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Liz Barratt-Brown’s Blog

Mr. President, will you be our Valentine and say no to Keystone XL?

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted February 12, 2014

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grandmother makes Valentine plea

Last week, over 100 people gathered in a pub in Wisconsin to make valentine cards for the President and Secretary Kerry.  Amidst the doilies and glitter glue were messages like “Please don’t break our hearts. Stop KXL, please.”  To these average Americans, it is obvious that the dirty tar sands pipeline can’t be part of a livable future for our planet and our kids.  But what is obvious to most – that a pipeline carrying nearly a million barrels a day of dirty tar sands oil will facilitate the extraction of the oil in Canada – is in fact at the very center of the debate over its future.

So, is it or isn’t it?  Is the pipeline the climate-busting behemoth that the recently released environmental assessment acknowledges it could be?  Is it the lynchpin to developing the tar sands as both the industry and environmentalists seem to agree?  Or is it just another pipeline that could easily be replaced by the next pipeline, rail or even barges?

If you are a pipeline promoter, you are arguing that it is both a lynchpin for getting Canada’s land locked tar sands oil out of the ground and to market, and, in the same breath, that it could easily be replaced when it comes to counting its climate-busting emissions. The argument goes like this - if not this pipeline, then another pipeline. The dirty oil will get to market even if it has to ride on the back of a donkey (or dumped into rail cars or onto barges if that sounds more plausible). So, the argument goes, there really are no climate impacts associated with this particular pipeline. 

Development of tar sands has taken place at Wild West rates – leaving any capacity to deal with environmental damage and social impacts in the dust. Keystone XL is a key part of keeping that Wild West pace going.  Big Oil and the pipeline company, TransCanada, drew a line straight from the tar sands fields to the Gulf coast, running right over one of the country's largest freshwater aquifers. That way they could increase the price of the oil and get it to global markets. Canada’s right-wing Premier has staked his reputation on its approval and made it the biggest issue in US-Canadian relations. Alongside the Canadian government, Big Oil is spending millions in lobbying for it. 

So why does this contradictory argument continue to have legs?  A big part of the answer can be found at the State Department.  The small Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which is an office more often tasked with counting birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act than with assessing pipelines, seems to have concluded there was likely not much climate impact without understanding how the assessment relates to the larger climate context of the Keystone XL decision.  In a hastily convened press conference on Super Bowl Friday, they parroted the industry line – that tar sands would find its way into global markets regardless of any other factors, including, for example, the climate imperative to keep it in the ground.  Instead they could have impartially laid out all the scenarios in the assessment.  This would have left the door open for their superior, Secretary Kerry, to review the actual analysis and weigh the probability, and one could argue necessity, of evaluating the scenario most consistent with the State Department and President’s climate policy.

What the review found was that the pipeline could in fact have very significant emissions.  Under a scenario in which the price of oil is under $75 a barrel – what oil experts believe is very likely – it becomes uneconomic for other pipelines to be built to carry the oil the Keystone XL would carry.  Under this same scenario, it becomes uneconomic for our rail system, already overloaded with oil from the Bakken and ferrying less than a quarter this amount of oil from any source today, to carry the oil the Keystone XL would carry.  Under this scenario, carbon pollution associated with this pipeline wouldn’t otherwise occur and that – yes indeed – this pollution would be very significant, adding the equivalent of 5.7 million more cars to the road just in carbon associated with the increased carbon intensity of the oil.  The carbon pollution is far higher if the totality of emissions (from mining to burning it in our tanks) were taken into account. 

But the economic modeling did what economic modeling always seems to do – it shows that anything is possible under the right circumstances - and the State Department bureau hooked its comments on a high oil price scenario in kowtowing to the industry line.  One commentator said he might agree that the pipeline didn’t matter because under a high oil price scenario, we’d be using a lot of oil and we’d already be toast (high demand drives high prices).  But how ripe are circumstances for a high prices and expanded tar sands?  Rail and barges (and donkeys, for that matter) only become economically viable when the demand and price is high for tar sands oil.  And tar sands oil in turn is only economically viable when the price of oil more generally is high. Tar sands oil is what economists call “marginal oil” – in other words, the tar sands spigot is turned on when bigger, more reliable and cheaper spigots can’t fill the demand. Already we’ve seen delays in tar sands production due to the economic decline, putting to rest the argument that tar sands oil is essential to what the industry likes to say is “our way of life”.  The same happens as we go out in time.  Lower oil prices make tar sands oil unprofitable and call into serious question the inevitability of tar sands expansion. See my colleague’s excellent blog – laying out all the evidence and expert forecasting on this topic.

The environmental assessment has been industry-driven and a huge amount of time and effort expended on what will happen if this pipeline is not built. But the more important question is what happens if the pipeline is built.  A popular poster in the 1970s said “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”  It showed a rusting tank in a field of daisies. We could imagine Keystone XL sitting amidst a field of daisies, unused and quietly rusting away.  But the reality is that, if it is built, it will pump nearly a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on the planet for another fifty or more years (many of our existing pipelines are over 50 years old). It’s approval will give the industry and investors the needed shot in the arm that will unleash further investment and exploitation of the tar sands reserve. 

The focus now moves to the Secretary of State John Kerry’s office to make a recommendation to the President that the pipeline is or is not in the national interest (called the National Interest Determination).  He and his staff will have the considerable record of public comments – from millions of Americans, members of Congress and government agencies – that will inform his recommendation.  Many eyes are on the Environmental Protection Agency, which has to date given the State Department reviews failing grades.  At the same time, there will be a public comment period of 30 days. The good news is that during the review, any agency can stop the clock, even if, say, they wanted the benefit of the public comments before initiating their review.

Sometimes the debate about this pipeline can push to the sidelines what this is really all about.  The tar sands region, otherwise known as the Canadian Boreal forest, is home to some of the last Serengeti-like wildlife on our planet.  The Athabasca Delta is surrounded by sand dunes that blow through the forest like wisps of snow.  It is a place of great beauty. And this is its terrible irony.  That under its majestic rivers and lakes, its fens and bogs, and miles of pine and hardwood trees lies the very substance that will not only drive its extinction but drive the extinction of other, beautiful wild places on our planet in a warming world.  If we don’t keep the tar sands in the ground, it will make it impossible, as our nation’s top climatologist has said, to stem climate chaos and protect our very planet – not only “our way of life” – on this planet.

It is time for us to love our planet.  I for one am going to rededicate myself to this goal on Valentine’s Day and I am planning to get the doilies out to make my valentines. I hope you’ll join me. 


Photo credit: Krebane, Daily KOS

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Russell SeniorFeb 13 2014 12:17 PM

That's ok, we can let the oil be transported by Truck and Train. It's ok that it's much more dangerous. No one wants to us to be safer.

Josh MogermanFeb 13 2014 04:54 PM


This isn't about rail or pipeline--the industry wants more of both. Keystone XL will not offset the growing use of oil trains to move oil out of the Bakkens in the Dakotas. The danger being brought closer and closer to our back yards via train and pipeline is only alleviated by reducing our dependency on oil--not building infrastructure designed to keep us beholden to it.

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