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High costs of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline outweigh paltry benefits

Anthony Swift

Posted June 16, 2014

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As the Senate considers yet another pro-Keystone XL measure, the case for the embattled Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has never been weaker. In recent weeks, a myriad of industry reports have shown that tar sands expansion is slowing due to a lack of pipelines, deflating the argument that tar sands expansion is inevitable. Meanwhile, the Associated Press has revealed the federal regulators found systematic bad welds and other defects in the construction of TransCanada’s Gulf Coast pipeline, highlighting the real risks of spills on the proposed tar sands pipeline. Finally, new trade reports reveal evidence that Keystone XL is an export pipeline through the United States rather than to it. This information comes after the State Department and media have thoroughly debunked the exaggerated job creation claims by Keystone XL’s proponents. The bottom line is that Keystone XL is not in the nation’s interest. The project would enable the expansion of a carbon intensive fuel that would exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution and put our communities, lands and waters at risks in order to get tar sands through the United States to international markets. It may be a good deal for the tar sands industry, but it’s all risk and no reward for the United States. 

Given the mounting case against Keystone XL, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the proponents of the tar sands industry’s pet project are pushing to exempt the pipeline from further review and a required finding that the pipeline is in the nation’s interest. On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will vote on a bill proposed by Senator Landrieu approving Keystone XL. This bill would require the approval of a pipeline that would exacerbate climate change, increase the risks of tar sands spills to our communities, lands and water, and undermine the ability of Nebraskans to weigh in on the route for the pipeline through their state. The Keystone XL decision should be decided through the established national interest determination process based on a rigorous evaluation of the evidence. And recent evidence has bolstered the argument that Keystone XL is not in the national interest and should be rejected.   

Keystone XL is a linchpin for tar sands expansion. A series of recent industry announcements have highlighted that Keystone XL is a linchpin for tar sands expansion and associated climate impacts.  Since the State Department’s final environmental review was released in January 2014, two major tar sands mines have been cancelled due to deteriorating market conditions, including Shell’s 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) Pierre River Mine and Total’s 160,000 bpd Josyln mine. Shortly after those two projects were canceled, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) announced that it was reducing its 2014 forecast of tar sands production in 2030 by 430,000 bpd. Even this reduced forecast assumes that Keystone XL and all other proposed tar sands pipelines will move forward. CAPP’s Vice President observed:

“The biggest uncertainty in this forecast is the timing associated with this [pipeline] capacity and whether or not they can deliver the capacity on the timelines they now propose. We’re seeing capital costs continue to rise. And even in a flat-price forecast, if we see capital costs rise x per cent per year for the next 10 years, that’s going to really shrink the margins significantly.” - Greg Stingham, Vice President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, June 9, 2014.

The reality is that tar sands are among the highest cost, highest risk, and highest carbon crude oil in the world. It’s clear that cheap pipeline capacity leading to new markets are critical for the expansion of tar sands production proposed by industry – just the delay of Keystone XL is dramatically slowing the rate of  tar sands expansion.

Keystone XL would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. As evidence mounts that a tar sands industry without Keystone XL will be smaller than one without it, it’s clear that we need to take Keystone XL’s carbon emissions seriously. Just the incremental emissions from Keystone XL would generate 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon over its lifetime. To put that in perspective, the Administration estimates that the cost of that carbon pollution ranges from $90 billion to $128 billion. The National Climate Assessment highlighted the havoc that climate related costs are wreaking on our health, our homes, our communities, and our businesses. Approving a long term piece of high carbon infrastructure like Keystone XL that would add over a hundred billion dollars in climate costs is simply not in our nation’s interest.

Keystone XL is not a national jobs plan. The State Department has confirmed that the Keystone XL pipeline’s paltry employment benefits pale in comparison with its climate costs. Contrary to claims that the tar sands industry’s pet pipeline project would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, years of analysis have confirmed that the building the pipeline would generate 1,950 construction jobs for two yearsthe equivalent of building a medium sized mall. After built, the pipeline would employ a total of 50 employees. By comparison, the clean energy and clean transportation sectors put over 78,000 Americans to work last year building energy solutions that protect our air, water, climate and communities. That why more than 200 business leaders – including executives at Apple, Oracle, Facebook, Google and leaders in clean technology firms - have urged the President to reject Keystone XL.

