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Climate, Environment, and Conservation: Background Briefing on the Review of the Presidential Permit Application for the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline Project

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. Today [Senior State Department Official One] will provide an update on the application – the presidential permit application review for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. [The official] will be referred to as Senior State Department Official One from here on out. We are also joined by [Senior State Department Official Two], who will be referred to as Senior State Department Official Number Two.

Senior State Department Official Number One will open up with brief comments, and we will turn it over to you. I want to remind you that this call is on background. All information is attributable to senior State Department officials.

With that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much. All of you have received a Media Note with the basic substance of the issue that we wanted to discuss today, so let me give some clarifying or complementary information.

The issue we really want to discuss around Keystone, the Keystone project application, is one of process, not anything regarding a final decision. As all of you will recall, Executive Order 13337 provides that the State Department will seek the input of eight federal agencies in the course of assessing the National Interest Determination. We had previously asked for their views by early May. What we notified agencies today is that we are extending the period and providing more time for the submission of their views on the proposed project. A core reason for that is the potential impact of the Nebraska Supreme Court case which could ultimately affect the pipeline route. During that time, as agencies – during this extended period of time, we’ll review and consider what have been an unprecedented 2.5 million comments that we received during a public comment period that closed on March 7th.

A couple of points related to these two issues, the first regarding the Nebraska Supreme Court case. The environmental analysis in – that was done for the Keystone project is based on certain assumptions about the pipeline route. The case that’s under review by the Nebraska Supreme Court could ultimately lead to confirmation of or changes to that pipeline route. That is why we have felt that it is important to have additional information on – and a better understanding of what that route might be, because it could have implications for the environmental and socioeconomic and cultural and other potential impacts that are associated with the assessments that are going to be made by agencies within the government.

Regarding the 2.5 million new public comments, they are indeed unprecedented. In response to the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that the Department published in March of last year, we received 1.5 million comments. Usually on some form of a pipeline application there may be less than 100 comments. We are concentrating our resources to review the public comments that we receive. We are proceeding to ensure that we review those comments and appropriately reflect them in the draft Record of Decision, which will eventually result in recommendations.

I would just underscore that we are not starting over the agency consultation process. We will give agencies sufficient notice of the deadline to submit their views once we have obtained more clarity on the impact of the Nebraska legislation [1]. We will continue to monitor that. We will continue to engage in discussions with the interagency. We will continue to proceed our processing and review of the public comments internally within the State Department. And all of this will inform when we reach that point, which makes it appropriate to go back to the agencies and give them a deadline for submission of their comments.

Let me stop there, and we’re happy to take your questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question please press * then 1 at this time. One moment for our first question.

And our first question comes from the line of Patrick Rucker from Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. It’s Patrick Rucker with Reuters. [Senior State Department Official One] you were [former position withheld] when – last time we spoke. Nice to hear you. Can you talk – maybe talk about the process here? Does the State Department have its own reading of the Nebraska court ruling in terms of the rather dry appraisal of where it goes from here and how long that could possibly take and what the next steps are? Anything like that would be helpful.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, we do not have a separate view or judgment on the Nebraska case. I – the reason that it is important is that it could in some way ultimately lead to confirming or changing the existing pipeline route, and as I indicated earlier, that pipeline route is central to the environmental analysis for the project. And if there are changes to the route, it could have implications for the environmental, socioeconomic, cultural, and other potential impacts that agencies are seeking to evaluate. So we are prudently recognizing that the facts that agencies need to assess and analyze could change, and rather than preemptively asking agencies to give us all of those comments now, we’re trying to get a better understanding of what that route might be and collecting information regarding the case and any other issues that might affect the final outcome in Nebraska.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Steven Mufson from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official One]. I’m just wondering whether – is there some way for a portion of this process to move forward? Because the Nebraska issue could take some time to resolve, and it doesn’t actually affect some of the key issues you’d be weighing, I believe, like climate change.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we are moving ahead very diligently with all other aspects of the review that are necessary for the National Interest Determination. As I indicated earlier, there were 2.5 million comments that were received. We need to review those and incorporate all of the unique comments into our consideration.

We’ve really had to concentrate resources in order to be able to address this effectively. It means that we have a very intensive process that’s going on looking at all of the environmental, energy, security, infrastructure, climate, and other factors that could affect our eventual assessment of the national interest.

