Time and again, President Obama has made an explicit promise that he will not approve the Keystone pipeline if doing so negatively impacts the climate.
If we break this issue down and examine it from every possible angle, it quickly becomes clear that there is no way for the president to allow for the pipeline's construction while simultaneously keeping his word to the American people.
On a gross basis, Keystone will cause an enormous increase in carbon emissions. According to an excellent new report from the National Resource Defense Council, the pipeline will add up to 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over the 50-year lifespan of the project. The Alberta tar sands are thought to be the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, and according to estimates by the State Department and the EPA, carbon emissions resulting from their burning are 81 percent higher than those from conventional oil on a well-to-tank basis.
Furthermore, while the State Department argued in its March draft review of Keystone that tapping the tar sands is inevitable, this argument now lies in tatters.
Transporting the oil to Gulf Coast refineries via rail is not economically feasible, as it involves prohibitively expensive start up costs stemming from time intensive expansions in rail infrastructure, not to mention the perilous prospect of a railway accident with devastating environmental consequences.
While there are four other prospective Canadian pipelines that would nominally help ship the heavy oil across North America to capable refineries, each of these projects face significant bureaucratic and political challenges, making their approval unlikely. Even if they were all given the green light (which is a near impossibility), they would still not provide the transportation capacity needed to enable the tar sand industry's medium-tier expansion plans.
The only question left for the Obama administration to consider then, is whether or not approval of the Keystone pipeline would result in a NET increase in carbon emissions. Is there a mitigation plan sufficient to offset the additional pollution? Is a mitigation plan even possible in the first place?
Given the type of oil and size of these reserves, the answer to the first question is a resounding no. Governments across the globe have so far failed to design adequate mitigation systems that would undo the harm from our reliance on fossil fuels. For proof of this, one need look no further than the EU's attempts at instituting a cap and trade system. While it remains to be seen as to whether mitigation rights ever existed as they were supposed to or were fraudulent from the get go, it's impossible to deny that there has been a vast oversupply of permits since the system was instituted. With permit prices under $9 per ton since 2011, companies across that continent have little to no incentive to solve this problem.
So when and if Canada vows that it will offset the burning of the tarsands through a similar uncapped system, there is no reason to view that promise is anything but empty. That's why it's so crucial that the president's promise be rock solid.