skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Liz Barratt-Brown’s Blog

It's time the State Department sees what everyone else can see - plumes and plumes of carbon pollution from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted April 19, 2013

, , , , ,
Share | | |

The massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, under review by the State Department, would be one of the largest pipelines in the country, carrying nearly ten times the dirty crude that erupted from a failed pipeline in Arkansas earlier this month. But the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), released in March, failed to find a climate impact associated with up to 900,000 barrels of gooey bitumen that would be pushed under high pressure from Alberta to the Gulf coast, where it could then be shipped anywhere in the world. This has sparked a new campaign named "All Risk, No Reward" and an outpouring of public comment in anticipation of the close of the comment period next Monday.  

Representative Terry, not one to shun theatrics and ironically from Nebraska where hundreds turned out yesterday in the snow to testify against the pipeline, was pictured this week with State Department binders and a sign that read, “15,000 + pages of review “.  But, in spite its girth, the SEIS and its predecessors remain steadfastly thin in their review of the pipeline’s impact on the upstream carbon emissions from expanded production of tar sands.  Never mind that the government of Canada, oil and investor analysts, as well as the tar sands industry and its supporters, have made it abundantly clear that the pipeline is essential to the expansion of the tar sands.

Either it is critical to expansion, as we believe it is, and therefore emissions associated with that expansion should be counted, or its not and there are viable alternatives.  The reality is that pipeline proponents are trying to have it both ways – it is essential for purposes of pushing it through but its not so essential that we have to count the carbon emissions associated with it.

But let’s get back to counting carbon emissions.  This is not a new issue.  In 2010, the first draft EIS was issued and was criticized by EPA for failing to account for its climate impacts.  EPA said then it was reasonable to conclude that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the pipeline would be about 27 million metric tons annually or the equivalent to emissions from 7 coal fired power plants.  Senator Leahy, the chair of the panel overseeing the State Department's appropriations, and close to a dozen other Senators wrote to Secretary Clinton in the fall of 2010 asking a series of pointed questions about the climate impacts of the pipeline.  And a new report released this week estimated the total emissions even higher at 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by taking into account all emissions from extraction to combustion, including the burning of pet coke, a byproduct of refining tar sands. 

And this is not the only way to look at emissions associated with the pipeline.  Investors are waiting to see if this expensive and dirty oil is viable. Approval of the pipeline would signal “game on” more generally in the tar sands region.  My colleagues Danielle Droitsch and Anthony Swift documented the industry expansion plans in a recent blog.  These plans are important – and alarming – because the potentially recoverable barrels of tar sands crude is enormous – over 170 billion barrels – rivaling only the Middle East in scope.  But it is dirty, degraded oil that must be strip mined or melted to recover.   And, on that point, the draft SEIS does agree.  On a lifecycle basis - from extraction to combustion - tar sands are one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.

If the State Department is wrong, as we believe them to be, they will have overlooked one of the biggest sources of carbon tied to any project before the U.S. government for approval.

So how can the draft SEIS punt on its examination of the climate impacts?  It asserts that if the pipeline isn’t built, the oil will be developed anyway.  With that kind of logic, no project will ever have a climate impact because if it didn’t go forward, some other project would.

The Center for American Progress' Dan Weiss and NRDC's Anthony Swift blogged about the fallacy of alternatives to the pipeline yesterday, reviewing the findings of a major Reuters investigation on the use of rail to move tar sands to the Gulf.  And last week, along with Anthony, Canadian economist Mark Jaccard, one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Nobel Laureates, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that denying Keystone would in fact significantly reduce carbon pollution. He pointed out that alternatives to move tar sands oil out of land-locked Alberta to Canada’s west and east coasts by pipeline are mired in controversy and unlikely to be approved and agreed that alternatives to moving tar sands oil by pipelines are too difficult and expensive to scale up, and face their own opposition.

Jaccard went on to describe that we are trapped in the tragedy of the commons.  Instead of ignoring the impacts, he said that the impact of each big carbon project such as Keystone XL should be carefully weighed because each one that goes forward – when taken together - adds up to an untenable situation for our atmosphere.  

Jaccard testified that Canada was way behind in meeting its climate target.  Canada, once a signatory to the Kyoto protocol, pulled out of Kyoto and adopted the weaker target of a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (ostensibly to match the U.S. commitment). It is, according to its Auditor General, likely to run 7% over its 2005 levels. 

And what is driving that nearly 25% gap?  Tar sands expansion. 

It’s time the State Department consider what everyone else can see - plumes and plumes of carbon dioxide associated with this dangerous and dirty pipeline proposal.

NOTE:  Comment period closes Monday. Please take a minute to comment on this critical issue before the deadline Monday. 

Share | | |


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Liz Barratt-Brown’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In