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New Research Shows Climate Emissions from Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Much Worse Than Reported
Proposed Export Pipeline Will Significantly Expand Tar Sands Industry

January 17, 2013 – Scientists and advocates today unveiled new research showing that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would damage the climate much more than previously thought, by dramatically expanding tar sands production and because it will lead to increased combustion of a particularly dirty form of oil.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, experts and advocates said the new information gives the Obama Administration further evidence to reject the controversial pipeline, especially since the president has in recent months put addressing climate change on the nation’s agenda.

“With climate change chaos sweeping the nation, this new research shows why the Obama Administration should stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in its tracks,” said Danielle Droitsch, Canada Project Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Approving Keystone would open the gateway to dramatic new development of tar sands oil and far more harm to our climate.”

Oil Change International’s new report “Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sandsreveals that current analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a high-carbon byproduct of the refining process that is a major source of climate change causing carbon emissions: petroleum coke—known as petcoke. Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands. 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% more carbon dioxide than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.

“What we’ve uncovered is something industry doesn’t want you to hear: exploiting the tar sands and building the Keystone XL pipeline is even more damaging to the climate than has been previously reported,” said Lorne Stockman, Research Director at Oil Change International and author of the report. “Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.”

While the new report makes clear that petcoke emissions should be included, EPA’s existing figures, which do not include petcoke-related emissions, already paint a troubling picture. They suggest that simply replacing 830,000 bpd of conventional crude with the tar sands in the Keystone XL pipeline would increase US carbon dioxide emissions by 27.6 million metric tons per year, or the equivalent of adding nearly 6 million cars on the road.

Nathan Lemphers from the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank, explained that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would accelerate expansion of the tar sands and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. Keystone XL is an integral part of the industry’s plan to nearly triple tar sands production by 2030. In order to meet its expansion goals, the tar sands industry needs all proposed transportation options to move forward. As the largest of these projects, Keystone XL has the greatest independent impact on the rate of tar sands expansion. 

“Filling the Keystone XL pipeline with oilsands crude will create significant greenhouse gases regardless of whether other transport options move forward,” said Lemphers. “Because Canada does not have a credible plan for responsibly developing the oilsands, including reducing emissions so Canada can meet its climate commitments, the pipeline should not go ahead.”

The Pembina Institute’s backgrounder, “The climate implications of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline”, shows that pipelines are a key determinant of tar sands expansion, and argues that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions associated with supplying the Keystone XL pipeline with tar sands bitumen represents a significant barrier to Canada meeting its domestic and international climate commitments.  A corresponding blog titled “Climate concerns are key in Keystone XL pipeline debate” can be accessed at http://www.pembina.org/blog/682.

The decision to reject or approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be one of the most important climate issues facing the Obama administration. The environmental review for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, anticipated any day from the State Department, will be one of the first major decisions on climate from the Obama Administration since the election.  

Keystone XL would expand dirty tar sands practices and lock the U.S. into a long-term commitment to an energy infrastructure that relies on extra-dirty oil. For example, building Keystone XL would wipe out the benefits of new standards that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions from medium to heavy duty trucks announced by the Obama administration.

Given the global market for oil and the surplus of oil in the United States, it is conventional wisdom among industry experts that the tar sand contents of the Keystone XL pipeline will be exported to China, Venezuela, and other countries. Members of Congress requested that TransCanada give assurance that the oil would remain in the country, but that request was rebuffed.

With carbon emissions worse than previously estimated and the national security arguments nullified, the Obama administration has every reason to deny the pipeline application.


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.


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