Ecocentric

Should the U.S. Be Piping in Canadian Oil Sands?

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A pickup truck drives past a pond of oil-sand by-products in Fort McMurray. Credit: Orjan F. Ellingvag / Dagens Naringsliv / Corbis

The issue has been a bit under the radar until recently, but the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—which could bring up to 800,000 barrels a day of additional Canadian oil sands crude to the U.S.—is heating up. Because the proposed pipeline would cross international barriers—funneling crude from Canada’s massive Albertan oil sands developments to the refineries of the Gulf Coast—the State Department has been overseeing much of the approval process.

It’s hasn’t been fast—the pipeline has been debated since November of 2008, and the State Department still hasn’t made a decision. Environmentalists are fiercely opposed, in part out of fears of a major spill along the pipeline’s length. (Michigan is just recovering from last year’s accident along an Enbridge pipeline, which spewed more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.) But more than the pipeline itself, greens worry that Keystone XL would lock in the continued development of Canadian oil sands (or tar sands if you’d prefer), which could have devastating consequences for the climate. Oil sands—especially older developments, which resemble open-pit mines—use large amounts of water and energy, can destroy nearby boreal forest and have a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude. As Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times:

This is really a campaign against tar sands expansion rather than a single pipeline.

The greens seem to have an ally in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reviewed the State Department’s own efforts to gauge the environmental impacts of Keystone XL and found them inadequate. (Read a PDF of the EPA’s letter to State here.) The EPA is concerned about the risk of a spill, the impact on those living around the pipeline—and the extra greenhouse gases that might be emitted by that oil sands crude. The agency also worries about the chemicals—including carcinogenic benzene—that would be used to dilute the oil and speed it along the pipeline. From the EPA’s letter:

Recognizing the proposed Project ‘s lifetime is expected to be at least fifty years, we believe it is important to be clear that under at least one scenario, the extra GHG emissions associated with this proposed Project may range from 600 million to 1.15 billion tons CO2-e, assuming the lifecycle analysis holds over time.

The ball is still in the State Department’s court—officials there have said a final decision will be made by the end of the year. For proponents of the pipeline though—including Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who called today to allow the government and military to buy oil sands-derived petroleum—oil sands represent a secure, nearly domestic source of petroleum from a close North American ally. More oil sands mean less oil imports from the Middle East, from Russia and from Venezuela—the countries that don’t like us very much. As Murkowski said today:

When it comes to meeting the power our energy needs, it is important we focus on North America.

So is that what it comes down to? Dirty oil sands that harm the climate versus the benefits of greater energy security? Well, for all the noise over oil sands—which do represent a new leg of extreme energy—the Keystone Pipeline XL alone isn’t going to break our addiction to foreign oil or guarantee climate disaster. 800,000 barrels a day sounds like a lot of oil—until you realize the U.S. consumes 14 million barrels of oil a day. Barring real conservation, we’d swallow up that Canadian oil sands crude like a Denny’s diner soaking up maple syrup for their all-you-can-eat pancakes binge, and it would likely do little to reduce the price of oil or reduce the political power that big oil exporters still hold over us. By the same token, though, oil sands producers are getting better and more efficient—as I saw myself on a trip last year to Alberta. Oil sands aren’t good for the climate, but as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote yesterday, they’re likely not the catastrophe many green groups have made them out to be either:

So analysts have a choice: either they can argue that Keystone XL would have a substantial impact on both greenhouse gas emissions and oil prices, or they can conclude that it will have neither. Both of these are respectable positions. (I lean strongly toward the latter.) What is not right is to mix and match assumptions so that one predicts an outcome that is not consistent with itself.

As Ian Austen writes in the New York Times, even if green groups get their way and Keystone XL is blocked, you won’t see oil sands developments in Canada pause—not with high-priced oil. Canadian producers can use existing pipelines or even rail to move their crude to a thirsty U.S. And if that’s somehow blocked, you can bet that the Chinese and other rapidly growing Asian countries will be happy to take it off Canada’s hands. Nor are Canadians themselves likely to scale back on oil sands production—not after recently electing a Conservative government that has deep roots in the energy wealth of Alberta and other western provinces. Christy Clark, the premier of British Columbia, was blunt about the role energy development has played in the province’s and the country’s prosperity at a recent political dinner:

Every heart operation in this province is paid for by oil and gas out of the northeast …. Boy, you want a health care system, you better be damn happy we’re getting oil and gas out of the northeast, because that’s what’s paying for it.

Clark’s sentiment might not be politically correct, but for Canada, at least, it’s true. (And I wonder how many American progressives might favor increased energy development if they at least knew that some of the money was going towards a decent health care system?) I understand why environmental groups focus on defeating new energy projects—it’s a way to both rally public support and notch tangible political victories, and some projects really are so terrible they must be stopped. But we’ll never really beat oil sands—or just about any other form of climate-polluting fossil fuels—until we can all stop consumption at the source.

More from TIME:

Postcard from Fort McMurray

Q&A: Avatar Director James Cameron on Oil Sands and Environmentalism

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