Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, March 4, 2013

Keystone XL: Did the State Department Level with Us?

Last week the U.S. Department of State released its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone XL (or KXL) is a huge proposed pipeline capable of pumping 830,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands bitumen per day across the country and down to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and export. Two years after pulling back their first EIS due to lack of transparency, the State Department has finished a new improved version.

I’ve read a lot of it, and as far as I can tell, there’s virtually no change from the first one, which seemed to be gift-wrapped for a polluting industry. The KXL, they tell us again now, will have no significant environmental impact.

How could that be? 

In light of all that’s been learned about climate and the tar sands in the last two years, I really wondered. So I read the thing, or large chunks of it. And I’m troubled at what I see. I mean no disrespect to the good people from the State Department who worked on this, but it looks to me like they had their answer before they even gathered the data.  Among many flaws, these jumped out at me:

  • The EIS clings to the idea that the tar sands will be fully developed regardless of what we do with the KXL: We can’t do anything anyway, they repeatedly say.
  • The EIS ignores the reality that in the struggle for Earth’s climate, time matters: Opening the carbon floodgates now is much worse than potentially opening them later.
  • And ominously, the EIS uses the lowest numbers of just about anyone in assessing just how carbon-polluting the tar sands really are.

We can’t stop them anyway

I’m really not making this up. The EIS says that if we stop the KXL now, we won’t cut tar sands production by more than 1%. And if every single pipeline proposal from the tar sands is killed, then by 2030, we will have only reduced production by 2-4%.[i]

Currently, the tar sands produce around 1.8 million barrels of oil per day. The KXL would add another 830,000 barrels per day of shipping capacity. That’s an increase of 36% from this one project. The higher upstream emissions alone (not including transporting, refining and burning the stuff) will be equivalent to the annual emissions from 6.3 coal-fired power plants or over 4.6 million cars.[ii]

You and I may think that 36% is a big jump in capacity. But still, the EIS tells us that approving the KXL won’t significantly add to tar sands production and emissions. They cite two reasons. First, there are other pipeline proposals, and – implicitly – they’ll probably be approved.  

In fact, there are four other pipeline proposals in various stages of planning. Two are in application stages, one has just been proposed, and the last one is still conceptual. They all are smaller than KXL, and the most important – Enbridge’s Northern Gateway – has to overcome fierce opposition from British Columbians and the legally-empowered First Nations tribes.  All the others are years away, and face unknown obstacles.[iii]

No matter, the State Department tells us. Even if all the pipelines get killed, tar sands production won’t suffer by more than 2-4% by the year 2030. And none of that decrease is because the “bitumen” (or tar) won’t move: it will be a little more expensive to ship it by train and truck, and that will cut demand a tiny bit.

So we’re wondering, how much do the Canadians plan today to move by rail or truck? Well, there are 2,750,000 barrels per day of proposed projects on the books. Four of them are pipelines (KXL being the largest) and they account for 99.3% of the total. The other is a railroad project, and it amounts to 0.7% of the total. It hardly registers in their plans. But the EIS assumes that this puny effort will swell into a behemoth and entirely replace the pipelines, if we don't say yes to the KXL.

This seems like an ominous start, doesn't it? We begin our EIS by assuming that nothing we do will affect the amount of tar sands oil that gets mined and burned, even though the KXL is the biggest and furthest advanced in the application process, the trailing proposals face political and legal obstacles, and the alternative mode of transportation is Lilliputian. Does this have you worried too?

Time doesn’t matter

It takes time to change the world. Sustainable energy technologies take time to develop. International agreements take time to negotiate. And the effects of climate chaos, as devastating as they are, take time to drive home the need for action.

But the EIS seems to hold that a huge increase in tar sands carbon emissions now is no more risky than a potential carbon explosion of equal dimensions in 2030. But this cannot be.

Every year, the cost of solar, geothermal and wind power comes down. Fuel efficiency standards are increasing sharply, reducing demand for the dirtiest oil. This year, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have grown to 395.6 part per million; but in 2030, they’ll be about 433 ppm, even if the growth rate doesn’t increase (and it’s increasing). By then, we’ll certainly have had many more Katrinas and Sandys; Texas and Arizona will likely be essentially dry and burnt; coastal communities will no longer debate the reality of rising sea levels; and numerous developing countries will likely be acknowledged as non-viable climates for their people. Most importantly, the Congressional struggle against climate science will likely be little more than a distant memory.

But, on page after page, the EIS falls into the same trap: nothing will change; resistance now will be circumvented later; the world will not find the will to mitigate harm to the climate. When it comes to climate disruptions, time is not our friend: carbon-choked air and acidic oceans take forever to clean themselves. But in this one arena – the public will to act – time certainly works for us. With the passage of time, we can no longer ignore the things we once ignored, before floods ravaged our coasts and droughts burned up our forests. And we haven’t seen a fraction of it yet.

Time does matter. We are struggling to minimize harm to the Earth until people of goodwill everywhere stand up for what can no longer be suppressed.

Choosing the least alarming data

I was surprised to find the EIS asserting that tar sands oil, when measured on a life-cycle basis (or “well to wheel”) is only 17% more carbon polluting than the average oil refined in the U.S. I had seen lower numbers, but only in oil company publicity. And even more notably, the EIS suggested that, as oil supplies everywhere become scarcer, the tar sands’ carbon premium will likely decline, as other sources become dirtier.

I shouldn’t suggest that 17% more greenhouse gases per equivalent gallon is not serious.  If you go out and buy a highly efficient car that gets 40 mpg, gasoline made from 17% dirtier crude oil is like having the emissions of a 34 mpg car. That’s a big drop.

But it’s not nearly as big as most others would tell you.  The Department of Energy reports that the extraction of tar sands oil is 2.3-4.0 times more carbon polluting than conventional oil, resulting in at least a 22% well-to-wheel carbon penalty.[iv]  The EPA has set the tar sands carbon penalty at as much as 37%.[vi] And in Europe, the fuel-quality directorate determined that the average tar sands life cycle carbon intensity is approximately 23% worse than the average conventional crude used in Europe.[vii]

There is much more in the State Department EIS to make earth-keepers nervous. But these alone make me wonder where the administration plans to take us – whatever the president’s public pronouncements. We know that the Canadian government really wants an easy route to the sea for their crude. So do the big oil companies.  And when some 40-50,000 of us showed up at the White House a few Sundays ago to urge Obama not to approve the KXL, he was out golfing with – would you believe it? – oil company executives.[viii]

I’m sure that over the next few months, millions of people will weigh in on this, and urge the president to act to protect the Earth from a massive increase in the most polluting forms of oil. Won’t you consider adding your voice? It’s easy, and you can start by clicking here.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

[i] Keystone XL Pipeline, Draft Supplemental EIS; ES 6.2 Market Analysis, p. ES-19

[ii] Pembina Institute Backgrounder; Climate Implications of Proposed Keystone XL Oilsands Pipeline;

[iii] Pembina; p. 5

[iv] National Energy Technology Laboratory, Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions, November 2008; p. 12

[v] U.S. EPA: Letter of Cynthia Giles to Dept. of State; July 16, 2010;$file/20100126.PDF

[vi] U.S. average 2005 baseline was determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency together with the U.S. Department of Energy. For reference, see EPA (2010), Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS2): Regulatory Impact Analysis February 2010, EPA-420-R-10-006

[vii] Adam Brandt, Upstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Canadian oil sands as a feedstock for European refineries, Executive summary (Department of Energy Resources, Stanford University, 2011), 41–42.

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