Pipeline to the Past: Tar Sands Oil Holds Back Our Clean Energy Future

Late this afternoon, the State Department made available on its webpage its draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The DEIS is oddly dated one week from now and it seems as though no Federal Register notice has been published. We can only hope that its premature release is a trial balloon and that initial reaction will be considered before the real publication occurs.

Why?  Because State should have waited for completion of a new White House guidance on incorporating greenhouse gas emissions impacts into environmental impact statements. And, State should have been taking a hard look at whether this pipeline is in the national interest before investing in a draft EIS. 

I wrote earlier here about what this pipeline would mean for America’s heartland. But the pipeline also has broader impacts on how the United States handles climate change and greenhouse gas emissions moving forward. This pipeline would double the amount of tar sands oil currently being piped into the United States. And equally as alarming, what will be piped in through this pipeline will be bitumen, the dirtiest, least refined product they can push through a pipe. Much of the tar sands oil we received in the past was already refined to a synthetic crude oil, more like common oil. Bringing in the raw bitumen in the new pipeline means that the upgrading and refining has to take place in the United States, resulting in increased emissions of greenhouse gases, heavy metals, and other pollutants.

That’s part of the reason why the White House guidance is so important. The other reason is all the pollution upstream in the extraction of this oil.  The production of synthetic crude oil from tar sands causes three times the greenhouse gas emissions of the production of conventional crude oil per barrel and tar sands – over its entire lifecycle – has 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. Also, because tar sands oil is heavy and full of impurities, it requires additional carbon-intensive refinery processes. Thus, replacing 900,000 barrels per day of conventional oil with tar sands oil would result in approximately 38 million metric tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions per year, equal to adding over 6 million cars to the roads.

Transboundary pipelines such as this one also require a national interest determination separate from the EIS. Certainly in this case, the national interest determination is a critical step that should be made based on climate change factors, greenhouse gas emissions, and whether there is a need for the tar sands oil to start with. If TransCanada’s shaky assumptions about future growth in demand for expensive, heavy oil prove false, the Keystone XL could become a nearly 2,000-mile-long boondoggle.

Rather than moving forward prematurely with the permit process for the Keystone XL pipeline, the United States should stay focused on developing our home-grown clean energy future. As Paul Krugman recently wrote: "we know how to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We have a good sense of the costs — and they’re manageable. All we need now is the political will."  

A first start is to make sure that the Administration puts EIS for projects with the potential for high greenhouse gas emission impacts on hold until the new greenhouse gas emissions guidance can be applied. That means that the State Department should be waiting for and following this guidance as it conducts the EIS for the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the meantime, we’ll be reviewing the DEIS and preparing comments. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline should not be built. Instead of increasing our reliance on dirty tar sands oil, the United States is poised to fill our transportation needs with cleaner sources of energy and solutions that reduce our demand for oil. That is the path to the future. Another tar sands pipeline will only take us backwards.