Setting aside other concerns about potential pipeline leaks and the localized pollution associated with oil sands mining, much debate has centered on the potential climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would deliver heavy crude from Alberta's substantial oil sands deposits (also known as tar sands) down through the American heartland and ultimately to refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast, where it would enter the global oil market.
Some opponents of the project have argued that without the Keystone XL pipeline, development of Alberta's landlocked oil sands -- which require lots of energy and lots of greenhouse gas emissions to refine into a usable product -- would be suitably stymied. Building the pipeline, they suggest, would be tantamount to dropping a "carbon bomb" on the planet, given the extra pulse of greenhouse gas emissions that a vast expansion of oil sand mining would entail. Other analyses suggest that while the carbon footprint of oil sands is not to be ignored, arguments that the Keystone pipeline would spell "game over" for the planet might be a bit overwrought.
Today comes another entry in the Keystone-climate debate. Speaking at the National Press Club this morning, a coalition of environmental groups unveiled a new study that suggests the Keystone XL pipeline project would have significantly greater impacts on the climate than previously thought.
The analysis focuses on petroleum coke, or petcoke.
"Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands," the authors of the analysis state in an email message. "Thus, the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted."
Petcoke is commonly used as a cheaper, more carbon-intensive substitute to coal--and the petcoke in tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories. The petcoke produced from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, thus emitting 13 percent more carbon dioxide than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.
I reached out to Shawn Howard, a spokesman for the Canadian pipeline builder TransCanada, for his thoughts on the petcoke analysis and the company's general perspective on the project's potential climate impacts. Here's how he responded in a prepared statement:
This is the latest attempt by professional activists who oppose Keystone XL to change the discussion - there is nothing new in this document. The real issue is whether or not the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline meets the regulatory standards to be granted a Presidential Permit for crossing an international border. In our view it not only meets America's standards, it exceeds them based on the additional design, safety and operating measures that TransCanada has agreed to adopt. But let's be frank: this is not about the Keystone XL Pipeline, diluted bitumen, emissions or a substance that is in a particular blend of oil - it's about a group that wants to end the use of fossil fuels entirely.
More than four years of environmental reviews have already concluded that Keystone XL would have no material impact on environmental resources along the entire pipeline route. This was also confirmed very recently when the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality released its report on the revised route in that state. Regardless of the materials that are in oil when it comes out of the earth, emissions are accounted for by the producers and refiners. Oil sands derived crudes are similar in composition to heavy oils from California, Mexico and Venezuela and moving product by Keystone XL will be offsetting supplies from these areas.
In November 2012, two of Canada's most respected climate scientists (Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart of the University of Victoria) published research in the British scientific journal 'Nature Climate Change' that concluded that if every single barrel of oil sands was produced (1.8 trillion barrels - seven times that of Saudi Arabia - a near impossible feat), it would result in a cumulative global warming impact of 0.36 degrees Celsius and take more than a century to do so. Burning all of the world's coal would raise temperatures 15 degrees. Today, the U.S. coal fleet produces 30 times more emissions than crudes derived from the oil sands.
(He added that TransCanada's official climate policy can be found online here.)
It's important to note, of course, that Weaver and Swart's paper does not endorse development of the oil sands or the building of the Keystone pipeline. (Indeed, Weaver himself appears in a lengthy video analysis of the full complement of environmental insults that the oils sands represent.) And environmental activists have argued that, in any case, when the difference between life as we've come to know it and a potentially grim future is measured in single-degree movements in temperature averages, a 0.36-degree Celsius uptick could be viewed as rather significant.
As I note in today's lengthy analysis of the environmental challenges facing the Obama administration in its second term, whatever the real numbers associated with Keystone's potential impact on the global warming problem, the pipeline remains a very powerful symbol for stakeholders on all sides. It represents to some, rightly or wrongly, Obama's commitment to American jobs and liberation from the tyranny of Middle East oil, and to others, the president's willingness to mark a clear end to the era of fossil fuels.
The president will be certain to disappoint no matter what he decides.
Below, Dr. Weaver discusses the oil sands.
This post has been updated to include a fuller response from TransCanada.