Scientists to State Department: Climate Change Must Be Considered in New Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Review
Earlier this week, a group of ten of the nation’s top scientists including James Hansen, James McCarthy, and Raymond Pierrehumbert, sent a letter to the State Department calling for “a serious review of the effect of helping open Canada’s tar sands on the planet’s climate.” They are rightly asking that this happen as part of the environmental review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry polluting tar sands into the United States from Canada. In a time that people across the United States are suffering from the climate chaos of high heat, wildfires, droughts and floods, the State Department should not be giving a permit to bring in a type of oil that will only make climate change worse. We have better solutions than expensive and dirty tar sands oil.
In February, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s earlier application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. But the company is back again. Unwilling to take no for an answer, TransCanada has reapplied to the State Department to get tar sands into the United States so that they can get it down to the Gulf Coast to export markets.
Through July 30, the State Department is accepting comments on what should be in the environmental review of the project. So far, the State Department has said that they plan to include a review of the impacts in Nebraska where the route has been changed slightly, and also information about “significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns bearing on the proposed action or its impacts.” But clearly, the climate impacts of strip-mining and melting the gooey tar sands from under Alberta’s Boreal forest need to weigh heavily in any evaluation of a new tar sands pipeline.
Of course, greenhouse gas emissions are just one of a number of important considerations for the new environmental review. In a May 2012 letter, NRDC and our partners asked the State Department to also assess the need for the pipeline; economic and employment factors; the impact of the pipeline on gas prices; oil supply, demand and export issues; refinery emissions; impacts on wildlife; pipeline safety; tribal consultation; alternative routes; and more. We are preparing comments along these lines for the State Department, but we’ve also asked for more time to pull these together: this is an important project and it is important to get this important first stage right. You can add your voice to the more than 50,000 NRDC members and activists who have commented here.
As the scientists write in the letter, “The vast volumes of carbon in the tar sands ensure that they will play an important role in whether or not climate change gets out of hand; understanding the role this largescale new pipeline will play in that process is clearly crucial.” In the environmental review of the original Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back last August, the State Department acknowledged that tar sands cause as much as 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil on a lifecycle basis – a number that expert research shows to even be on the low side. However, the State Department then didn’t take these greater greenhouse gas emissions into account. By their flawed reasoning, Keystone XL was not a driver of additional tar sands production. This was wrong then, and as our leading scientists have pointed out, it would be wrong not to consider the climate impacts of tar sands now.
Keystone XL would have an impact on tar sands production and greenhouse gas emissions. It is a major project for Big Oil in the tar sands and would drive expansion of tar sands strip mining and drilling.
Some say that tar sands would just go to Canada’s two coasts for export if Keystone XL is not built. But Canadians don’t want tar sands pipelines and these options are looking less likely than ever. Opposition to building or expanding tar sands pipelines such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Northern British Columbia, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver, and Enbridge’s Trailbreaker Pipeline to Portland, Maine has continued to grow. Northern Gateway opposition has grown to the point that analysts in Canada after a scathing report from the National Transportation Safety Board on the massive and costly spill of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River are calling the project dead. In fact, next week, for the 2-year anniversary of this million gallon Michigan tar sands spill, there will be approximately two dozen actions around North America of people opposing tar sands pipelines in their communities.
If Canada can’t send tar sands to the Gulf Coast via Keystone XL, there is not a sure and certain way for it to get to market otherwise – meaning that Keystone XL would certainly have an impact on how much tar sands it made sense for industry to extract, even in the short to medium term.
While the environmental review of the original Keystone XL pipeline proposal was inadequate, the State Department has the opportunity to get it right this time. Getting it right means to account for the impacts of Keystone XL on climate change; to wait for the results of the study from the National Academy of Sciences about the risks of transporting diluted bitumen through pipelines before permitting a pipeline that could cause a spill like Enbridge’s Kalamazoo spill or worse; and to take a hard look at whether this pipeline is needed and how it would affect the United States. A thorough environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will make it apparent that it is not in the national interest.
Tar sands mines in Alberta. Credit: Peter Essick/National Geographic
July 17, 2012
Dear Secretary Clinton,
We are writing to ask that the State Department conduct, as part of its evaluation of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, a serious review of the effect of helping open Canada’s tar sands on the planet’s climate.
At the moment, your department is planning to consider the effects of the pipeline on “recreation,” “visual resources,” and “noise,” among other factors. Those are important—but omitting climate change from the considerations is neither wise nor credible. The vast volumes of carbon in the tar sands ensure that they will play an important role in whether or not climate change gets out of hand; understanding the role this largescale new pipeline will play in that process is clearly crucial.
We were pleased that President Obama saw fit to review this project more carefully; it would be a shame if that review did not manage to comprehensively cover the most important questions at issue.
Associate Professor, School of Engineering
University of St. Thomas
Department of Global Ecology
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society
The Earth Institute, Columbia University
Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs
Michael E. Mann
Professor of Meteorology
Director, Earth System Science Center
The Pennsylvania State University
Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs
Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
George M. Woodwell
Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist
Woods Hole Research Center
Affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.
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