through the 45 days of public comment the report requires — and then further public comment on news shows and at protests and in Congressional offices every hour until a decision is made.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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