Climate Impacts of the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline
The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would pump up to 830,000 barrels per day of the world's dirtiest oil from Canada's Boreal forest straight through the heart of America's breadbasket to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Building the 875-mile northern segment of Keystone XL would lead to a dramatic increase in the carbon pollution that worsens the effects of climate change. Hence, construction of the pipeline fails the all-important carbon test the president laid out in his June 2013 climate address to the nation, when he said Keystone XL's permit would be approved only if the pipeline "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
If approved, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would drive major increases in tar sands extraction and carbon pollution associated with it. Approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would increase carbon emissions by up to 1.2 billion metric tons over the projects lifespan, significantly exacerbating the problem of climate pollution."
The fact is that Keystone XL's construction would send market signals that would reverberate across North America's economy in ways that are dangerous to our climate. The pipeline would increase the profitability of producing tar sands, which would accelerate the pace and expand the scale of carbon-heavy tar sands development in Alberta. In fact, Keystone XL is a necessary ingredient in the oil industry's pursuit of its aggressive plans to triple tar sands production by 2030. Production and transport of tar sands oil would expand, further exposing years of broken climate promises from Canada, a nation whose tar sands expansion plans are directly incompatible with its own stated policies of working toward carbon emission reductions. And construction of Keystone XL would undermine some of the most ambitious and hard-won U.S. climate policies. As a single, discrete decision, denial of a Presidential Permit for Keystone XL is one of the most effective ways the United States can move forward on climate.
The pipeline dramatically increases carbon emissions. It is not in our national interest, and its permit should be denied. In greater detail, here are the facts about Keystone XL and carbon pollution:
- From the tar sands mine or drilling operation to the automobile gas tank, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 81 percent greater than those of conventional oil.
- This is according to both the U.S. State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. If Keystone XL were built, these already high emissions could worsen. Tar sands extraction methods would shift away from destructive stripmining methods toward the even more carbon-intensive in situ drilling method, which requires injection of hot steam underground so melted tar sands bitumen can be pumped up to the surface.
- Because it destroys the Boreal forest carbon sink while also piling up petroleum coke, tar sands development has broader climate impacts that are rarely considered.
- Boreal wetland ecosystems sequester massive amounts of carbon, but if Keystone XL is approved, rapid development of Alberta's ancient peatlands could release 11 million to 47.3 million metric tons of CO2e into our atmosphere -- a figure that has been excluded from tar sands emissions estimates. Additional emissions linked to the pipeline's construction could come from burning petroleum coke, a dirty tar sands by-product used as an inexpensive, high-carbon coal substitute in countries including India and China. These significant factors are not yet fully incorporated in estimates of the carbon intensity of tar sands crude.
- Keystone XL would add more carbon to our atmosphere over its 50-year project timeline than the combined tailpipe emissions of every single car in America over an entire year.
- That's a lot of cars. It's also a lot of carbon pollution -- as much as 1.2 billion metric tons of it.
- Rejecting Keystone XL propels America forward on climate.
- As a single, discrete decision, rejecting Keystone XL would avoid carbon emissions on a scale similar to some of the most ambitious carbon emission-reduction programs currently under way in the United States. In one stroke of the pen, Keystone's rejection would save this country 18.7 million to 24.3 million metric tons of CO2e per year -- a benefit comparable to the annual savings from new U.S. heavy-duty truck emission and efficiency standards (28.4 million metric tons).
- Keystone XL is the linchpin on which rests the pace of tar sands production and the scale of tar sands expansion plans.
- The tar sands industry falsely claims that because of multiple options for transporting tar sands oil, tar sands expansion -- with or without Keystone XL -- is inevitable. But the fact is, if the Presidential Permit is denied and Keystone XL is not built, there would be fewer tar sands mines and drilling projects. Here are three reasons why:
- Tar sands companies are currently constrained in their ability to deliver tar sands oil to the limited number of refineries that are both equipped to process tar sands and have port access to lucrative overseas diesel markets. In fact, export pipelines from the tar sands region are expected to reach capacity before 2015. Without Keystone XL's access to Texas Gulf Coast refineries -- which have the heavy crude refining capacity and port access oil companies crave -- much of the tar sands will remain landlocked.
- Keystone XL is the largest of the proposed tar sands pipelines and the farthest along in the permitting process. Even if all the other proposed new export pipelines were built (which is highly unlikely, given the wide range of obstacles they face), they could not supply the export capacity needed to meet the tar sands industry's goal of tripling tar sands production by 2030. Additionally, rail is not an economical option for supporting significant expansion of tar sands production, and tar sands oil has largely been absent from the current crude-by-rail boom.
- The pipeline would link tar sands crude to international oil markets, giving the industry access to higher oil prices on the international market and increasing the profitability of tar sands projects. This would greatly encourage overall expansion.
- Given Canada's track record of untrustworthy climate policies, expecting Canada to reduce tar sands greenhouse gas emissions is unrealistic.
- Canada's climate policies do not counteract significant greenhouse gas emissions growth, nor do they meet the country's stated international climate targets. In recent years, Canada has repeatedly made firm commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and has never followed through. Current regulations in Alberta are inadequate, and despite promises from the last four Canadian environmental ministers, the Canadian federal government has failed to introduce rules that effectively limit greenhouse gas pollution from Canada's oil and gas sector.
Despite Canada's dubious record as a good-faith actor on climate, Prime Minister Harper reportedly wrote President Obama a letter offering another commitment in return for Keystone XL. Canada cannot meet its climate obligations while maintaining its policy of unchecked tar sands expansion, a reckless policy in which Keystone XL would play a critical role.
These facts make it clear: Keystone XL fails the president's climate test. It significantly exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution. It is not in the national interest, and its Presidential Permit should be denied.
last revised 10/9/2013
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.
- Efficient Appliances Save Energy -- and Money
- A consumer's guide to buying energy efficient appliances and electronics.