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Keystone faces wilderness noise complaint

The U.S. Department of the Interior says the Keystone pipeline has the “potential to impact the acoustic and photic environments” of the Niobrara National Scenic River in northern Nebraska.

Nati Harnik/AP

The agency in charge of U.S. national parks is taking issue with a study into the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, saying the contentious project would cause light and noise pollution in fragile wilderness areas.

The Department of the Interior, in a submission to the U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the $5.3-billion (U.S.) pipeline's regulatory review, said it has the "potential to impact the acoustic and photic environments" of the Niobrara National Scenic River in northern Nebraska and the national trail system.

This contradicts the Draft Environmental Impact Statement about TransCanada Corp.'s planned pipeline to Texas refineries from Alberta, which concluded that the line would not affect any U.S. national parks, the Interior Department notes.

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"We believe that the analysis fails to adequately assess noise impacts to all [Natural Parks Service] lands, specifically, Niobrara [river] and the National Historic Trails that would be affected by the project," Willie Taylor, director of the Interior Department's office of environmental policy and compliance, wrote in the April 29 submission to the State Department, which was released this week.

"Scientific studies demonstrate that light pollution and noise can adversely affect natural and cultural resources, wildlife, and visitor experiences," the submission stresses.

The argument could raise another hurdle for TransCanada in its five-year quest to win U.S. approval for the 830,000-barrel-a-day pipeline. The project is aimed at opening up the massive Gulf Coast refining market for producers of Canadian heavy crude as a way to help cut the price discount on their oil. The draft impact statement, issued in March, concluded that the pipeline would not by itself increase development of the Canadian oil sands, and thus global greenhouse gas emissions. That finding angered environmental groups opposed to the project.

The Interior Department's comments, among 1.2 million received by the State Department in response to the draft impact report, are being considered by officials as they prepare the final environmental impact statement. It will form the basis of an approval decision by President Barack Obama, which has been delayed repeatedly. The decision is now expected by the end of this year.

TransCanada said the Interior Department is just one of 20 U.S. government agencies that the State Department is consulting as it vets the Keystone application. A TransCanada spokesman did not directly address the Interior concerns on Friday, saying that the company plans to take numerous steps to its minimize impacts on the environment, wildlife and communities.

"We will wait to learn more from the [State Department] when it publishes the final supplemental environmental impact statement," TransCanada's Shawn Howard said in an e-mail. "There are already more than 12,000 pages of technical review that have been published on Keystone XL, and they have stated that there will be a minimal impact on environmental resources along the entire route."

The Interior Department said it wants more analysis of the impact of the pipeline's above-ground equipment on the night sky, and called for such equipment to be located as far from parklands as possible.

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"Lighting needs, lighting types, light pollution and lighting impacts are not adequately addressed in the document," the Interior submission said.

It also said the draft study's discussion of the impact of noise on "individuals, sensitive areas, and livestock" was too narrow: "The department recommends that 'units of the National Park Service and National Historic Trails' be added to this list of noise-sensitive places where more aggressive noise mitigation is warranted."

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About the Author

Jeffrey Jones is a veteran journalist specializing in energy, finance and environment for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2013, he was a senior reporter for Reuters, writing news, features and analysis on energy deals, pipelines, politics and general  topics. More

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