We have asked agencies internally to continue their work, but recognizing that there are some fundamental questions that still need to be addressed that could affect whether the analysis that they’re doing fully pertains, we have decided that the prudent thing is to allow more time before they give us those final submissions. But you are indeed right that in the meantime there is a great deal that needs to be done, and we are proceeding with that diligently and are really committed to making sure that we are thorough and expeditious – expedient in our analysis of those other factors.

QUESTION: How many people are working on it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I can’t give you an exact number right now because there are --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, it’s – the reason I’m hesitating is that there are quite a number of people that, within the State Department and a range of different bureaus, that are dedicating their time. As you might imagine, there are people who are environmental specialists with different backgrounds, there are many lawyers who are dedicating significant time to all of our work, there are people with energy backgrounds, there are others with energy security backgrounds, there’s a foreign policy component that we have to address.

And in addition to that, we have a contractor who is working on reviewing and sorting out the comments. One of the things that they do help us do is to put those comments into categories so that we can more expediently devote the people who have specific technical skills to focus around those sets of comments, and as a result of that, be able to collect both the relevant information and insights, and then incorporate that into the relevant portions of the National Interest Determination.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Neela Banerjee from The Los Angeles Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for holding this call. The decision in Nebraska was made back in February, and at the time we asked the State Department and the Obama – and the White House whether this would affect the National Interest Determination, and at that time we were told no. So I was wondering: What’s changed? I mean, it was clear that – that the Nebraska courts were calling this into question back in February. So why is the decision being made now? Why wasn’t it made in November – in February, rather?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We – as we said back then, we have been very carefully monitoring the situation. The Nebraska Supreme Court decided to take up the case. We’ve continued to both monitor that and understand what the implications may be of the Nebraska Supreme Court taking up the case. One of the things that is clear about the timing is that this process will continue beyond early May. As we assess this and where we stand right now, we felt that, given that we are just a few weeks off before early May, that we would be in the best position to ask agencies to essentially do what they have been raising with us in our consultations, which is to wait until they have an adequate foundation to make their judgments about the project. Agencies obviously are concerned that when they make their comments, that there is sufficient certainty about what the route might be to ensure that their comments are going to be relevant.

So in response to those concerns and our ongoing discussions with agencies, given the timeframes that are involved – the early May timeframe that we had previously raised with agencies – we felt that this would be a prudent time to go back to them and recognize that their interest in needing more time is one that we are going to recognize.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Ben Geman from The National Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for holding the call. So two questions: One is, can decisions made by the Nebraska Supreme Court be appealed to a federal court? And if so, would you guys then wait until that appellate process is completed before having agencies make their way in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our understanding is that this is an issue of state law, and that it would stop within the state.

QUESTION: Okay. And – thank you. And my second question is: I know the timing is in flux, but how likely is it that at this point that you think we’re going to get a final decision before early November?


QUESTION: A final decision by the State Department and the White House.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I can’t render a judgment on when the final decision could take place. We want this to move as expeditiously as possible. We recognize that this is an issue of great concern to the American public, to American business. We take that extremely seriously, and we believe that the process should be brought to a conclusion. And for that reason we’re doing everything that we possibly can in the interim to move on the issues that we are – we do have a capacity to assess, as I indicated earlier, issues related to market analysis, to foreign policy considerations. There are a range of other factors – economic analysis factors, for example, that we continue to work on, and indeed we are taking into account all of the public comments.

There are some matters that obviously are outside of our direct control, and we have to give ourselves an opportunity to better understand what the implications could be for the eventual pipeline route, since that route is so fundamental and critical to a few of the issues that we have to analyze.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Mr. Scott Horsley from NPR. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: My question’s been tackled. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Amy Harder from The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for holding this conference call. I understand that the Executive Order that governs this process says the interagency review cannot exceed the 90 days. So is there any concern that you’re violating the executive order on this front?

And on the pipeline route, if there is indeed a new pipeline route, will there be – by law, do you have to do another environmental review at the State Department? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. The executive order does allow for the possibility of extending that timeframe based upon need. This is one of the cases where, in our discussions with agencies and the circumstances that have arisen, that that need has become clear. And it’s on that basis that we sent to those agencies a notice saying that we will indeed respond to the interests that they have for more time to be able to give us their assessments of the proposed project.

