In Texas, the Keystone XL pipeline is a forgone conclusion. Every day, up to 700,000 barrels of oil (both domestic crude and heavy oil commonly known as “tar sands,” extracted from Canada) make their way from Cushing, Oklahoma through the Gulf Coast segment of the Keystone XL pipeline to refineries in Texas. This section of the controversial project went ahead while the northern leg awaits presidential approval. Despite objections by some landowners and environmental groups, the southern leg began commercial operations earlier this year.
But one man just wants to know where the pipeline will actually run. And he’s been stymied again and again in his efforts to get that information. Thomas Bachand, a San Francisco photographer, finally got an answer this week from the U.S. Department of State on why they won’t release the info to him: Because the company behind the project, TransCanada, doesn’t want to.
Bachand filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the State Department in March 2012. He didn’t hear back until over a year later, when the department told him they didn’t ever get mapping data from TransCanada, the company behind the project. That didn’t make sense to Bachand (and TransCanada said they had provided such data), so Bachand appealed. And waited.
In the absence of data from the State Department, Bachand has relied on what he could get from the Army Corps of Engineers and other sources to put together the most comprehensive map of the Keystone XL publicly available.
Then this week the department responded to Bachand’s appeal from last year, and “revealed that it is withholding the pipeline’s routing data at the request of TransCanada,” Bachand writes on his blog, the Keystone Mapping Project.
“TransCanada made clear that it retained all rights to the data and placed express limitations on its use,” the State Department wrote to Bachand. “As a result, the Department lacks the requisite control over these files for them to be considered ‘agency records’ for purposes of the FOIA.”
Bachand breaks down what that means for how much the public can learn about the pipeline:
“In other words, the DoS will not release mapping data essential to evaluation of their Keystone XL environmental reports, as the foreign corporation building the project wishes that it remain private. Unspoken is that the third-party contractors who authored the DoS reports are leading consultants to the oil and gas industry and may be susceptible to divided loyalties. Typically, where conflicts of interest may arise, independent review is encouraged. Yet, in this case, by withholding data the DoS has effectively shielded the 2,000 mile diluted bitumen pipeline from open and independent review.
This lack of transparency has plagued the Keystone XL. When I approached the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2012 regarding TransCanada’s claim that Keystone XL route data was secret due to National Security concerns, I was told that this was certainly not the case as, once built, the buried pipeline will be marked with stakes in the ground. To expedite approval of the southern Gulf Coast segment of the Keystone, the White House fast-tracked the process through the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), effectively sidelining the Environmental Protection Agency from the permitting process. It was only after USACE issued a Nationwide Permit 12 – obviating independent review of over 600 waterbody crossings, that river, stream, and wetland data was made public.”
The northern leg of the project is still awaiting approval from the Obama administration. The most recent environmental review by the State Department found that while the pipeline will have an impact on climate change, it isn’t enough on its own to make a crucial difference.
“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed [Keystone XL pipeline], is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the State Department report said.