State Dept: Build the Keystone Pipeline or Not, the Oil Sands Crude Will Flow

A report from the State Department concludes that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will have little impact on carbon emissions. That will make environmentalists battle to fight the pipeline that much tougher.

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Protesters at a February event against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline

The State Department issued its long-awaited supplementary environmental impact assessment (SEIS) this afternoon on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship up to 830,000 barrels a day of Canadian oil sands crude to the U.S. The full report is some 2,000 pages long—and was released at the very end of the week, thanks very much, State Department—but you can boil it down to one sentence:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the U.S.

In other words, at least according to the State Department’s reckoning, while the environmental movement has made the Keystone XL pipeline a line in the sand for U.S. climate policy—and for the environmental legacy of President Obama, who has final say on the pipeline—the project itself will have little impact on carbon emissions and on climate change. Whether or not the pipeline is built, the oil sands crude will flow.

(VIDEO: Pipeline Politics: Backgrounding Keystone XL)

Now it’s important to realize that the SEIS is not the final word on the pipeline—something the otherwise completely unhelpful State Department officials on the press call this afternoon took great pains to point out. “This is a draft,” said Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones. “We are anxious to have public comment.”

They’ll get it. The SEIS will be subject to at least 45 days of public comment after it is published next Friday in the Federal Register, during which State will have to sift through hundreds of thousands of opinions, along with the more than 1.4 million emails and letters they’ve received from the public and other government agencies so far. State will also have to undertake a separate analysis on whether Keystone is in the national interest, which will involve more comment over 90 days. And eventually—though probably not anytime soon—the President will finally have to decide whether he’s willing to let Keystone be built or not.

From a climate perspective, though, the SEIS seems to indicate that Obama’s decision won’t make much of a difference at all, largely because much of the oil could be shipped by other pipelines or increasingly by rail. (Or it could end up shipped to China via Canada’s West Coast ports.) The report estimates that if the Keystone pipeline is not built—but other pipelines in the future are—oil sands production would fall by just 0.4 to 0.6% by 2030. Even if all pipeline capacity is restricted in the future, including Keystone, oil sands production would fall just 2 to 4% by 2030. That barely makes a difference on carbon emissions. State estimates that crude from oil sands produces about 17% higher greenhouse gas emissions over its life-cycle than an equivalent barrel of conventional crude. If Keystone is denied, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to increase by just 70,000 to 830,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent a year. Even if all pipelines are restricted, emissions would increase by 350,000 metric tons CO2e to 5.3 million metric tons. At the high end, that would be equal to taking 1 million cars off the road, but it’s hardly the end game for the planet. As Ed Crooks of the Financial Times pointed out on Twitter, stopping Keystone would cut U.S. emissions by just 0.001%-0.01%.

(MORE: Keystone: How Bill McKibben Turned a Pipeline into an Environmental Rallying Point)

There was something of a bright side for environmentalists. As Juliet Elperin of the Washington Post noted, the report undercut the argument from the oil industry that the pipeline itself was all that necessary:

But the detailed environmental report — which runs close to 2,000 pages long — also questions one of the strongest arguments for the pipeline, by suggesting America can meet its energy needs over the next decade without it. The growth in rail transport of oil from western Canada and the Bakken Formation on the Great Plains and other pipelines, the analysis says, could meet the country’s energy needs for the next decade, even if Keystone XL never gets built.

Still, environmentalists—many of whom have taken part in major public protests over the pipeline, including a recent event outside the White House—were furious about the report. They focused on the argument that the oil sands will develop whether or not the pipeline is actually built, noting that both the oil industry and the Canadian government have fought hard to get Keystone approved in recent years. While it is entirely possible that Canada could and will choose to ship its oil sands crude to Asia, that would require a another pipeline that some native groups in Canada have opposed in the past. Railroads are an option as well, but cargo lines are already jammed with product, even as U.S. producers in the northern Midwest pump more and more oil themselves. “The conclusion that this project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development of the oil sands is a conclusion that is not shared by Canadian industry,” said Bill McKibben, the head of the environmental group and a leader of the anti-Keystone movement. “They call it Keystone for a reason.”

We’re going to be talking about Keystone for a long time, so I’ll just note a few things in conclusion. One is that the way the State Department handled the release of the SEIS—dumped at the end of a Friday, giving reporters and environmentalists almost no time to digest the document—is emblematic of the way the Obama Administration has dealt with Keystone. Politically this is a no-win situation for the President—no matter which decision he makes, he’ll piss off a good chunk of Americans. But it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the White House is trying to drag this decision-making process out for as long as possible. Not a profile in courage.

(MORE: Pipeline Politics: Keystone, Advocates and Analysts)

Second, I understand why the environmental movement has chosen to make its stand on Keystone. My colleague Michael Grunwald made a pretty good case for this strategy in TIME:

Keystone isn’t the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it’s the fight we’re having. Now is the time to choose sides. It’s always easy to quibble with the politics of radical protest: Did ACT UP need to be so obnoxious? Didn’t the tax-evasion optics of the Boston Tea Party muddle the anti-imperial message? But if we’re in a war to stop global warming–a war TIME declared on a green-bordered cover five years ago–then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta. If we’re serious about reducing atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million, we need to start leaving some carbon in the ground.

Nonetheless, if the State Department numbers hold up, environmentalists will have to double down on the symbolic rationale for fighting Keystone—because the data will not be with them. It’s worth noting that the same day that the SEIS was released, the Sierra Club and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that their alliance had helped lead to the retirement of 54 gigawatts of dirty coal power. That’s a huge amount of carbon emissions averted—far more than the Keystone pipeline would ever be responsible for. That’s a meaningful victory that dwarfs the bad news from the State Department.

The reality is that oil—of any form—is going to be the hardest source of carbon to fight. Coal can be replaced relatively easily with other sources of cleaner electricity, including natural gas, renewables and nuclear. (Indeed, more wind and solar capacity were installed in the U.S. last year than all fossil fuel sources combined.) But right now we have virtually no substitute for oil as a transport fuel, save some biofuels, which in many ways are not better. (Battery-powered transport is still in the pilot stage.) That means until we can address the demand for oil—as we’re doing with efficiency and more slowly with substitutes—trying to restrict the supply of oil, especially without a carbon price, will be incredibly difficult. Oil remains too valuable and too fungible—two things coal is not.

Environmentalists can and will continue their fight against Keystone—just because there’s more progress to be made against coal doesn’t mean you can’t do both. As Grist’s David Roberts suggested on Twitter, environmentalists need to figure out a way to flip the switch—to make stopping new fossil fuel developments the default, instead of the other way around. But today’s SEIS demonstrates why it will be an uphill battle. Not that greens are used to any other kind.