In a blow to campaigners, who have spent the last week at a sit-in at the White House, the State Department said the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would not cause significant damage to the environment.
The State Department in its report said the project – which would pipe more than 700,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude to Texas refineries – would not increase greenhouse gas emissions. It also downplayed the risks of an accident from piping highly corrosive tar sands crude across prime American farmland.
Campaigners accused the State Department of consistently overlooking the potential risks of the pipeline.
“The State Department… failed to acknowledge the true extent of the project’s threats to the climate, to drinking water and to the health of people who would breathe polluted air from refineries processing the dirty tar sands oil,” Friends of the Earth said in a statement.
But Kerri-Ann Jones, the assistant secretary of state, rejected the charges. She argued that other government agencies had still to sign off on the project.
“This is not the rubber stamp for this project,” Jones told reporters, adding that the pipeline would not lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, claiming Alberta was going to produce the crude anyway.
“The sense we have is that the oil sands would be developed and there is not going to be any change in greenhouse gas emissions with the pipeline or without the pipeline because these oil sands will be developed anyway,” she said.
Jones said that the State Department review had addressed some safety concerns, directing TransCanada, the pipeline operator, to bury the pipeline deeper.
The State Department will hold a series of public meetings on the pipeline next month and into October.
But with Friday’s decision the pipeline is now expected to come on line in 2013.
Over the last three years, the pipeline has become a central focus of environmentalist concerns, and Friday’s decision was rendered at the midpoint of a two-week sit-in at the White House against the project which has seen more than 100 arrested.
But the Canadian government and oil companies with a stake in tar sands production fought back with an intense lobbying effort.
Environmental campaigners argued the pipeline would encourage production of Alberta tar sands, which imposes a far heavier carbon footprint than other oils.
There was also opposition from homeowners along the Keystone’s proposed route through South Dakota, Nebraska, and Texas.
They warned the highly corrosive nature of tar sands oil put the pipeline increased the risk of accidents, and damage to important sources of groundwater.
Bill McKibben, who helped organise the protests at the White House, said the approval from the State Department had been expected. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, indicated last year that she favoured the pipeline.
“Everyone has known exactly what they would say all along. And everyone knows that they’ve valiantly ignored the elephant in the room – the fact that this would go a long ways towards opening up the world’s second-largest pool of carbon,” he wrote in an email.
However, McKibben held out hope that Obama – who still has final authority over the project – might step in to stop the pipeline.