New Analysis Shows How the Environmental Review of Keystone XL Was Bungled

A Carbon Tracker Initiative review concludes the pipeline would double the U.S.'s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

A sign marks the ground covering TransCanada's Keystone I pipeline outside Steele City, Neb. (Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/'Toronto Star' via Getty Images)

Mar 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

The State Department had on blinders when it analyzed how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would affect tar sands development and greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s the conclusion of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based nonprofit. Its analysis of the proposed $7 billion, 875-mile pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries refutes the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in two critical ways.

First, the Carbon Tracker Initiative report directly challenges the State Department’s assertion that construction of the pipeline would not “significantly increase” demand for the extraction of Canadian oil sands. “In my view, ‘significance’ is in the eye of the beholder,” report coauthor and Carbon Tracker Initiative founder Mark Fulton told The Huffington Post.

The FEIS concluded that the same amount of oil would be extracted even if the pipeline was not built. But the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s analysis shows that because the pipeline would lower the cost of transporting oil extracted from the tar sands (compared with current costs of rail transport), energy companies would be able to afford to take on additional projects—and extract more. As a result, exporting oil from western Canada’s tar sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast could increase by as much as 525,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

Second, after taking these factors into account, the Carbon Tracker Initiative concludes the pipeline would double the U.S.’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by stimulating the production of up to 5.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—up to 36 times more emissions than the State Department estimated in its FEIS. This is equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released from 1 billion passenger cars on the road for one year, or the CO2 released annually from 1,400 coal-fired power plants.

The projected increase in production and greenhouse gas emissions is a key sticking point in the State Department’s position. President Obama said in June 2013 that he wouldn’t approve the pipeline if it “significantly” exacerbated greenhouse gas emissions.

What accounts for the differences in these two analyses?

The Carbon Tracker Initiative's emissions projections were higher because it calculated the cumulative impact the emissions would have up to the year 2050 using a life-cycle analysis. That method takes into consideration the emissions released at every point of extraction and transportation of the oil from the tar sands region via the pipeline, not just the emissions of the extracted oil itself. It’s long been known that tar sands oil is more energy-intensive to extract than other forms.

The report says that the State Department’s conclusion is based on the assumption of higher oil prices in its modeling scenarios, as well as production growth and infrastructure investment. But the scenario of extracted tar sands oil fetching higher prices is “highly unlikely,” according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, as it’s not consistent with the international agreement struck at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks to limit emissions and keep global warming under two degrees Celsius.

So, will these new findings be a game changer in the president’s deciding whether to approve the pipeline’s construction?

Only time will tell, though it’s essential information to consider before Friday, when the window closes on your opportunity to submit comments on Keystone XL.