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Passion Remains High Because Keystone XL Marks a Turning Point on Climate

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Posted February 21, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Now five years after it was first proposed, why do so many Americans, including the environmental community, remain so passionately opposed to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline?

The fervor arises from a fundamental question. Will we continue relying on dirty fuels that threaten our waters and communities or chart a smarter course to cleaner energy? It’s also about taking one meaningful step against threat of climate change. And finally, the passion is propelled by how much the State Department just doesn’t get it.

We should all agree that we need to tackle climate change. Drought, wildfires, extreme storms, punishing floods and rising sea levels are worsening.

The chief contribution in the U.S., scientists have concluded, is the unlimited carbon emissions from power plants. So, of course, we need strong carbon controls on power plants and the president has committed to this in his national climate initiative. 

But we’d be kidding ourselves if we minimized the Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department’s own report made it clear just how significant this dirty energy project would be – from a climate perspective.

For the first time, it acknowledged that the pipeline could speed up tar sands development and climate change, adding pollution to our air equal to carbon emissions from 5.7 million cars. That unequivocally ramps up greenhouse gas emissions.

We disagree with State’s scenario that approving the Keystone XL pipeline won’t matter for the climate because extraction of tar sands oil would expand anyway, moved by other pipelines, rail or barge.  Development is not inevitable.

The recent court decision in Nebraska finding the law unconstitutional that established the latest route, still over the valuable Ogallala Aquifer, attests to that. This case is a big deal and puts another nail in the coffin of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline showing again how strong the concerns are wherever tar sands pipeline are proposed whether in the United States or in Canada.

Tar sands producers themselves recognize that they will not realize their expansion plans without new pipelines. Just last month, the CEO of Cenovus Energy told reporters that his Canadian oil company’s plan to triple production in coming years was contingent on more pipeline capacity. Financial giants, including RBC Capital, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and CIBC, have all publicly acknowledged that a tar sands industry without new pipelines will be smaller than one with them. 

Other pipeline projects in Canada are stalled, so Keystone XL has become the linchpin for industry’s plans to triple tar sands extraction and development. Joe Oliver, Canada’s natural resource minister, conceded as much, saying that for tar sands production to grow the pipeline network must be expanded through projects like Keystone XL.

Further, State’s analysis also showed that many proposed tar sands expansion projects are significantly more susceptible to cancelation in the absence of cheap pipeline capacity. In fact, right now there are 10 approved tar sands mines – which could produce nearly a million barrels per day – waiting on the sidelines. With the Keystone XL decision, the president will signal whether or not many of these carbon intensive projects can move forward. 

Some also dismiss a scenario that the State Department laid out, in which oil prices drop, new pipelines are not available, and rail costs remained high and therefore a significant amount of tar sands expansion is too costly to pursue. But that scenario depends on oil price levels that are already expected by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and many more costly tar sands projects would become uneconomical even at higher oil prices.

Moreover, rail doesn’t have the capacity or the price to allow it to take up a lot of the slack if pipelines aren’t built.  Rail has its dangers as does transport by pipeline and in order to support the tar sands expansion planned by the oil industry, we’d be looking at more of both. The point is that we shouldn’t have the tar sands expansion that would be generated by either mode of transport.  We should instead focus on reducing our need for oil to lessen the threat that pipelines and trains pose in spills and explosions to many communities.

At the end of the day, we know we can do better. That’s hundreds of thousands of Americans have held vigils in almost every state, attended national rallies and raised their voices against Keystone XL in almost every state.

We can press ahead with clean fuels and clean energy, delivering dividends for our economy. Consider this: According to Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), over the past two years more than 186,500 clean energy and clean transportation jobs were announced all across the country.

That’s where our children’s future lies. Not in promoting a project that jeopardizes our farms and communities, and the health of our life-sustaining planet. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in the national interest and needs to be rejected.

You can tell the President to reject the pipeline at www.stoptar.org.

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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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