Keystone XL is an export pipeline through the United States, not to it. New reports have further highlighted the fact that Keystone XL is intended as an export pipeline. We’ve recently seen reports of hundreds of thousands of barrels of raw tar sands being exported directly from the Gulf Coast to international markets. This adds to the millions of barrels of refined product exported daily from Gulf Coast refineries to international buyers.  It is worth taking the time to evaluate whether it truly is in the U.S. interest to enable higher carbon emissions and take the risk of a major pipeline built through our water supply simply to enable the tar sands industry to access more lucrative markets outside the United States.

Keystone XL poses a real risk of tar sands spills. The Associated Press recently broke the story that Federal pipeline regulators are imposing additional safety conditions on TransCanada after finding systematic problems on its Gulf Coast pipeline – high rates of bad welds, dented pipe and damaged pipeline coating. Pipeline regulators reported during one week, almost three quarters of the welds made on TransCanada’s Gulf Coast pipeline required redoing. This is a problem for a pipeline that is currently routed through some of the most sensitive portions of the Ogallala aquifer - the United State’s largest source of fresh groundwater. The problem is exacerbated by the greater impacts of tar sands spills to water resources and the fact that TransCanada’s real time leak detection system is not capable of detecting leaks smaller than half a million gallons a day.

Forcing Federal approval of Keystone XL would undermine the ability of Nebraska and South Dakota to weigh in on the pipeline’s route. While TransCanada was able to push through an exemption from Nebraska’s pipeline siting law through the Nebraska legislature, now that that law has been found unconstitutional, Nebraskans will have a chance to consider the route through a public process. While Landrieu’s bill nominally permits Nebraska to evaluate the pipeline route, the reality is that the federal process has provided a critical umbrella providing Nebraska the space to consider Keystone XL’s route through the state. For context, when Nebraska’s legislature first considered a pipeline siting law, TransCanada put enormous pressure on the state – attacking its jurisdiction and threatening to sue the state for any costs caused by a reroute. This pressure did not end until President Obama delayed a federal decision on the project to allow Nebraskans the space to consider the pipeline route in 2011.

Even now, TransCanada has been working to undermine public processes in Nebraska to such an extent that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) was compelled to send the company a warning letter last month making the point that states and localities had an important role to play in pipeline safety. By exempting Keystone XL from the federal national interest determination process, the Landrieu’s bill would only strengthen TransCanada’s hand to the determent of Nebraska’s legal process.

Photo: Suncor Millennium Mine, a tar sands mine similar to the proposed Pierre River and Josyln mines that were recently cancelled amid  deteriorating market conditions induced by pipeline constraints. Credit Peter Essick.

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alchemist from bristolJun 17 2014 03:22 PM

"It takes more energy to extract and refine tar sands oil, leading to a higher carbon footprint than regular oil."

JakeJun 18 2014 07:37 PM

Comment removed, per NRDC's policy, stated below. We welcome all civil responses. Comments that resort to profanity, personal or ad hominem attacks, etc., will be removed. – Ian @ NRDC.