In terms of the Environmental Impact Statement, the key thing that we need to better understand is whether the current route will still pertain. It is certainly possible that the case in Nebraska may develop in ways where either the current route is affirmed, or even if it’s not, there may be other ways that eventually a pipeline route is selected that could either be the same route or quite similar. And these are things that we’re going to have to wait to see. And on the basis of that, then we’ll have to make a judgment on whether additional work needs to be done.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Ali Weinberg from ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much for doing the call. A quick follow-up on the question that was asked earlier on staff members: Do you plan to increase the number of staff members working on the number of public comments that have come in, in order to expedite that process?

Along with that, you mentioned that there are outside contractors working on this issue. Could you explain the breakdown of how many contractors versus members of government staff working on it?

Also, there have already been a significant number of political reactions that have come out of this decision today. Obviously, I know you are not in a political capacity, but I was wondering if you could comment on the accusations that are being made about the fact that this delay is being done for political reasons to delay the process and avoid it coming up around the same time as the presidential elections. Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So, first of all, I would just underscore that there’s no intent to delay the process. The intent is to be able to ensure that the analyses that we do are based on a route that is fundamental to our review process and that the analysis and the commentaries that we – comments that we get from the interagency community are indeed relevant to the real project that could potentially move ahead. And we feel that that is important in assessing the national interest, because in the end, the National Interest Determination has to take into account the fundamental realities of how the project is proposed and designed. And as I stressed earlier, we are in no way suspending or holding up the National Interest Determination. We are not delaying that in any way. That’s why we’re so intensively proceeding with the review of comments and intensively proceeding with all aspects of the National Interest Determination, as I mentioned earlier, that include market analysis, include a foreign policy assessment, that include assessment of economic impact. And obviously, there are specific issues related to the route and the environmental analysis as well.

In terms of the numbers that are involved, I’m not going to try to parse that, because we’re doing the practical thing that all of us would do in any work situation. We’re concentrating resources of people with relevant skills to look at and review comments and give their recommendations and judgments on specific areas and topics. And so as we get in comments on the economic section and jobs creation, we’ll pull together people to review that, give us their opinions and recommendations, and do the necessary analysis. That will not necessarily continue fulltime for an indefinite period. The work will be focused on what needs to be done – similar around the market analysis, similar around other portions. And so if we got into a question of trying to count fulltime equivalent positions and how they’re allocated, inevitably there would just be a lot of inconsistencies and differences. What we want to do is, recognizing the resources that we have, to make the best available use of them in order to make – to provide the best input that we can get, and get a set of recommendations that really serve our national interest.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Justin Fishel from Fox News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you. So the public comments time has obviously closed, but if the route changes, will you open it back up to public comments, possibly further delaying it for these considerations? And do you have a timeline, a goal, for when you think an announcement ought to be made? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So as I indicated earlier, the – if the route changes, the first thing that we have to make a judgment about is to what extent it might change and how the environmental impact analysis relates to that route. And that is the first and most fundamental judgment that we have to make. If there is not a significant change in the route and the environmental analysis still pertains, then the need – there would not be a need for another comment period around those sets of issues.

I would just underscore that there are two different comment periods. One concerns the environment – the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. That took place last year around that supplemental – the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. There were 1.5 million comments. The commentary around the route and issues related to the route were received during that period. The commentary for the National Interest Determination is separate from that. It’s not specific to the environmental – to the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. It’s open more broadly to whatever comments the public would like to make on how they see the project and whether it’s in the national interest or not. And so it’s important to keep these issues separate, and we would not need to go back and revisit either the Environmental Impact Statement or commentary on it unless there was a significant deviation from the current route.

QUESTION: Right. So that, I take it, is a yes? You would go back for more public comments if the route is changed? How long would that take, do you estimate? And can you describe some of the comments you’ve received so far? How would you describe the 2.5 million comments you’ve got so far?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So first of all, no, I would not agree with the way you’ve characterized things because I – the issue that we have to look at is: What is the eventual route? What are the implications of that change? What are the characteristics of the route that results? And based on that, judgments are going to have to be made, and to try to do that in a vacuum without understanding the specificity of the route and the characteristics of it would simply be inappropriate. So I will not agree with your characterization.

