As expected, the State Department essentially gave its environmental blessing to the Keystone XL pipeline today, which would stretch nearly 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas, and which would deliver as much as 700,000 barrels of noxious tar sands oil every day.  This is not a final approval on the project, but getting a favorable environmental impact study (EIS) from the State Department, which prepared the EIS, is a necessary hurdle before final approval.

In reaching its conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands deposits in Alberta would have minimal environmental impact, the administration dismissed criticism from environmental advocates, who said that extracting the oil would have a devastating impact on the climate and that a leak or rupture in the 36-inch-diameter pipeline could wreak ecological disaster. Opponents also said the project would prolong the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, threaten sensitive lands and wildlife and further delay development of clean energy sources.

The State Department said in an environmental impact statement that the pipeline’s owner, Trans Canada, had reduced the risks of an accident to an acceptable level and that the benefits of importing oil from a friendly neighbor outweighed the potential costs.

Final approval of the $7 billion project will not come before the end of the year, after public hearings and consultation with other federal agencies. But the State Department report Friday gave every indication that the administration was prepared to see Keystone proceed. The pipeline is expected to open in 2013 unless delayed by lawsuits or other challenges.

The entire environmental impact statement is here. The EIS mention of foreign relations with Canada relative to Middle Eastern countries or Venezuela in the middle of an environmental impact statement is jarring, and it’s backed up by public statements of US and Canadian officials. Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to the US, said flatly, “If you ask Americans, would you choose Canada over the Middle East, they’d say yes.”

The economic benefits are also sometimes mentioned (probably because the benefits are much greater for Canada than the US). But the increase in production and extraction of 700,000 barrels a day of carbon-intensive tar sands oil is typically not. Tar sands production is similar to strip mining, and it requires enormous amounts of energy and water to pull off. By leveling forests, tar sands production also releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that would normally be absorbed.

The tar sands industry claims it is working on techniques to reduce the carbon intensity of production. I don’t think we should accept this at face value.

Despite the State Department’s environmental impact study, the final permitting process is really up to the President, according to the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune:

Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, urged President Obama to veto the project, despite the State Department’s willingness to see it proceed.

“The decision-making authority is solely the president’s,” he said. “Keystone XL is a huge issue for our young leaders at the Sierra Club, but they’re also watching the president’s actions on other critically important environmental and public health protections. It will be increasingly difficult to mobilize the environmental base and to mobilize in particular young people to volunteer, to knock on thousands of doors, to put in 16-hour days, to donate money if they don’t think the president is showing the courage to stand up to big polluters.”

So far, that has not been a major concern of the Administration, nor has the arrest of over 300 protesters in front of the White House. The project appears to be on the fast track.

UPDATE: This morsel of information is buried in the report:

(Department of State) calculated that there could be from 1.18 to 1.83 spills greater than 2,100 gallons per year for the entire Project.

There have been 14 spills since last June on the existing portion of the Keystone pipeline, so that sounds a little low. But only one of those spills exceeded 2,100 gallons, according to the report.  See Map showing existing pipeline and proposed Keystone XL expansion.

UPDATE II: James Hansen calls the report “greenwashing.”

NASA scientist James Hansen, who galvanized the environmental movement decades ago with his congressional testimony about the dangers of climate change, said yesterday that President Obama has a rare opportunity to show he is not a “hopeless addict.”

The climatologist, who will appear at the National Press Club on Monday before joining protests at the White House, where he expects to be arrested, told ClimateWire in an email interview that the Keystone XL pipeline awaiting approval from the president is like a dirty needle from a fellow oil addict, Canada.

“If Obama chooses the dirty needle it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians, with no real intention of solving the addiction,” Hansen said.