Nature article: Tar sands pipelines have global impacts and now is the time to improve how we review them

Credit:  Shannon Ramos

Eight leading scientists and economists in Canada and the United States have just published an opinion article in Nature magazine that says tar sands pipelines have global impacts but the process to consider them is broken. They provide one more reason why the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline should be denied. They cite the failure of a decision-making system in both countries that ignores how pipelines will collectively present major global impacts to climate, water, and local communities.  The experts argue that governments are only looking individual pipeline proposals rather than how they collectively will facilitate a major expansion of the tar sands industry. 

Credit: Shannon Ramos

This incremental approach also has the effect of perpetuating a myth that tar sands development is inevitable because decision-makers try to point to other projects as the culprits, they write.  The experts implored decision-makers to “consider the global impacts of oil pipelines” and change how we look at these controversial decisions.  Here in the U.S. we can start with the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which is still under consideration by the the U.S. State Department.   Secretary of State Kerry has an opportunity to put the decision around Keystone XL into a broader climate context understanding that the pipeline itself certainly has a major climate impact but that it is already part of a broader scheme enabled by many pipelines to help the tar sands industry grow substantially. It will be one more reason to reject the pipeline.

An incremental approach enables governments to evade the true impact

Currently, decisions reviewing proposals for new or expanded tar sands pipelines are made in isolation and often presented as “a binary choice between project approval and lost economic opportunity,” the article states.  What is lost among this incremental and narrowly focused decision-making is an essential broader context that would take into account global climate obligations.   If the review of a pipeline is set up looking at the short-term consequences, what is lost is a “broader conversation about national and international energy and economic strategies, and their trade-offs with environmental justice and conservation.”

Currently, the U.S. and Canadian governments are evaluating as many as a dozen pipeline proposals all of which would collectively have a significant impact to the global climate given tar sands development is considered one of the most carbon intensive oils in the world.

One of them is the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which would bring up to 830,000 barrels per day of the high carbon oil from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.  But the tar sands industry has wanted to massively expand its production base which is currently a little over two million barrels a day to over 6 million barrels a day, which will require multiple pipelines.  At this time, tar sands companies are attempting to push ahead with as many as a dozen other projects including:

    • Northern Gateway:  This pipeline would bring tar sands from Alberta to British Columbia’s west coast carrying up to 525,000 barrels per day.
    • Alberta Clipper expansion:  Tar sands companies want to expand this existing line so it can increase the volume of tar sands flowing through it by over 200,000 barrels per day.
    • Energy East: Trans Canada has proposed this project that could carry up to 1.1 million barrels of tar sands crude oil through Central and Eastern Canada to New Brunswick.

While all three of these proposals have been made, they all face major hurdles including opposition from the public and First Nations.  Even any of these projects moves ahead, however, it will enable the tar sands industry to grow.

Incremental decision-making perpetuates myth that tar sands development is inevitable

At the center of the debate about the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is whether the pipeline will lead to a significant increase in climate emissions. It will. In fact, tar sands expansion is already beginning to slow due to a lack of new pipelines. Investment in tar sands expansion has been declining for over a year, plans to build several major tar sands expansion mines were recently cancelled, and the tar sands industry’s most recent production forecast showed the rate of tar sands expansion slowing amid pipeline delays.

But despite overwhelming evidence the pipeline will help the tar sands industry grow and expand, the State Department’s review concluded that if it rejected the pipeline, other pipelines and rail transportation would instead facilitate industry expansion.  In short, the State Department did not find its decision would have a climate impact.  There were a number of problems with this conclusion which NRDC outlined in detail here.  But one of the biggest problems with making this conclusion was the State Department’s failure to acknowledge how its decision was part of an industry wide effort to expand pipeline infrastructure to grow this carbon intensive tar sands industry.  Their article concludes “a more coherent approach, one that evaluates all oil-sands projects in the context of broader, integrated energy and climate strategies, is sorely needed.”  What is needed is a bi-national discussion about the cumulative effect of these pipelines including mines, drilling (in situ), refineries, ports and tankers.

A better model for decision-making

As the U.S. and Canada both confront new major pipeline projects which could collectively have a major impact on whether the carbon intensive tar sands industry expands, now is the time to revisit the process for reviewing proposed infrastructure projects.  This is even more critical given the lack of a global climate agreement.   Here are some good first steps according to the Nature article:

Decision-makers can enact policies that acknowledge the global consequences of expanding tar sands development starting with looking at how each project will cumulatively help industry grow production but then a framework for a broad approach for all of these infrastructure projects.

The U.S. and Canada can agree to “share policies that guide development of both carbon-based and low-emissions sources of energy over the coming decades.”  The Nature authors argue that now is the time for the two nations to identify a framework that charts a path for an energy future with a commitment to limit carbon emissions as a starting point. 

The U.S. State Department in particular has a major opportunity to consider how its decisions on tar sands pipelines will help Canada massively increase its tar sands industry which is currently the major reason Canada will fail to meet its international climate obligations.  Canada’s government has projected it will miss its target by a wide margin.  If Secretary of State John Kerry is interested in global climate leadership, then the U.S. ought to consider its role ensuring Canada fail meets its climate obligations. A key way is to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.