Keystone XL's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Be Far Worse Than Thought

A new report says the tar sands oil pipeline could emit four times more carbon than the U.S. government has estimated.

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

President Obama has said that he will approve the Keystone XL pipeline only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” by carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the United States.

A new report has an answer for the president: It will. Big-time.

Researchers at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, a scientific research organization founded by the Swedish government, analyzed the global impact of the pipeline on oil supplies and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Their conclusion: Keystone XL could produce four times more carbon than has been estimated by the U.S. Department of State.

What gives?

In its final report on the environmental impact of Keystone XL, the State Department found that the Alberta oil sands would be developed and the carbon dioxide released regardless of whether the pipeline was built. It forecast a rise in carbon dioxide emissions of 1 million to 27 million tons per year.

The SEI researchers took a global tack. They looked at how pumping all that oil into the worldwide market could drive down prices and encourage more burning of fossil fuels.

Think of it this way: How much has the price of gas influenced your decision to take a road trip this summer? When there is a lot of oil available, the price drops. If gasoline is less expensive, we’re more likely to drive and produce more greenhouse gas emissions.

SEI researchers Michael Lazarus and Peter Erickson found that building the Keystone XL pipeline could boost global emissions of carbon dioxide between 1 million and 110 million tons per year.

That’s because the State Department did not take into account the effects the pipeline would have on the global oil market, said Lazarus, a senior scientist at SEI.

For every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase by 0.6 barrels, according to Lazarus and Erickson.

Keystone XL could add up to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to the atmosphere. That’s a small fraction of the 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted globally last year.

But it is enough to offset projected decreases in carbon emissions from various U.S. federal climate policies. For example, new performance standards on industrial boilers, cement kilns, and petroleum refiners could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 million to 60 million tons per year.

The study calculated a wide range of emissions impacts from Keystone XL, given the uncertainty over future oil markets. For example, future oil prices could wind up being lower than forecast, or technology improvements could make it easier to remove and process oil from the oil sands.

The proposed pipeline would transport crude oil extracted from Alberta’s oil sands to Steele City, Neb., where it would link up with other pipelines to send the oil to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Alberta’s oil sands produce 1.9 million barrels per day. The Keystone XL pipeline is expected to carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day if it is built. President Obama has not set a date for his decision on the pipeline.

Any analysis of a project’s impact on climate change needs to consider more than just the direct emissions from producing oil, said Mark Jaccard, a sustainable energy expert at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“We know that it will change energy markets, so you really have to measure its effects on markets,” he said. “If the price for oil goes down, people will consume more oil and there will be more emissions.”

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