The Blog

It's Not About the Pipe

In this first-ever national debate over a pipeline, the arguments are getting heated. So maybe it's a good time to take a couple of steps back to remind ourselves why we care. Just why is this pipeline such a big deal? That question has several answers, but they start with this: It's not about the pipe. It's about what the pipe would carry.
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Soon, President Obama will announce his decision on the permit for TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Since being proposed five years ago, this one pipeline has galvanized protests across the U.S. and gained a notoriety that no one could have predicted a couple of years ago. It's also brought renewed national attention to the urgency of reducing carbon pollution, as evidenced by the all-night session that the Senate Climate Action Task Force organized yesterday (the Sierra Club brought coffee for more than two dozen senators who stayed up to talk about climate disruption).

I'll also be testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on whether the pipline is in the national interest this Thursday, March 13, at 11:15 a.m. ET. The hearing is scheduled to be webcast live -- look for details here.

Without a doubt, in this first-ever national debate over a pipeline, the arguments are getting heated. So maybe it's a good time to take a couple of steps back to remind ourselves why we care. Just why is this pipeline such a big deal?

That question has several answers, but they start with this: It's not about the pipe. It's about what the pipe would carry.

The Keystone XL's purpose would be to move Canadian tar sands oil through more than a thousand miles of American farms and ranches all the way to the Gulf, where much of it would be shipped to China and other countries. Tar sands oil is not normal crude oil. It's heavier and more toxic, with on average 11 times more sulfur, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead, as well as plenty of other carcinogens. When it spills in a waterway, it sinks. Just one tar sands oil spill in Michigan fouled more than 35 miles of river. After three and a half years and more than a billion dollars, that spill still has not been cleaned up.

Because tar sands oil is thicker and, indeed, more tar-like, it can't be transported like conventional oil. It must be heated to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit along the entire route and pumped under intense pressure (more than 1,000 pounds per square inch, compared with about 30 psi for your average car tire). This high pressure and the corrosive nature of tar sands oil combine to increase the likelihood of spills.

Keystone XL would also produce a significant increase in the production of petcoke, a filthy byproduct of tar sands production that is hazardous to communities and has its own major climate implications.

It's true that all fossil fuels come with risks, of course. But extreme fossil fuel sources, such as oil from the Arctic Sea or tar sands from Canada, come with extreme risks. Risks that are too often brushed aside -- right up until the inevitable.

But even if Canada's vast tar sands reserves could be extracted and transported without a single spill, generations to come would still pay a terrible price in climate disruption. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world's leading scientists have made it clear that we must leave at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Isn't it reasonable to assume that tar sands, some of the riskiest, most toxic and most carbon-intensive sources of oil in the world, should be among the first reserves that we leave alone?

The State Department's Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone XL, which came out earlier this year, has several problems, which isn't too surprising when you consider that a member of the American Petroleum Institute helped draft it. The report's most wrong-headed assertion, though, was that the tar sands will be fully developed regardless of whether Keystone is built. Frankly, if that were true, the oil industry would not be so anxious to see the pipeline approved. Just last month,TransCanada CEO Russ Girling told an audience that a pipeline cancellation would mean a lost opportunity for "decades and decades to come."

If the Keystone XL is canceled, does that mean Canada will immediately renounce all tar sands development? Of course not. But losing the Keystone battle would be an enormous setback for tar sands development, and the oil industry and its allies in government know it. Canada's natural resources minister put it bluntly: "In order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives such as the Keystone XL pipeline project."

And yet Canada cannot even get its own people to accept new tar sands pipelines within their borders. Two pipelines proposed to the west through British Columbia are stalled due to popular opposition. Two more pipelines going to the east are also heavily criticized. Thus, this proposal to use the United States as a shipping route -- which means that U.S. farmers and ranchers get all the risk, while oil companies will reap all the rewards.

The argument that Keystone XL is a pipeline that would benefit oil consumers in the U.S. ignores mountains of evidence that the product is intended for export. Keystone XL would deliver tar sands to refineries in the Gulf, which already export most of their refined product. In fact, 76 percent of Keystone XL's capacity is already committed to six oil-shipping companies that hope to access international markets.

Here in the U.S., President Obama has said he cannot consider the pipeline to be in our national interest if it would "significantly increase" emissions of greenhouse gases. Clearly, the Keystone XL fails this "climate test" because the tar sands fail it. The State Department's own report makes it clear that, compared with other crude oil sources, the tar sands oil from the Keystone pipeline would create up to an additional 27.4 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually. That's equivalent (says the report) to the yearly carbon pollution from 5,708,333 passenger vehicles or 1,368,631 homes. This extra pollution would happen because tar sands are not only dirtier and riskier than other types of crude oil, they also are significantly more carbon-intensive to extract. At a time when we should be doing everything possible to cut carbon emissions, why would we choose to rely on the one kind of oil that results in higher emissions than all others?

Really, it's not just Keystone XL that faces a climate test, but the president himself. With a single decision, he could undermine much of the substantial progress his administration has already made on curbing climate-disrupting carbon pollution and advancing clean energy solutions. Trying to fight carbon pollution while expanding development of the tar sands is like deciding to eat more healthfully and then signing up for a weekly shipment of Krispy Kremes.

Fortunately, we are hardly desperate for oil. Oil demand in the U.S. actually peaked in 2007 and has declined since then from about 22 million barrels per day (mpd) to less than 19. With the fuel-economy policies that are already in place (or coming very soon), we'll reduce our oil use to as low as 14 mbd. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the many risks of tar sands is that they're unnecessary.

One of the best ways to predict the future is to look at the infrastructure investments we're making today. If we want a future that commits us to 830,000 barrels of dirty oil every day for decades and decades, then we should let TransCanada build this pipeline. Or, we could invest in a future where clean energy creates more jobs, makes our country more competitive, and protects our air, water, and climate. Unless you're the one selling the tar sands, the choice should be obvious.