A Proud CanadianJun 18 2014 11:41 PM

The same mis-information over and over again. I thought your absence on the blogs was an indication that you had come to your senses on this issue. Perhaps you were in Riyadh protesting…. But alas I was wrong. Oh well welcome back.
Let me break your blog into 3 sections. 1) Issues of domestic importance to you. 2) Global issues 3) Canadian issues
1)Spills, jobs, your federal rules and courts, and acting as a carrier for Canadian oil export. In this area I can only offer advice and clarity.
Spill issues are a conversation that must be had. Pipeline spills, rail spills, tanker spills. You will own them. If you want to import oil for your refineries, these must be considered.
Jobs – The 1950 jobs you quote (a medium sized mall). I’m sure most people realize that a pipeline project of $6.9B is more than that. How many medium sized malls are built for $6.9B?
Export – For your information, the Spanish refinery in question is testing multiple heavy grades of oil (they have already imported Venezuelan and Columbian heavy for testing). WCS was finally able to make it to a ship when the Keystone south leg was started earlier this year. However, the test was for when Canada brings its oil to tidewater through eastern Canada, not through the gulf coast. Again, the US gulf coast refineries import 4Mbpd of oil. Oil brought to the USGC by Keystone will be used to back off imports from friendly Countries like Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Nice try.
2) Global issues -Keystone XL would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution is just categorically wrong. When last you commented, you knew very well that your State Department analyzed this and concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline will not increase the problem of climate change. And you still continue your errant ways in believing that it does.
You say Keystone produces 1.4Btonnes over 50yrs. That is 28Mt/yr. which is a pessimistic high side you quote from that very state department report. In fact, the state department analysis shows an increase as low as 1.3MMTCO2 annually. This is only 66.4Mt CO2 over the pipelines life.
And of course some context………... 2013 global emissions where 36Btonnes. In 50 years that is 1.8Trillion tonnes (without assuming any growth). So the Keystone pipeline may increase lifetime global emissions by .0037%. And given that oilsands performance has been constantly improving over time I’d suggest that this number is actually going to be close to zero.
By the way, the US emits 5.5Bt/yr CO2 so over 50 years that’s 275B tonnes, which by your calculation method is between $17.7T and $25.1T of environmental damage. Your National Climate Assessment also highlighted the havoc that climate related costs are wreaking on Canadian health, Canadian homes, Canadian communities, and Canadian businesses. In short…… Clean up your own house first. Canada has been paying the price for your CO2 emissions, China’s CO2 emissions, Europe’s CO2 emissions for too long.
This hilariously unscientific connection of Keystone XL to climate change by institutionalized environmentalists is so transparent to the general population that you should just stop before it gets embarrassing.
3) Canadian issues. Trying to stop Keystone as a method to slow Canadian resource development (as a key enabler of oilsands growth).
Although you are wrong…… Here I just say point blank, given the overwhelming support Canadian oilsands development in Canada, and given the facts above, that you Anthony quit attacking my country for your own personal gain.
I will end with a piece of a response that I provided another NRDC blogger…..
“The NRDC should be ashamed of itself trying to “hem-in” oilsands production while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and the United States continue to produce heavy oils that are more carbon intensive than an oilsands mine.
When surveying your “tag list” on your website I don’t see anything resembling:
King Abdulla, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, OPEC, Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, Nigeria, Venezuela, Caracas

I see tags about
Alberta, Canada, fracking, GaryDoer, Gulf (not gulf of oman), gulfofmexico, keystone, keystonexl, mexico, oilsands, oilshale, pipeline, tarsands, teaparty, transcanada

Shame on you. Shame!
Why on earth aren’t you in Saudi Arabia right now protesting these guys? They produce 11.6Mbpd!!!!! With much of the new production being heavy insitu oil much more carbon intensive than oilsands. Why?

I am now forced to ask….. Who funds you and why the hilariously obvious bias against North American oil vs tyrant oil?
Any Saudi princes offering funds for your “common enemy”?

With not as much regard as normal,
A Proud Canadian”

A Proud CanadianJun 18 2014 11:45 PM

“DENIERS SAY: Tar sands oil that will be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline is no worse than any other oil.”
“Science Says :Barrel for barrel, tar sands oil is even worse for the climate than conventional oil.”
Here is your misdirection. Nobody says that oilsand oil is “no worse” than any other oil. Everyone agrees that oilsands oil is more carbon intensive than conventional oil. The point is that it is not the most carbon intensive of oils. The point is also that heavy oils are making up more and more of the feed for refineries. Oilsand proponents ask why environmental groups aren’t stopping Venezuelan, Saudi, Californian Heavy oils. Oils that are more carbon intensive than oilsands.
By the way, how do you define conventional oil? Most would say that is the average oil that is utilized in the US. Interestingly, if you use that standard, Math Says: approx. ½ the oil used by the US is more carbon intensive than conventional oil (the average). Using the commonly touted “Barrel for barrel, tar sands oil is even worse for the climate than conventional oil” is all fluff with no real meaning unless one is intent on removing half of the US oil supply.
You must stop heavy oil by decreased demand for oil. Period. Until then….. choose your heavy oil (Canada, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia).

