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Rocky Kistner’s Blog

Fight Keystone XL Tar Sands Pollution and Protect the Climate

Rocky Kistner

Posted January 29, 2013

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Up in the pristine Canadian boreal forests and freshwater deltas of Alberta, home to caribou, whooping crane and native communities settled long before Europeans arrived, a poisonous sore is being gouged out of the carbon-rich soil, a massive tar sands oil mining operation that could have huge climate impacts for people across the globe.   

New information shows that oil industry plans to more than triple production of tar sands oil in the coming decades will include additional dirty petroleum byproducts, making it even harder for Canada to meet its planned greenhouse gas emission targets. Right now there is one major project standing in the way of tar sands expansion—a roadblock that Canadian oil interests are desperate to crash through.

That roadblock is the Obama Administration’s decision whether to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion project that would pump more than 800,000 barrels of toxic tar sands crude each day from Alberta's forests through America’s agricultural heartland to refineries in the Gulf, where much of the oil would be processed and exported. The administration is expected to release a supplemental Environmental impact Statement soon, with the final Keystone decision expected in coming months.

You can help stop the tar sands devastation and protect the climate. Watch this video about climate threats posed by the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and find out how to join the February 17 Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC. 

Climate scientists warn that further development of fossil fuel energy sources like tar sands oil will spell disaster for the planet’s climate, a point made clear in the release of the draft study of the National Climate Assessment this month. “If we fully develop the tar sands resources we will certainly lose control of the climate, we will get to a point where we can no walk back from the cliff,” says University of St. Thomas energy expert John Abraham, who has studied the climate impacts of tar sands oil emissions. 

That’s because tar sands oil is particularly dirty--at least three times as carbon intensive as conventional oil--resulting in a refining process that includes carbon-intensive byproducts like petroleum coke—or petcoke—that can be burned like coal in refineries at the receiving end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Texas. According to a new report released by Oil Change International, petcoke burned from tar sands oil would equal the climate pollution of five additional coal fired power plants, boosting overall carbon emissions from the Keystone XL pipeline by 13 percent. Oil Change International research director Lorne Stockman describes it this way:

“The refineries at the end of the Keystone XL pipeline are some of the biggest petcoke factories in the world today. By supplying them with tar sands bitumen, the petcoke embedded in the tar sands would find its way to the world market…petcoke from the tar sands is making coal fired generation dirtier and cheaper and this puts another nail in the coffin of any rational argument for further exploitation of the tar sands.”

Oil industry supporters claim that if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built, tar sands oil will find its way to other markets through future North American pipelines built to the east or west coasts. But many researchers say those projects are mere pipedreams, since the tar sands industry faces major opposition from local communities on the east and west coasts, where residents are worried about tar sands oil spills and other environmental impacts. The Pembina Institute’s Nathan Lemphers worked on a new comprehensive report that lays out the facts surrounding tar sands expansion and the Keystone XL pipeline, which he says is a crucial lynchpin in the development of the tar sands:

The Keystone XL pipeline is critical for further expansion of the oil sands. Major financial institutions in Canada have said that the lack of pipeline capacity is a rate limiting step for the oil sands…if it’s (Keystone XL) not build, it’ll start to moderate the growth of the oil sands and it will send a clear signal to the financial community and the oil sands community that they need to address the carbon emissions that come from the oil sands.

Tar sands processing plant in Alberta     Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

But growing opposition to the Canadian tar sands is not just a not-in-my-backyard concern--everyone is hurt by higher emissions from the dirtiest oil on the planet. The scientific community is especially concerned about rapidly melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels and extreme weather events associated with climate change that we are already witnessing. In December, some of the country’s top climate scientists sent President Obama a letter urging his administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, citing last year’s recent record-setting temperatures and storms as evidence that we need bold action to cut global fossil fuel emissions.

Earlier in January, 70 groups wrote President Obama urging him to take bold and decisive action to help protect the nation against climate change’s ravages. Danny Harvey, an energy and climate expert at the University of Toronto, said it best in our video: "Right now President Obama faces a critical choice. There’s no better time to say no to further expansion, say no to business as usual, and to begin the process of turning things around."