And in terms of the comments that we have received, I will not try to characterize them. It’s not something that we are tallying as we go along to indicate either yeses or nos, but in fact what we have worked out through is that those comments have been publicly posted. And I would invite anybody who wants to take a look at them to look at, and they can develop their own sense of how they should be characterized.

QUESTION: All right. Thanks very much. And you do – do you have a goal, a timeline for when a final decision ought to be made?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our goal is to do it as expeditiously as we can in a way that is thorough, that takes into account the comments that are being made, the realities on the ground of what the route might be, and to bring it together in a way that serves the national interest, and to – given that some critical facts still need to be established, to speculate further beyond that would be inappropriate.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think we’ve got time for one or two more.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Deborah Yedlin from The Calgary Herald. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking my call. I’m just wondering if you have had any conversations with TransCanada Pipelines today or the days leading up to this decision today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, I’ll speak to that. Before we went on this call, I did speak to the CEO, the – of that company and informed him of what was in our media note, that we were notifying the agencies that their time for getting in their views would be extended. And that was really the substance of the conversation. It was a very brief conversation, and that’s our usual process, that we do inform them when we’re doing anything that’s different in the process, just as we try to reach out to you so that you’re aware of the different steps we’re taking.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Edward Felker from EnergyGuardian. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Thanks for taking my question. Can you just say more plainly, then, that – whether you’re going to wait until a final route is decided in Nebraska before giving the agencies, the other agencies their deadline to comment? And when – if that is the case, how much time will you give them to comment? Would it be another 90 days or what at this point? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The critical issue that we need to focus on is getting a better understanding of what the route will be and whether it will change. We don’t want to exclude the possibility that there may be ways of getting a better understanding of what that route might be before there is a final decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court. We want to be open and flexible to any changes in information and circumstances that could allow us to be able to move more expeditiously.

In terms of the timing that we would provide other agencies, what we have notified them of is that we are not asking them to submit their comments now, but that we will notify them at a future point, and at that stage, that they will have at least the remainder of the number of days that were available under the original 90-day period, which is approximately about 14 days.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Margaret Warner from PBS. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official One]. Thank you for doing this. A couple questions. You’ve kept talking about all these voluminous comments, yet you’re laying this at the feet of the Nebraska court decision. Were you all ready to go if it weren’t for the Nebraska decision? And secondly, do you have any estimate of the time it’s going to take for the Nebraska Supreme Court to take this up and deal with it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The – I want to go back to the decision specifically that – better yet, the notification that we gave other agencies, which is that we’re giving them additional time and not asking them to give us their comments at this point. Part of our ability to reach a conclusion depends on the commentary advice and analysis that we get from – through an interagency process. And in the course of working through these issues, the agencies – some agencies had noted that it’s difficult to give us accurate recommendations that they are confident will still pertain if they do not know what the final route of the project might be. Since that route might change, the prudent issue was to allow additional time to both investigate this matter, see how it might proceed.

You’re correct in mentioning that there is an unprecedented number of comments, and it does present a challenge to review and incorporate all of those. We are – have been proceeding with that in parallel with the interagency review process, and we will continue to do that, and we will review that – those comments as expeditiously as possible, while at the same time seeking to be thorough and ensure that we take into account insights that are provided by those comments.

All of us would prefer to be in a position where we would have certainty of the exact timeline. We’re in a position right now where we can’t have that exact certainty because there are just practical developments that require additional analysis and consideration. And so the best thing that we can do is for those factors that are within our control – as I indicated earlier, the things like the energy security analysis, the jobs and economics analysis, the foreign policy analysis – that these pieces can continue to proceed, that we do everything that we can through the process that we’ve created that helps us better divide up the public commentary into specific issue areas so that we can concentrate and focus the attention of appropriate experts around those issues, and through that process then bring together the best analysis that we can to import – input into the National Interest Determination, and as we do that, then be in the best possible position so that as we continue to monitor the case as we get additional insights and information, that we can expeditiously bring the process to a closure.

MODERATOR: Okay, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our conference call. Thank you so much for your time and have a great afternoon.

[1] The Senior State Department Official is referring to the ongoing litigation in Nebraska.