JakeJun 20 2014 07:39 AM

I apologize that my original comment went a little too far. However, I stand by what I said. This article is quite unethical. Anthony is criticizing others for supposedly being misleading, and then he turns around and engages in the exact same sort of misleading talk that he supposedly objects to.

I'd elaborate further, but I see that A Proud Canadian has done an excellent job of it.

If Anthony's and the NRDC's cause were a just one, there would be no need to mislead people.

Anthony SwiftJun 20 2014 12:08 PM

Hi Proud Canadian -

I'll respond to your points in order:

Jobs. There isn’t all that much controversy on the number of construction jobs generated by Keystone XL at this point – it’s 3,900 or 1,950 over two years (pg. 2 of State’s Final SEIS, 4-10) and 50 personnel to operate the project (pg. 10, FSEIS 4-10). If the question is about how many jobs a mall generates – you’d be surprised. The Fortunoff Galleria mall was estimated to create 3,000 construction jobs and 3,540 jobs once built. Keystone XL is an expensive project, but only $145 million of its $3.1 billion cost for the U.S. component (pg. 2, FSEIS 4-10) are for the it’s U.S. construction (page 19, FSEIS 4-10). Here’s Section 4.10:

Exports. You only mention the export of 900,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands from the Gulf Coast to the Respol refinery. In April, Reuters reported that the Department of Commerce had already granted 8 exemption to export Canadian crude through the U.S. to Europe in 2014. Enbridge has admitted that it has received a re-export license to ship Canadian tar sands through the Gulf Coast to the international market. It’s far from clear that all of this demand is based on speculation from international refineries that a pipeline may be built through Canada’s eastern coast years from now.

Climate. Just to put this all in perspective, the White House’s Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) considers 25,000 tons of carbon emissions the point at which climate considerations should play a role in the consideration of projects. Your position is that Keystone XL would generate 66.4 million tons of carbon over its lifetime because it would have no impact whatsoever in enabling tar sands expansion. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t been persuaded that Keystone XL will have no impact on tar sands expansion, and with good reasons –much of the recent news out of the industry supports EPA’s perspective on this. Both the Department of Energy and the EPA are evaluating this issue, and recent news from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) highlighting the need for new pipeline access to enable expansion and reducing its expansion forecasts are likely to play a role in their evaluation. Inasmuch as Keystone XL enables additional expansion, State did conclude that simply offsetting conventional crude from the international market with tar sands from KXL would generate 1.4 billion metric tons of additional emissions. At a project level where 25 thousand tons is the level were climate concerns become an issue, that is a significant problem for climate. And for the record, that’s not the total emissions from that crude, which reach 8.4 billion metric tons.

Carbon intensity of tar sands. Regarding the argument that the carbon intensity from producing tar sands have been constantly improving over time, I’d take a look at the Canadian think tank the Pembina Institute’s blog on that point. The bottom line is that the carbon intensity of tar sands production has stopped improving and is likely to increase in coming years.

National Climate Assessment. We agree that climate is a global issue. In Copenhagen both Canada and the United States both committed to reducing their emissions by 18% from 2005 levels. The U.S. has already reduced its emissions by 12% and is well on its way to meeting its goal after moving forward with a series of ambitious federal and regional climate policies. Canada isn’t. In fact, it’s not on track to make any reductions. And in this case, it is for lack of trying – Canada’s looming failure is happening against the backdrop of a lack of action by its federal government to honor its Copenhagen commitments. In fact, Canada is currently at risk of being on a list by itself of developed nation’s with increasing climate emissions as the world struggles to find ways to decrease its total carbon emissions numbers. Of course, I know many Canadians who see this as an embarrassment and are working to change it. But your argument seems to be that because the U.S. has substantial emissions (and despite the fact that it is making great efforts to reduce them), it should treat decisions about major sources of additional carbon emissions like Keystone XL the same way Canada does. Let’s hope it doesn’t, for the sakes of both Americans and Canadians.

