Debate over climate change fueled by Keystone XL Pipeline report

The debate over climate change in the United States was fueled on Friday by the latest report from the U.S. State Department concerning the Keystone XL oil pipeline — a 1,700 mile pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf Shore, bringing tar-sand oil to refineries in Texas. The report finds that there would be no significant environmental impact to most resources along the proposed route and concludes that alternative ways of transporting the crude oil to the Gulf would be worse for the environment. The report was heralded by supporters and slammed by environmentalists.

The Obama administration is facing significant pressure from Republicans, business and labor groups, and the Canadian government to approve the pipeline. The State Department stopped short of recommending the approval of the pipeline, but did provide the Obama administration cover if it chooses to endorse the pipeline against the wishes of many Democrats and environmentalists.
The deal needs the State Department’s approval because the pipeline would cross the US-Canada border. The latest report was commissioned after the pipeline’s operator, Calgary-based TransCanada, changed the project’s route through Nebraska thus requiring a new environmental analysis of that region.

The Obama administration blocked the construction of the pipeline last year because of the environmentally sensitive land in the Sands Hill region. This initial rejection of the pipeline went over poorly in Canada, which relies on the United States for 97 percent of its energy exports.

The report says that tar sands are likely to be developed regardless of whether or not the United States approves the pipeline. It goes on to investigate different ways of transporting the oil from Canada to Texas — including rail, trucks and barges — and concludes that other modes of transportation would release more greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming than the pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline, according to the report, would annually release the same amount of global warming pollution as 626,000 passenger cars. Two other modes were investigated in depth and scenarios were developed for each. The report finds that a scenario that would move the oil on trains to mostly existing pipelines would release 8 percent more greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide than Keystone XL. Another scenario that relies mostly on rail to move the oil to the Canadian west coast — where it would be loaded onto oil tankers to the U.S. Gulf Coast — would result in 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem for many environmentalists is not with the different modes of transportation but rather with the development of tar sands oil in general. “The State Department is overlooking the fact that the pipeline is likely to trigger at least 450,000 barrels per day of additional tar sands production capacity,” said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, in a statement.

James Hansen, a Columbia University professor and one of the world’s most respected experts on climate change, also issued a statement attacking the report’s findings.

“To say that the tar sands have little climate impact is an absurdity,” he said.

“Americans are already suffering from the consequences of global warming, from more powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy to drought conditions currently devastating the Midwest and Southwest,” adds Daniel Gatti of the group Environment America.

Production of oil from Canadian tar sands could add as much as 240 billion metric tons of global warming pollution to the atmosphere, Gatti said, a potential catastrophe that would hasten the arrival of the worst effects of global warming.

On the other side of the debate are Republicans, oil companies, and the Canadian government who argue that the oil will find a way to market with or without Keystone XL. Republicans also see this as a way to boost the economy by creating new jobs and lessening dependence on foreign oil as well as bringing down fuel prices.
“The Keystone XL pipeline will make more Canadian and U.S. oil available to us — oil that will not need to be imported from unfriendly places,” said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. Construction of the pipeline would support 42,100 jobs across the United States, directly and indirectly, the review said. The operation of the pipeline would result in 35 to 50 permanent jobs.
“[The] report again makes clear there is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day. After four years of needless delays, it is time for President Obama to stand up for middle-class jobs and energy security and approve the Keystone pipeline,” said House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The draft report issued Friday begins a 45-day comment period for the public, after which the State Department will issue a final environmental report before Secretary of State John Kerry makes a recommendation about whether the pipeline is in the national interest. The Obama administration is not expected to make a decision until midsummer.