According to environmental group Friends of the Earth, the U.S. State Department is deliberately downplaying the environmental impact of crude oil from Canada’s oil sands (which, you may recall, is a major source of oil for the Midwest).

Photo by EvolveLove via Creative Commons

The group has found a line in a diplomatic cable posted by WikiLeaks that it says indicates the State Dept. is well aware of the impact of oil sands production:

“…there is also keen sensitivity over the higher environmental footprint of oil from Western Canada’s oil sands”

Given the condensed way the cable is written, it’s not entirely clear whether the diplomat is talking about emissions from the extraction of the oil or lifecycle emissions. Either way, FOE says the statement is directly at odds with a line in the draft impact report for the Keystone XL pipeline, which says:

…since the crude oil delivered by the Project would be replacing similar crude oils from other sources, the incremental impact of these emissions would be minor.

That line in the report is referring specifically to emissions from refining the crude. The impact statement avoids the question of impacts from extracting the oil, noting that federal law does not require it to consider environmental impacts outside the United States.

It would seem that the two documents are referring to different things, but that’s exactly the problem. Let’s assume that emissions from the refineries at the end of the pipeline are a wash. Won’t the emissions from the extraction process still impact the United States?

“Failure to fully assess the environmental impacts of this tar sands oil pipeline would violate the National Environmental Policy Act and leave the agency vulnerable to litigation,” says FOE legal director Marcie Keever in the news release.

Secretary State Hillary Clinton said in October “we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada,” essentially implying that, for better or worse, all oil is equal in terms of its environmental impact. But even the oil industry acknowledges that overall emissions from the oil sands are higher than oil from other sources.

A statement on climate change on the State Department’s website says:

The world community must work collaboratively to slow, stop, and reverse greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a way that promotes sustainable economic growth, increases energy security, and helps nations deliver greater prosperity for their people.

Your turn: Would approving the Keystone XL pipeline undermine that goal?

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.