Op-Ed: The State Department Is Wrong About the Keystone XL Pipeline

Steve Kretzmann of ‘Oil Change International’ warns that the KeyStone XL pipeline is a Big Oil power grab that will cost all of us dearly.

Keystone XL Pipeline

The emissions caused by the Keystone XL Pipeline are the equivalent of the annual output of five coal plants. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

When someone in Washington decides to release something at 3:45 p.m. on a Friday, you can bet they know it’s going to attract criticism. This at least the State Department appears to have gotten right about its handling of a long-awaited environmental review of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The rest, not so much.

Producing tar sands oil generates three times as much greenhouse gas pollution as regular crude. The Canadian tar sands are one of the largest remaining pools of climate-changing carbon. Building the Keystone XL Pipeline will allow oil companies to export tar sands from the Gulf of Mexico and give them the financial incentive to dramatically increase tar sands production.

Amazingly, the State Department draft review concludes that “the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands.” Please—if this were true, why would the Canadian government and the oil industry be so hell-bent on building it? They know it’s key to their expansion, and so do we.  

The truth is that the Keystone pipeline is well named—it is literally the key to unlocking huge amounts of additional production in Alberta’s tar sands. By absurdly concluding that the pipeline will not impact production, the State Department is dismissing analysis by the investment community that the pipeline could produce an additional 450,000 barrels per day.

Ralph Glass, an economist and vice president at AJM Petroleum Consultants, told The Globe and Mail, “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck.”

The State Department seems to completely buy into oil industry and Canadian government propaganda which states that even if Keystone isn’t built, tar sands oil will still find a way to international markets via other pipelines or rail. Given the fierce opposition in Canada and New England to the other pipeline proposals, this is at best a questionable assumption—and the rail option is even more expensive and logistically complicated than pipelines.

The State Department also continues to overlook the fact that Keystone XL is a pipeline through America, not to it. As recently as this week, another oil industry insider, Ed Morse, discussed the clear potential that much of the oil delivered by Keystone XL pipeline will be exported as either refined products or raw crude. The export nature of the pipeline reveals that it has nothing to do with American energy security and everything to do with maximizing profits for Big Oil.

Finally, there are some important details in analyzing the climate impact of the pipeline that the State Department analysis just glosses over. By dismissing emissions associated with petroleum coke produced by the diluted tar sands bitumen the pipeline will carry, the agency is underestimating the climate emissions of the pipeline by at least 13 percent.

While the State Department conducted a wide-ranging discussion of petroleum coke—or, "petcoke"—emissions, they still dismissed the impacts these would have by making coal-fired generation cheaper and dirtier globally: The petcoke that will be produced from the pipeline would be equivalent to the emissions produced annually by five coal plants.

These are not rounding errors; they are huge holes that should cause everyone to question the validity of the State Department’s analysis.

More than 40,000 people gathered on a frigid day in Washington two weeks ago to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline for very good reasons. We have all been listening to increasingly dire warnings about climate change from increasingly mainstream sources for the past 25 years. During that time, we’ve also seen an unprecedented expansion of the fossil fuel industry globally. Enough—the first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, it’s time to stop digging.

It’s old news that some State Department staff are too close to the oil industry. Luckily, they don’t have the last word.

Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama still have the opportunity to reject this dirty pipeline. Over the next 45 days of public comment on this disastrous business-as-usual review, we’re confident that millions of Americans will make this abundantly clear to the Administration.

Steve Kretzmann has spent more than two decades campaigning on the environmental, social and economic impacts of the fossil fuel industry. He founded Oil Change International in 2005 to teach the true impacts of fossil fuels, conduct research and hasten the transition to clean energy. Visit The Price of Oil Website | @PriceofOil

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