The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline: A 21st Century Schizoid Climate Plan

CUSHING, OK - MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012
CUSHING, OK - MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Canada harbors some of the great environmental Arctic treasures of the world, magnificent polar bears, wildlife and fisheries unique to its pristine Arctic shores. But the land of the Maple Leaf also is pushing policies that will destroy these natural jewels that already are showing signs of damaging impacts from climate change. Canada was the first to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, undermined climate change negotiations at the U.N, and is now ranked next to Kazakhstan in terms of its climate change record. And Alberta's massive carbon-polluting tar sands mining operation is second to none. 

According to a recent report put out by  Environmental Defence, Canada is one of the worst offenders when it comes to dealing with the world’s growing climate crisis. As scientific study after study rolls in with new warnings about  catastrophic Arctic impacts from a warming climate, Canada's political leaders seem intent on unleashing massive quantities of climate-killing tar sands pollution. Canadian officials are even promoting it as a "greener alternative" to other energy sources around the world. 

Talk about Orwellian double speak.  

The lynchpin of their plan -- the  Keystone XL pipeline -- will shoot a river of the chemical-laden tar sands crude 1700 miles to American refineries in the Gulf. There it will be processed and exported to world markets. Thanks to higher levels of carbon and  increased energy required to process it, tar sands oil will add billions of tons of extra carbon pollution to the atmosphere and heat up the world even faster.

Last week, climate scientists warned that the Canadian government, which has repeatedly failed to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, will continue to add to the world’s rising atmospheric CO2 pollution, levels that scientists confirmed this week rose to 395 parts per million, the second highest rate increase on record. Researchers also reported that global temperatures have spiked to the highest levels in over 11,000 years, rising at an unprecedented rate.

That has scientists increasingly concerned, since CO2 retains its atmospheric heat-trapping qualities for as long as a thousand years. Here’s how University of Toronto climate scientist Danny Harvey put it:

“Across-the-board deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required in order to avoid potentially catastrophic changes in climate. Continued expansion of the oil sands operations runs counter to this imperative...the Canadian government has no credible plan for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, much less reducing them.”

Watch this video with scientists and experts describing new climate emissions hazards associated with tar sands oil production:


The debate over of the Keystone XL pipeline has heated up with the recent release of the U.S. State Department’s Keystone XL environmental impact statement, a report many say has serious deficiencies in its economic analysis and study of long-term environmental impacts. As NRDC’s Danielle Droitsch points out in her blog, Keystone XL is critical to plans to triple tar sands production to six million barrels a day over the next 20 years, enough to put six million more cars on the road.

Expanding the exploitation of tar sands would significantly undermine efforts to reduce carbon pollution. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook includes scenarios with different levels of Canadian tar sands production in 2035.  In the scenario that keeps atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million (which results in a 50 percent chance of keeping the average global temperature below the 2 degree C threshold), tar sands production is 3.3 million barrels a day.  The scenario with production at 4.6 million barrels a day -- still below industry’s 2030 goal -- estimates that global temperature will rise by 6 degrees Celsius.


Forward on Climate Rally protesters in DC last February  Photo: Melanie Blanding

The Keystone XL pipeline is the only viable option available to support the kind of massive expansion plans the oil industry wants, since there is growing  local opposition to building tar sands pipelines to the east and west coasts. Moving oil by rail to refineries in the Gulf is simply too expensive, as NRDC's Anthony Swift blogged recently.

The reason why rail isn’t a feasible alternative to Keystone XL is that it is simply too expensive to support tar sands expansion. State’s conclusions to the contrary are due to their substantially underestimating the cost of rail transport.  In 2011, State assumed that rail to the Gulf would cost producers $9 to $12.50 per barrel. Now they estimate that it will cost them about $15.50 a barrel.

 In reality, the only tar sands producers which are successfully getting crude from Alberta to the Gulf via rail and barge are doing so at a cost of over $30 per barrel. The State Department’s rail prices are estimates – and the fact that producers are currently paying twice as much to move their product to the Gulf suggests State is significantly underestimate the cost of rail from Alberta. 

The bottom line is stopping the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a crucial step toward moving the planet toward a sustainable future. President Obama talked about the importance of acting on climate during the State of the Union address; now it's time to walk the walk and cut dirty power plant emissions, something we can do now by adopting a broad state-based plan that drives development of money-saving energy efficiency and renewable power sources.  

What this Keystone XL pipeline argument is really about is money -- and not money for you and me. In fact, building the Keystone XL will likely cause gas prices to rise in the Midwest and will result in only 35 permanent jobs. It’s big money for Big Oil, pure and simple, and none of it is good for our future health. Like a drug addict faced with an overdose of bad dope, we need to kick the dirty tar sands habit and come clean. 

So enough with Canada's schizoid climate policy. It's our climate too. Putting a stop to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a good place to start.