On March 1, 2013, the U.S. State Department issued a draft report evaluating the environmental impact of building the Keystone XL pipeline on the new route proposed by TransCanada. The draft report finds that there will be a range of environmental impacts from the proposed pipeline, including increased greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual carbon pollution from over six million cars. But it concludes that even if the pipeline were not approved, the dirty tar sands oil it is supposed to carry from Alberta to U.S. gulf coast refineries would reach the global market anyway. This idea of inevitability is a flawed premise, given how publicly the industry has acknowledged that the pipeline is essential for the tar sands to be commercially developed, and how uneconomical it would be to rely on alternative options like rail transport or pipelines to Canada’s West Coast. The State Department is in denial about the fact that without the pipeline, tar sands development would be significantly slowed down, buying the world valuable time to deal with climate change.
There are several steps before the report is finalized, including a forty-five day public comment period during which the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies will also respond, but once the State Department issues a final report later this summer, the ultimate decision will fall to the man America elected to the White House.
If President Obama understands the science behind climate change, and if he has the moral courage to defend his convictions, he will take a stand against the Keystone XL pipeline when the decision eventually lands on his desk. After all, this is the man who said, in his second inaugural address, “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” This is the man who declared, in the 2013 State of the Union speech, “…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” Let me emphasize the key phrase: “reduce pollution.” Instead, the Keystone XL pipeline will increase pollution for the following reasons.
Not all oils are created equal. Oil from the Canadian tar sands, which is what the Keystone XL pipeline is intended to carry, is more carbon-intensive than the majority of oils currently sold in the United States. In other words, one barrel of tar sands oil, compared to regular crude oil, generates more carbon pollution over its lifetime. This is well established and confirmed by a wealth of scientific research and data. There are several reasons why tar sands oil is worse for the climate: first, tar sands oil has a heavier consistency—think of thick and chunky black peanut butter—and therefore requires more energy to extract and transport (i.e. more carbon pollution from the extra energy). Second, it is composed of relatively more carbon, heavy metals, and sulfur and less hydrogen than other oils, which requires more processing for it to result in a usable end-product that meets U.S. fuel standards—again, more processing expends more energy (meaning yet more carbon pollution). Third, the process by which this oil is brought out of the ground results in a bigger carbon footprint. Open-pit mining tears up the carbon-rich soil under Alberta’s boreal forest. These unique, wet soils trap more carbon than the drier soils in other oil-rich regions of the world, such as the sandy soil of the Middle East, and as a result mining here releases more carbon than drilling or mining an equivalent area elsewhere.
The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the additional greenhouse emissions from the Keystone XL pipeline could be nearly 27 million metric tons, equivalent to the carbon pollution from seven new coal power plants. A 2012 study prepared for members of Congress estimates that tar sands oil leads to 72-111 percent more carbon emissions than conventional crude. The report noted that building the Keystone XL pipeline could increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually by up to 21 million metric tons, or about five new coal power plants. In contrast, the draft report released by the State Department says tar sands oil produces seventeen percent more emissions than regular oil. Regardless of which estimate you rely on, what’s not in dispute is that tar sands oil is worse for the climate and will cause more carbon pollution.
The State Department argues that one important benefit of the implementation of the Keystone XL Pipeline project would be the creation of new jobs. But according to their own report, once the relatively short construction phase is complete, only thirty-five permanent jobs would remain.
President Obama told the country recently, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” Mr. President, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would result in the opposite of pollution reduction and would amount to resisting the very transition you say you want to lead. The world now has a very short window to keep dangerous climate change at bay. This is your moment to ensure that the dirtiest fuel remains in the ground and to say “No more.”