FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test

"Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
- President Obama, June 25, 2013


Environment America

Limiting tar sands expansion is one of the great climate fights of our time. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has become the touchstone in a major policy debate, pitting those who seek to proactively address climate change against entrenched fossil fuel interests.

How much oil we use, how carbon polluting that oil is, and how long we continue to use that oil have become fundamental questions that will determine our ability to mitigate devastating climate change. As our nation has begun to suffer the impacts of climate change – superstorms, droughts, increased wildfires, and floods – Americans across all political and geographic divides are in favor of proactive climate action and the clean energy that will help our economy transition to a sustainable future.

In an historic speech on June 25th, 2013, President Obama affirmed that the Keystone XL decision could only be responsibly made in the context of the project’s carbon pollution. He said, “allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Fortunately, we do not have to look far for the answer to this question.

This report begins with a review of the global carbon context in order to define the term “significantly.” How do Keystone XL’s emissions fit into the mandate to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent globally over the next 40 years in order to stabilize the climate at safe levels?1 Here we find that the science is quite clear: any increase in carbon pollution is a dangerous idea and a pipeline that would emit 181 million metric tons of CO2e each year2 for 50 years risks blowing our ability to mitigate the worst of climate change. The carbon intensity of the fuels we use needs to be decreasing not increasing.

Next the report looks at the upstream implications of Keystone XL. Why is the approval of this pipeline worth millions to the tar sands industry and why are environmentalists getting arrested to stop it? The report brings together analyses and reports from the foremost investors and companies working in the tar sands to answer this question. Together these industry experts paint a picture of a landlocked asset that requires massive pipeline expansion to grow. Keystone XL is hailed as a linchpin of further tar sands development. Experts predict that the approval of the pipeline could lead to a 36 percent increase in tar sands exploitation.

Given that this report is seeking to understand Keystone XL’s impact in a carbon context, the report next looks at the climate implications of expanding the tar sands. Tar sands are known to be one of the most carbon polluting forms of oil on the planet; in fact, US government agencies estimate that tar sands oil may be 22 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil.4 The report brings together information not only on the pollution that resides in the raw tar sands product, but also looks at its byproducts such as petroleum coke and the implications of destroying the Boreal Forest to mine tar sands. A powerful array of voices find that developing Alberta’s tar sands must be avoided at all costs to prevent catastrophic greenhouse gas emissions.

In the months since the President committed to judging Keystone XL on its carbon pollution, many observers have wondered if there are steps that Canada could take to mitigate the harm done by Keystone XL. Unfortunately, as this report demonstrates, the impact of expanding the tar sands through Keystone XL are too massive to be mitigated. As Waxman and Whitehouse detail in a letter to the President, “Offsetting the extra annual emissions from the shift to tar sands products from Keystone XL would require adding 19.7 million acres of new forest in the United States, which would cover an area the size of West Virginia.” 

Finally this report dedicates a chapter to reviewing the conflict of interest scandal that has obscured the carbon pollution implications of the project in the Department of State’s successive reports. By laying out what went wrong with the State Department’s contractor, it is hoped that a new path forward can be found that allows the Keystone XL climate question to be honestly, fairly, and thoroughly reviewed.

This report cites a large body of scientific evidence and industry expertise that find Keystone XL to be the key in unlocking massive expansion of one of the world’s most carbon intensive forms of oil, an environmental Armageddon. The answer to President Obama’s Keystone XL climate question is straightforward. Yes, Keystone XL will lead to significant, dangerous exacerbation of climate pollution. The Obama administration, staying true to their commitment to address climate change for our children’s sakes, must reject Keystone XL.


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