On February 17, join people from all walks of life, from climate scientists to ranchers and farmers, who will gather in Washington, DC, to call for strong action to fight climate change. The Forward on Climate Rally  will point the way for Obama to shape his climate legacy. One of the most important decisions he can make is to reject the Keystone pipeline and to tell the EPA to set carbon standards for power plants.  

We the people have the power to demand action from our political leaders, to tell the lobbyists and oil industry fat cats that we're tired of their business-as-usual dirty energy campaigns. We want clean energy solutions that create new technologies and long-term job opportunities, including money-saving projects like NRDC's innovative plan to cut coal-fired power plant pollution.These are the kinds of investments that will build a more sustainable planet for all who inherit the Earth.

That's certainly worth fighting for. Because if we don't, who will? 

For more information on how to sign up and participate in the February 17th march, check out the Forward on Climate Rally site.


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Cam WilliamsJan 29 2013 03:20 PM

blocking the pipeline is a foolish idea. texas refineries need the oil. It /has to be shipped. Let me rephrase that... it /will be shipped. You can either ship it with a pipeline that generates almost no carbon, or tanker railcars that will generate a lot of carbon. Blocking the pipeline isnt going to stop Canada from producing more oil from the oilsands. All blocking the pipeline does is take money away from the american economy. The pipeline is the environmentally friendly option. There isnt going to be a green energy solution in the next 20 years that will replace oil and gasoline as a viable transportation energy source. the internal combustion engine is going to stay for the next 20 years at least

Dennis JaquesJan 29 2013 06:13 PM

Mr. Kistner, I appreciate your concerns developed after 20 years of journalism work when you say: "All I have to do is look into my two young daughters' eyes to know people everywhere are counting on us to get this (climate change ?) right."

I agree and I have spent over 40 years in ecology and air pollution work. When i look in the eyes of my three children and eight grandchildren I am encouraged to "get it right", as well.

My scientific conclusions about carbon dioxide and its effects on the earth's macroclimate is that it is a very minor contributor (ca 3%) to warming on the earth's surface and lower atmosphere. Whereas, water vapor is a major (90-95%) controlling factor for retarding solar heating from escaping too quickly into outer space and therefore, water vapor is largely in control of keeping our earth at an overall comfortable average temperature of 15deg C. Carbon dioxide has been clearly shown to produce most of its small contributions to these processes at concentrations below 280-350ppmv; while any increases above these concentrations have little influence, if any, on warming on earth. In addition, I have worked on climate and ecology questions in northern Alberta for many years and find that the macroclimate in this region shows three major warming and cooling periods since 1880. A major warming period occurred from 1921-1941, then a cooling period from 1922-1977, another warming period from 1978-1997, and another cooling period from 1998-2012. I analyzed mean median temperature data from hundreds of climate stations throughout North America (an area about 18% of the earth's total land area -excluding Antarctica) and found that the warming period from 1921-1941 was somewhat WARMER than the more recent 1978-1997 warm period! In addition, it is well known that the major cooling of the Little Ice Age ended about 1850 and the earth has been generally warming slightly since that time - with ups and downs largely caused, in all likelihood, by the solar processes and cosmic radiation interactions discovered by Dr. Henrik Svensmark and confirmed by the C.E.R.N. experiments published last August 2012. Therefore, I assure my children and grandchildren that they need not fear a little warming caused by powers far beyond our control, but I do teach them to avoid real air pollution issues (e.g. PAH's, ground-level ozone, heavy metals, NOx and SOx compounds etc.) I also show them on our ranch how cool winter and spring temperatures reduce our hay crops and how warmer temperatures with adequate water produce much greater hay crops for our livestock! Children need to know the truth about climate change.

Patriia CampbellFeb 3 2013 03:08 PM

Cam, do you have children? Do you care about a healthy planet in the future?

Francis FormanFeb 4 2013 09:09 PM

That is an interesting conclusion, Mr Jaques. May I ask if you have your research published in any peer reviewed scientific journals? Because right now somewhere between 97 and 98% of the most prominent published climate researchers disagree with you. But I bet you don't tell your children that. You wouldn't want them to think of their dad as a denialist stuck with his head in the tar sand, desperately clinging to his oil-powered lifestyle.

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