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Writing public comments in opposition to the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline is as easy as posting comments at Daily Kos. But submitting public comments is activists' opportunity to make our voices heard directly to the White House without the interference of media, lobbyists or the GOP.  We have until March 7 to express our views on what should be the outcome of the president's "National Interest Determination (NID)," that is, on whether or not building the big tar sands pipeline is in the interest of the United States.

Public comments make a difference. The vast number of prior public comments on the earlier drafts of the environmental impact statement for Keystone raised issues that President Obama and the State Department cited when delaying a decision on whether to move ahead with the NID as well as extending the time for completion of the process. Public controversy, as demonstrated by the number of comments opposing the XL, can be a key factor in this process.

Previously, the State Department, citing issues raised in public comments, stated it needed more information before proceeding with the NID. President Obama supported the State Department's decision that additional information was needed before a decision could be made, citing "a number of concerns have been raised through a public process." Subsequently, after the GOP pushed an artificial deadline of 60 days for a decision on the XL, the State Department found that the XL was not in the national interest because there was not sufficient time to obtain and review the information needed to make this determination. One issue cited was that the proposed route included the environmentally sensitive area of the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the issues raised in the public comment process.

The number of public comments, civil disobedience in D.C., and nationwide protests over the years delayed the process, providing more opportunities for activism. As anti-XL activist Bill McKibben said:

"This was a real victory for people standing up," McKibben says. "If we hadn’t gone and done what we did out in the streets, if we hadn’t made record numbers of public comments on this, then the oil industry, as usual, would have gotten away with a really bad idea."
In the past, projects have been changed or defeated based on issues raised in public comments. They make a difference because the law requires agencies to review and respond to them. If you look at the final supplemental environmental impact statement (Final SEIS) for Keystone XL released last month, there are two volumes that cover just the public comments and the agency responses to them.

The BEST comments are original, not templates that commenters merely sign. Government agencies often place all template comments into one file and generally ignore. You can start with using a template provided online.  But it's better to add some text of your own so you're not just regurgitating boilerplate. As a lawyer who has written and reviewed public comments, some of the most powerful comments clearly stated the issue and when possible, personalized the issue by stating real-life examples of how the XL, in this case, would impact you negatively. For more tips, please see Tips for Submitting Effective Comments published at regulations.gov, the website where you will be posting your comment.

One key point to remember is the difference between public comments for the Final SEIS governed by National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which was the subject of already submitted public comments, and the NID, the subject of the current comment period:  "While NEPA does not prohibit federal actions with adverse environmental impacts, a project’s adverse environmental impacts may lead the [Department of State] to determine that the project is not in the national interest." The Environmental Impact Statement is focused on determining whether the proposed project will have a significant environmental impact. However, the NID process is focused on whether the XL pipeline will serve the national interest of the U.S.  

This may seem like a nitpick, but it's not.

Our public comments should focus on making clear  why the XL pipeline is not in our national interest.  Whatever your reason for opposing the XL, just  frame it in terms of what is best for our national interest, using any of the factors mentioned below, or from President Obama's climate change address (linked below) that focuses on the big picture factors of carbon pollution and climate change impacts.

The NID standard is vested with "significant discretion." Secretary of State Kerry, after considering the views of specified federal agencies and public comments, must find that a permit for the XL would, in fact, "serve the national interest."

Last June, President Obama stated the XL pipeline would have to pass the national interest criteria of carbon pollution and climate change impacts:  

But I do want to be clear:  Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest.  And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.  It’s relevant.
(emphasis added)

Climate change impacts are even more important now than when the XL pipeline project commenced in 2008 when TransCanada submitted its application.  For decades, scientists had explained what impacts might happen from global warming in the future, and "predicted that many key aspects of the weather would become more extreme— more extreme heat waves, more intense droughts, and stronger deluges."   In 2011, Joe Romm wrote about how there was a "growing body of scientific literature demonstrating that these predictions are coming true now."  In 2012, studies by climate scientists, like James Hansen, "concluded climate change is happening right before our eyes." President Obama acknowledged last year that while "no single weather event is caused solely by climate change," it does contribute to the extreme weather events in the U.S. over the past few years.

While President Obama does not expressly use the phrase "climate change impacts" in his 2013 statement of national interest test, White House Staff have indicated that climate change impacts is a factor that will be considered in the NID. On February 2, (after the Final SEIS had been released on January 31), White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough explained that President Obama's NID standard, set forth in his climate change remarks last June, means that the XL pipeline "should not significantly exacerbate what is a significant climate change crisis we face in this country."

McDonough explained what he meant by "climate change crisis" by continuing with his response, including a reference to the current California drought, or an example of one of the climate change impacts happening now, in a report by The New York Times.