Tar Sands Expansion. There is an important debate about the role that tar sands expansion will play in Canada’s future. Certainly support for Keystone XL in Canada is falling quickly. And your argument that other places produce oil has a few flaws. State’s evaluation of the carbon intensity of tar sands showed that it’s more carbon intensive than other heavy crudes on the international market (what major source of expanding production are you alleging is much more carbon intensive than tar sands?). The scale of industry’s expansion is enormous – with over 7 million bpd of new projects proposed, and once built out, these projects tend to produce for far longer than conventional production.

Moreover, NRDC is working to enact low carbon fuel standards throughout the United States (and Europe) that would address high carbon crudes globally. These efforts are being opposed primarily by Canada – for the reasons I mention above.

We are not attacking Canada – in fact, we’d like to work on the same side on climate issues. If Canada were following through with its international climate commitments, I think we would be seeing many of these issues play out in a different way. However, the crux of the matter is that Canada’s international climate commitments are incompatible with it policy of unrestricted tar sands expansion. And it has chosen to pursue the later at the expense of honoring the former.

In the meanwhile, Americans are having many of the same issues with Keystone XL that British Colombians are having with Northern Gateway. And as we work to reduce carbon emissions on many fronts, it’s reasonable for us to decide that Keystone XL is inconsistent with our vision for our future.

A Proud CanadianJun 20 2014 05:43 PM

Hi Anthony,

One thing that I do appreciate about you is that you do respond to those commenting on your blog. Far too few actually do that on this website. So thank you.

Having read your responses, although itemized, I see very little in hard content . And is stunningly obvious that you don’t understand my concerns…. Not by the answers that you give (that are often off point), but by the answers that you did not give. I will summarize by getting to the point and ask you a question that I have asked another contributors:

You need to fill your car with gas…. You pull up to a gas station and they have 2 pumps. One says “refined in the USA from Canadian oil”. The other says “refined in the USA from Saudi oil”. Which do you choose? Why?

tmarshJun 22 2014 02:38 PM

It must be satisfying to create such wonderful intellectual conceits as the ones in this article. Your President waxes poetic on carbon congratulating himself at the thought this thirty percent reduction in emissions somehow equates to the same as Canada doing the same in oil and gas. Well I am sorry it is a false equivalency. Oil and gas represents a substantial piece of Canada's exports where electricity is not of any export concern to the US. Though the US growth in oil and gas may make it a larger player in oil and gas in the near term, their export capacity has yet to peak . This seems a perfect way to limit Canada's oil and gas development while the US refuses to deal with oil and gas industries emissions. Canada has trimmed its electricity emissions too, if my memory serves it means a 47 percent reduction. We applaud Mr. Obama for his leadership to catch up to Canada in its greenhouse gas emissions efforts in power generation. Now let's see how far the US will go to reduce its emissions in oil and gas, PM Harper says he waiting to work with Mr. Obama on those reductions. I am sure the President has the PM's contact information, when do we start?
Just for clarity, the highest carbon crudes on the planet are still Nigerian crude followed closely by California Heavy Crudes, Venezuelan Heavy followed even more closely by Canadian oil sands production. Of course "among" in this context is a wonderful wiggle word.
Jobs are an interesting subject, mostly regarded as new jobs created. My question is then with the refiners in the Gulf always looking for a less expensive raw material, their current choice for firstly Mexican crude and more recently Venezuelan Heavy, show that their business models hinge on inferior products that are then upgraded to near finished and finished products. This exploits crack spread, growing larger margins between raw material cost and finished goods selling. The refiners in the Gulf must have thought it was worth it they invest billions to upgrade their refineries to accept bitumen. Wonder if they're also anticipating growth in the volumes they will want to purchase in the future. One can guess if they'll employ more people to meet the increasing volumes they will buy?
Exports, another interesting aside, TransCanada may want export permits, but the bitumen purchased would be the property of the foreign buyer once it enters the pipeline. There must be some foreign refiners looking to cash in the way Gulf refiners have. Also of note is the quantity of export will vary with the value of the US dollar, even with the greenback at historic lows the most the Gulf could export was thirty percent of its production. As the American dollar appreciates the volumes exported are going to fall, that’s an economic reality.

