The Media's Conspicuous Silence On A Groundbreaking Keystone XL Report

Workers Clean Up A Tar Sands Spill In Arkansas

When the State Department released its final Environmental Impact Statement, nearly all the headlines read the same: “Report Opens Way to Approval for Keystone Pipeline” and “State Dept. Keystone XL Would Have Little Impact On Climate Change.” Yet after Reuters broke the news last week that the State Department was wrong in its predictions of greatly expanded rail capacity, undermining its claim of no climate impact, no major media outlet amplified the report.

In a report released late on Friday, January 31, the State Department concluded that Keystone XL was “unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas” based on the assumption that if the pipeline were not built, the equivalent amount of tar sands would instead be transported by rail. It was this finding that the media trumpeted, largely ignoring that buried in the analysis, the State Department for the first time acknowledged that under some studied scenarios, the project could have the equivalent climate impact of adding 5.7 million new cars to the road. The idea that the Keystone XL would not harm the climate led many to declare that President Barack Obama should approve the pipeline, even spurring MSNBC host Ed Schultz to call for approval (before later reversing his stance) and liberal commentator James Carville to predict that the pipeline would be built.

On March 5, Reuters added to skepticism that locking in infrastructure enabling tar sands extraction would have no climate impact, reporting that the State Department's draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had significantly overestimated the amount of tar sands that would move by rail from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The draft EIS projected that about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) would be moved along this route by rail before the end of 2013. However, a Reuters analysis found that “even in December, when deliveries were near their highest for the year, that tally did not top 40,000 bpd” -- less than a quarter of the State Department's prediction. The final EIS removed any specific projections of movement by rail.

Not a single major media outlet has reported on Reuters' finding, according to a Media Matters search.* In fact, some continued to repeat the State Department's claim that Keystone XL could be replaced by rail without mentioning the report.

Much of the initial coverage of the State Department's final EIS left out that an investigation at the time was looking into whether the contractor that wrote the report for the State Department had a conflict of interest in part because it was a member of the pro-pipeline American Petroleum Institute (API). The investigation later concluded that it did not, but environmentalists still contended it was based on too low of a bar. In fact, API told reporters prior to the final EIS release that it received news from inside the State Department about the timing and conclusions of the report, allowing it to spin the findings to reporters beforehand.

*According to a LexisNexis search for “keystone” from March 5 to March 8 for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, and a Factiva search with the same parameters for The Wall Street Journal.

Image at top via Flickr user Tar Sands Blockade using a Creative Commons License.