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Susan Casey-Lefkowitz’s Blog

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline fails Presidential climate test

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Posted June 25, 2013 in Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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In an historic speech, President Obama released a plan for America to tackle the climate change that is costing us so much with its droughts, floods, and violent storms. America will be moving forward with critical limits on carbon pollution from power plants, as well as new measures for energy efficiency and renewable energy. And when it comes to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, President Obama made it clear that he won't green light a tar sands pipeline that means more climate chaos. We already know that producing tar sands from this project would generate more carbon pollution than conventional oil. The only way Keystone XL passes a climate test is to imagine the tar sands could be expanded without this pipeline. That can't happen, as more and more evidence affirms. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would have a disastrous impact on our climate. And it needs to be denied.

Scientists are speaking out about the fact that tar sands oil means higher levels of climate pollution than conventional oil. Just in January, eighteen of the nation’s top climate scientists released a letter to President Obama urging him to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, saying “We hope, as scientists, that you will demonstrate the seriousness of your climate convictions by refusing to permit Keystone XL; to do otherwise would be to undermine your legacy.”

It's beyond question that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would increase carbon pollution, compared with the same amount of crude - 830,000 barrels a day - from conventional sources. The only question is whether the tar sands would be produced anyway, without the Keystone XL pipeline. Every day we see more evidence that tar sands expansion plans hinge on the Keystone XL pipeline moving the product to overseas markets.

The March 2013 State Department’s draft analysis of Keystone XL concluded that this project would add more than 18 million tons of carbon pollution to our atmosphere each year. That's the equivalent of putting nearly 4 million additional cars on the road. Over its 50-year life, this project would add 935 million tons of carbon pollution to our atmosphere - more than the annual carbon pollution produced by Canada. And according to Environmental Protection Agency April comments, this estimate may understate the additional carbon associated with Keystone XL. Moreover, these estimates do not even include carbon emissions from burning the fuel or that result from destruction of the Boreal Forest.  

So where is the rub until now? The State Department tried to make the case that it didn’t need to look at these climate emissions, arguing that the tar sands would be developed in any case. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized this part of the State Department draft saying that they needed to do a better job on the market analysis connection. With Secretary Kerry now making fighting climate change a centerpiece of our foreign policy, we are likely to see the State Department following EPA’s advice and reassessing its draft analysis.

Industry insiders themselves are saying that tar sands expansion depends on Keystone XL. Standard and Poor just released a report showing that the industry was depending on Keystone XL to move tar sands to overseas markets, since it is currently landlocked in a glut of tar sands in the Midwest and Canada. And a Goldman Sachs report recently found that Keystone XL was critical to “removing congestion” in the system.

And for those who argue that there will be other ways than Keystone XL to get tar sands to international markets – we’re not seeing those materialize. The province of British Columbia recently opposed Enbridge’s plan to build the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline across its lands and waters. And pipelines that would move tar sands through New England and eastern Canada to points such as Portland, Maine are also facing strong local opposition. Rail has been raised as an option, but rail is not an economically viable alternative to replace a major pipeline such as Keystone XL.

When we move away from the numbers, today’s pronouncement about Keystone XL, also speaks to how important it is for us to get it right on a much more basic level. As a recent letter from Nobel Laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “as leaders who have spoken out strongly on these issues, we urge you, once again, to be on the right side of history and send a clear message that you are serious about moving beyond dirty oil.” Rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, along with the other needed steps to fight climate change, would show international leadership and be a legacy the President could be proud of.

Let’s go back to President Obama’s words today. The President said: “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation's interests. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Well, Mr. President, we have clear evidence that tar sands development causes higher carbon pollution than conventional oil. And we have clear evidence that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will drive expansion of the tar sands. This is clearly a dirty fuels project that has no place in a world where we are taking on the immense challenges of climate change. Keystone XL gets a failing grade on the Presidential climate test.

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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 NRDC.org.

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