Climate. This is probably the biggest issue for many in the discussion. For the record the impact of Keystone XL is being vastly overstated, rail has emerged as big in the discussion and will be until regulatory and judicial issues in North America are resolved. This could be a 4-9 year window depending on the vagaries of regulatory hearings and the speed of the wheels of justice. To say all pipelines will be stopped is a great message to rally the troops for opponents but lacks a non Technicolor view of reality. Unless all governments sign a Kyoto or harsher treaty, and the odds on that are still at the supercomputer awaiting calculation, oil will be a fuel of choice for at least 25-40 years. I understand the new Climate Action plan gives some smugness to the US on Canada’s lack of action. However Canada enacted electrical sector carbon reductions some time ago. Thanks for catching up. Also when you look at the numbers it is still rather starling how bad the comparison is for the US. Oil sands, or tar sands as you call them, emission for 2011 are pegged at 55 Mt. Yes they are quite possibly going to grow, but the reality is that even if the President’s plan is successful, no states working to exempt themselves or companies litigating to do the same, coal fired emissions based on 2012 data is still 20 times the carbon pollution of the oil sands.

Carbon Intensity of Oil Sands. I have loved the math for the wells to wheels used almost exclusively for oil sands production. Figures never lie… If applied to all fossil fuels even those exported by the US and other countries it may even up the perception and the playing field. Mine to stack for coal, wells to wheels for the new found oil and gas wealth the US seems almost giddy about probably will not help the carbon pollution amounts the US will see with its growing production. I am interested to see President Obama’s approach to cutting emissions while oil and gas exports grow.
National Climate Assessment. There are a number of issues you bring up. Canada’s lack of progress of climate action is a good one. I can remember three PMs ago when Kyoto was signed. A liberal PM succeeded by another liberal PM talked the talk, now a conservative PM who by my reckoning did the same as his predecessors gets stick for doing nothing. At best this is revisionist history and forgets the US intransigence on this issue up until now. The more troubling aspect is the paternalistic pap that gets repeated about Canada. “Canada is currently at risk of being on a list by itself of developed (nations) with increasing climate emissions…” Canada is also on list alone of developed countries with substantial resources to offer the world. Also as a large growing country, with a spread out population and cold climate there are some limits to how far these reductions will go. It is always interesting to hear the perspective that Canada should trade its potential economic prosperity at the behest of other countries, which just happen to be developing their competing resource industries.

Oil Sands Expansion Again the Keystone XL pipelines importance is vastly overstated. Some of the more important projects have removed some of the bottlenecks separating the largest supply hub Cushing, OK with the Gulf refineries. This has unfortunately meant a coming end to cheap gas in the Midwest US, though so many commentators wanted to blame Keystone XL for that. More startling is the lack of acknowledgement paid to the emerging economies that want oil and other resources, China and India chiefly among them. The companies want to ship bitumen, oil, LNG, and many other resources understand these economies will drive their business growth into the future. Even more established industrial powers like South Korea and Japan have inquired into when export of these products will be feasible. Public opinion polls are wonderful tools, usually of the entity paying for them. CAPP has used them to show limited support for Northern Gateway, a green group used one to show how little support the project had. I grow weary of the fabrications of both sides. Both sides seem to be trying to spin the majority to side with them, without allowing them to think too much. Low Carbon fuel standards by in large are more about restricting competition from outside to protect local supplies. California restricted oil sands, or tar sands, but continued using the higher carbon polluting California heavy crude. The EU climb down from there Fuel Quality Directive had similar origins when it was pointed out the European fuels with as high or higher carbon pollution would be exempt.

The US has to figure out what it wants, if it’s no KXL then okay, but again the rest of the world is watching. They seem ready to buy what the US, as politicized, convoluted and inane as the US decision making process has become, continues to struggle with.

A Proud CanadianJun 24 2014 10:36 PM

no answer yet? it has been 4 days........
You provided a verbose answer in just 36hrs last time.

This one is easy. Which one?

Comments are closed for this post.


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