WASHINGTON — The long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline cleared a major hurdle toward approval Friday, a serious blow to environmentalists' hopes that President Barack Obama will block the controversial project running more than 1,000 miles from Canada through the heart of the U.S.
The State Department reported no major environmental objections to the proposed $7 billion pipeline, a bone of contention in the political debate over climate change. Republicans and some oil- and gas-producing states in the U.S. — as well as Canada's minister of natural resources — cheered the report, but it further rankled environmentalists already at odds with Obama and his energy policy.
The report stops short of recommending approval of the pipeline, but gives Obama new support if he chooses to endorse it in spite of opposition from many Democrats and environmental groups. Foes say the pipeline would carry "dirty oil" that contributes to global warming, and they also express concern about possible spills.
Republicans and business and labor groups have urged Obama to approve the pipeline. The pipeline is also strongly supported by Democratic politicians in oil and gas-producing states.
The 1,179-mile pipeline would travel cross Montana and South Dakota, carrying oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day through Kansas and Oklahoma to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed regardless of U.S. action on the pipeline, the report said,
The report says oil extracted from Alberta tar sands generates about 17 percent more greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, than traditional crude. But the report makes clear that other methods of transporting the oil — including rail, trucks and barges — would release more greenhouse gases than the pipeline.
U.S. and Canadian accident investigators warned last week about the dangers of oil trains that transport crude oil to refineries in the U.S. and Canada. The officials urged new safety rules, cautioning that an accident involving the trains could kill many people.
Shipping the oil by rail to Gulf Coast refineries would generate 28 percent more greenhouse gases than a pipeline, the report said.
State Department approval is needed because the pipeline crosses a U.S. border. Other agencies will have 90 days to comment before Secretary of State John Kerry advises Obama on whether the project is in the national interest. A final decision is not expected before summer.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the report "once again confirms that there is no reason for the White House to continue stalling construction of the Keystone XL pipeline."
However, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the report gives Obama all the information he needs to reject the pipeline.
"Piping the dirtiest oil on the planet through the heart of America would endanger our farms, our communities, our fresh water and our climate," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the NRDC's international program director. "That is absolutely not in our national interest."
The report said the pipeline was likely to have an adverse effect on the endangered American burying beetle, found in South Dakota and Nebraska, but it said that could be offset by monitoring and other requirements on the pipeline operator.
In Canada, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver welcomed the report and said officials there "await a timely decision" on the pipeline.
"The choice for the United States is clear: oil supply from a reliable, environmentally responsible friend and neighbor or from unstable sources with similar or higher greenhouse gas emissions and lesser environmental standards," he said.
In Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, he reiterated his support for an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that embraces a wide range of sources, from oil and natural gas to renewables such as wind and solar power. The remarks were a rebuff to some of his environmental allies who argued that Obama's support of expanded oil and gas production doesn't make sense for a president who wants to reduce pollution linked to global warming.