Very chilling story in the New York Times today about the impact of climate change on droughts in the west.  California, which is now seeing some pretty serious developments as a result of climate change.  So we'll be looking at that.  
(emphasis added)

The New York Times article, Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst, discusses how 17 communities in California are "in danger of running out [of water] within 60 to 120 days." Some communities might need drinking water trucked in, similar to other U.S. communities, which have been tapped dry. The drought produces its own impacts or dominoes, both locally and nationally. Fields parched such that farmers stop planting, livestock starving so ranchers forced to sell cattle, fishing and camping outlawed to "protect endangered salmon and guard against fires," while increased smog causes schools to use flags for when children must play indoors.

Chilling story indeed. "If the current drought continues in California through Oct. 1, this water year will be the driest not only in our modern records but in half a millennium," another climate impact not present in 2008 when the XL application was submitted.

After the XL Final SEIS had been released, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that President Obama "spoke very clearly about the national interest" in a speech the President delivered last year. Rereading President Obama's remarks on climate change delivered in June 2013, the same NID standard with the dual components of carbon pollution, and an express statement of climate change impacts, is provided as part of the President's national climate change action plan:

And this is my plan to meet it -- a plan to cut carbon pollution; a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change; and a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate.  

This plan begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy -- using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy.

(emphasis added)

Inclusion of climate change impacts is important. For example, hopefully reference to the current California drought will cause reconsideration of the Final SEIS on water resources because it highlights the need to protect our existing water resources that many take for granted when there is no severe drought. For example, the State Department acknowledged in the final SEIS that tar sands presents risks to our water resources because "cleanup" is difficult given that the tar sands sink. The XL would "cross more than 1000 water bodies, including 50 perennial rivers or streams, and several aquifers, including the Ogallala. It also comes within a mile of approximately 2500 water wells."

The recent contamination in West Virginia of drinking water supplies illustrated how the government and the public lack information about the health impact of contaminants and how corporations are not prepared to clean up even surface water spills. This project asks us to trust XL, a corporation with a horrible track record. "TransCanada insists that there is little risk of a spill from the Keystone XL pipeline, and that it is prepared to contain leaks quickly and effectively. But TransCanada gave similar assurances about the current Keystone pipeline, which spilled 12 times in its first year of operation -- including a major leak of about 21,000 gallons in North Dakota."

So, the White House has indicated that factors important in the NID determination include:  (1) the XL pipeline cannot significantly exacerbate the carbon pollution problem and (2) the XL pipeline should not significantly exacerbate the significant climate change crisis in the U.S. because President Obama's plan is to protect our country from climate change impacts.

If you don't want to write about carbon pollution or climate change impacts, the State Department has listed additional factors considered when determining the national interest, including "energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; foreign policy; and compliance with relevant federal regulations and issues." The State Dept. has made it clear that national interest is broad, including "any factor [members of the public] deem relevant to the national interest determination."  This is why your personal stories about how the XL can negatively affect you can be important.  

In prior oil pipeline permit applications, the NID considered the following as key factors, but the factors considered are not necessarily the same for each project:  "environmental impacts of the proposed projects, impacts of the proposed projects on the diversity of supply to meet U.S. crude oil demand and energy needs, the security of transport pathways for crude oil supplies to the United States through import facilities constructed at the border relative to other modes of transport; stability of trading partners from whom the United States obtains crude oil; relationship between the United States and various foreign suppliers of crude oil and the ability of the United States to work with those countries to meet overall environmental and energy security goals; impact of proposed projects on broader foreign policy objectives, including a comprehensive strategy to address climate change; economic benefits to the United States of constructing and operating proposed projects; and relationships between proposed projects and goals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to increase use of alternative and renewable energy sources." And, given the discretion, the "DOS may consider additional factors to inform its national interest determination for a given project."

You don't need to use ALL of the factors in your comment. Just pick the factor(s) that work well with your issue.

Our DK Blogathon Team will be hosting a blogathon later this month as part of a campaign to encourage people to submit comments opposing the XL pipeline during this NID period.

The comment period is open now until March 7th. Comments may be posted at this page established for NID comments. It's easy. Click onto the blue "comment now" box, and you will find an empty comment message box similar to when you post comments at DK.  You can also post a comment by attaching a pdf file to the comment box.

Please remember that comments are not private. "The comments will not be edited to remove identifying or contact information, and the State Department cautions against including any information that one does not want publicly disclosed."

Originally posted to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Thu Feb 13, 2014 at 05:24 PM PST.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing, Climate Change SOS, DK GreenRoots, and Barriers and Bridges.

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