Keystone XL: First Big Test of President's Climate Change Action Plan

Photo: BPOffCampus.org
Photo: BPOffCampus.org

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport liquefied bitumen from massive tar sands deposits in Alberta south through Midwest US watersheds and agricultural areas and on down to the Gulf of Mexico would significantly boost the carbon emissions that fuel climate change and thus fails to meet the criteria set out in President Obama's recently announced National Climate Change Action Plan, according to a detailed analysis undertaken by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Just how polluting would Keystone XL be? The amount of additional carbon dioxide (CO2) that would be added to the atmosphere is staggering, even when compared to transporting conventional oil: Keystone XL would add as much as 1.2 billion metric tons more CO2 to the atmosphere over its 50-year life than if it were used to transport conventional oil. That's more in the way of CO2 emissions than that pumped into the atmosphere by all the cars in the US in a year, according to an NRDC press release.

Looked at from another perspective, the additional CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by Keystone XL would offset all the reductions anticipated if all the new emissions reductions targets for heavy trucks and fuel efficiency set out in President Obama's National Climate Change Action Plan were to be realized, NRDC says.

Keystone XL: Drawing a line in the Tar Sands

The Keystone XL pipeline project has become a key battle ground for those looking to literally and figuratively draw a line in the sand when it comes to just how far societies – Canada and the US specifically – will go to explore for and produce climate-changing fossil fuels. Pioneering climate scientist turned social activist Dr. James Hansen stated that exploiting the Athabasca Oil Sands would mean “it's essentially game over” in terms of our chances of mitigating human-induced climate change.

Yet exploitation of Canada's tar sands and other uncoventional fossil fuel deposits proceeds. In a recent Guardian article, environmental journalist Stephen Leahy provides an account of the Tar Sands Healing Walk recently organized by local First Nations' community groups and international environmental activists including Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein.

Protecting the Sacred One Step at a Time - Tar Sands Healing Walk 2013 from Zack Embree on Vimeo.

Part and parcel of the Tar Sands Healing Walk, nearly 15,000 Canadians called on Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Alberta Premier Alison Redford to meet local community members being affected by Tar Sands exploitation face-to-face.

Conversely, NRDC estimates that 18.7 million-24.3 million metric tons per year of CO2 emissions would be avoided if the Obama Administration were to deny approval of Keystone XL. That, the environmental organization adds is “comparable to savings from new US heavy duty truck emissions rules – 27.4 million metric tons a year – and from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in New England the Mid-Atlantic – 11.9 million metric tons a year.”

Furthermore, denying approval of Keystone XL would greatly decrease the likelihood of further expansion of tar sands oil production, NRDC points out.

Tar sands expansion is not likely without the Keystone XL pipeline; the expanded development of tar sands oil it would drive; tar sands transportation alternatives such as other pipelines and rail; the destruction of peatland that naturally pulls carbon out of the air; and total new carbon pollution added to the atmosphere.

“Our analysis clearly demonstrates that the Keystone XL pipeline would dramatically boost the development of dirty tar sands oil, significantly exacerbating the problem of climate pollution,” director of NRDC's international program Susan Casey-Lefkowitz was quoted as saying.

“Approve it, and our children’s future is jeopardized. Deny it, and we’ll avoid sending over a billion tons of additional carbon pollution into the air. The right choice is obvious: Keystone XL fails the president’s climate test and he should reject it to protect our national interest.”

The following is NRDC's list of bullet points for its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project analysis, how and why it fails to meet the president's National Climate Change Action Plan and other criteria, and hence why the State Dept. should deny approval of the project:

  • Over the project’s 50-year timeline, Keystone XL would add between 935 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to our atmosphere. Today, the roughly 230 million cars on the road kick out about 1 billion metric tons of carbon pollution annually.
  • The extraction, production, and refining of tar sands oil is more carbon-intensive than conventional oil. The State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency both concluded that from the tar sands mine to the gas tank, tar sands emissions are 81 percent higher than conventional oil.
  • Keystone XL’s climate impact should be considered within the broader context of U.S. policy regarding high-carbon infrastructure. In addition to Keystone XL, the State Department is considering other tar sands pipeline projects that could increase carbon emissions by 16.2 million tons.
  • Due to limited refining capacity, Keystone XL is a necessary component of expansion of tar sands production – and its associated climate emissions. Because of refinery limits in the U.S. and Canada, Keystone XL is the only viable way to deliver tar sands oil to the Texas Gulf Coast to be refined and sold to overseas markets.
  • Export pipelines from the tar sands region are expected to reach capacity by 2014, and Keystone is the only major pipeline proposal for transporting bitumen in the near-term.
  • In the absence of pipelines, rail is not an economically viable alternative for heavy tar sands transport. The State Department was incorrect in its Draft Supplemental Impact Statement by asserting that tar sands development and transportation would happen regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved. Rail is expensive for tar sands crude, which is why it has been largely absent in the current crude-by-rail boom.
  • Industry and market opinion say Keystone XL is a linchpin for tar sands expansion.
  • Canada is not pursuing climate policy that would effectively counteract significant growth in greenhouse gas emissions, or meet its international climate target.

Main image credit: BPOffCampus.org

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