In the latest of what's become a six-year-long battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the US Department of State that the project could increase greenhouse gas emissions, an assessment contradicting an earlier State Department finding that the pipeline would not contribute to climate change.
In its environmental review of the pipeline, released in January 2014, the State Department found that producers would find an alternative way to ship the oil to market, most likely by rail, if the pipeline proposal was rejected.
But in its letter, the EPA criticizes this conclusion, pointing out that low oil prices would make transportation by rail, which is more expensive, economically unfeasible.
"Given recent large declines in oil prices and the uncertainty of oil price projections," the agency says, "the additional low price scenario included in the [the State Department's report] should be given additional weight during decision making, due to the potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions."
President Obama has said he'll only approve the project if it doesn't exacerbate climate change.
'After initially approving its own environmental review, EPA's latest change of heart can only be described as politics as usual here in Washington.'
Because the pipeline, which will carry 830,000 barrels of oil each day from Alberta, Canada to US refineries on the Gulf Coast, crosses an international border, the project requires certification from the executive branch that construction is in the "national interest."
In September, Norwegian energy company Statoil postponed for at least three years a project that would have extracted up to 40,000 barrels per day from the Alberta tar sands. The company cited limited pipeline access in making its decision.
That postponement followed similar moves from French energy company Total, which shelved a project in May, and Shell, which halted work last February.
Since Canadian energy company TransCanada first proposed the pipeline in 2008, it's spawned a national debate over climate change, job creation, and renewable energy. Landowners in the pipeline's path have sued state governments several times, resulting most recently in two lawsuits over TransCanada's attempts to use eminent domain to seize land for construction.
"The science behind building the Keystone XL pipeline has been settled five times over," Louis Finkel, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. "The State Department has concluded the pipeline is safe to build, and it will not have a significant impact on the environment. After initially approving its own environmental review, EPA's latest change of heart can only be described as politics as usual here in Washington."
Oil was less than $40 a barrel when the pipeline was first put forward, Finkel points out in the statement. It is now trading at roughly $50 a barrel, half of its price in June of last year.
But for some environmental groups, the debate over the pipeline, while exhausting, has been a catalyst for action and has helped to bring climate change and other environmental issues to the forefront of national policy.
"I feel like folks are really ready for this to be over," Karthik Ganapathy, a communications manager for 350.org, told VICE News. "But we're also excited because a win on this will be huge, and I think it will add a ton of momentum to climate issues in general."
The debate has come at a unique time, at the convergence of economic recovery and a global focus on reducing emissions, under a president who's made environmental issues a top priority. That's made it easier to translate the project to political action, Ganapathy said, providing an opportunity for environmentalists to bring people on board with other climate issues.
"It has activated people at an unprecedented scale around climate change and environmental degradation," Luisa Abbott Galvao, a climate and energy associate with Friends of the Earth, told VICE News. "If anything it has inspired and motivated people to mobilize. This has put an issue in the public lexicon that wasn't there before."
Keystone has helped environmental groups communicate a need to move away from new fossil fuel infrastructure, Galvao said, something she's come to call the Keystone Principle. But it also carries real concerns about spills and other problems for those living along the pipeline's route.
"We think it's an important issue in and of itself," David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told VICE News. "We've been working just as hard at the same time on the Clean Power Plan, on clean water, on endangered species, on a full range of environmental issues."
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