Johanns Challenges Clinton on Keystone Pipeline

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 12:02 PM PDT

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to indicate that the State Department will give its blessing to the massive, 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas. On Thursday, Mike Johanns, the junior senator from Nebraska, pushed back

The huge pipeline hasn't been officially green-lighted yet, and a decision isn't expected until early 2011. But Clinton's recent remarks made it sound like a done deal. The project has been especially controversial in Nebraska, where Johanns and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman have expressed concern about its environmental impacts.

Clinton's comment, Johanns wrote, is "premature" and "appears to prejudge the outcome as a foregone conclusion." He continued:

I do not object to oil pipelines in Nebraska, but there is heightened environmental sensitivity when a pipeline traverses an irreplaceable natural resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, with little examination of potentially preferable alternatives. Furthermore, your Department's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) fails to assess in a substantial manner the porous soil along the proposed route, which may make the aquifer especially susceptible to a potential spill. At stake is the essential source of 78 percent of Nebraska's drinking water, yet the DEIS and your comments lead me to believe it is this Administration's intention to simply accept the pipeline route as proposed.

There are probably plenty of folks in the Obama administration who also weren't particularly happy about Clinton's remark. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the State Department's initial assessment of the pipeline's potential impact a failing grade, stating that the evaluation "does not provide the scope or detail of analysis necessary to fully inform decision makers and the public." The agency suggested a need for closer scrutiny of the pipeline's implications for air pollution, public safety, and public health, and called for further evaluation of the capacity for spill response.

Additional study is still pending, but Clinton's remarks suggest that they might not affect the ultimate outcome.

UPDATE: Nebraska's senior senator, Democrat Ben Nelson, also sent Clinton a letter on the subject on Thursday afternoon."I am deeply concerned by your remarks last week to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California, regarding the U.S. Department of State's approval process for pipeline projects," wrote Nelson. "These comments strike me, and many of my fellow Nebraskans, as an indication that a decision has been reached on the Keystone XL pipeline before your agency has done a thorough study of the environmental impacts which the pipeline will have on Nebraska's Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer."

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