Ukraine doesn't bolster case for Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

After their argument that Keystone XL would be a national job creator has been widely debunked, promoters of the embattled tar sands pipeline are now turning to the international crisis in the Ukraine for a reason to build the project. They argue that approving Keystone XL will help our allies in Europe and undermine Putin. Some foreign policy and energy analysts have concluded that this argument is simply too silly to take seriously. However, as Congressional boosters of Keystone XL begin to raise the Ukraine crisis as a reason for pro-Keystone XL legislation, the time has come kick the tires on this silly argument. Fortunately, Keystone XL has been sufficiently analyzed that the answers to this question are a matter of public record. The State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS) shows that Keystone XL wouldn’t displace either Russian or Venezuelan crude from the global market, increase exports of crude or refined product to Europe or have a measureable impact on global oil prices. In reality, reducing our dependence on oil through efficiency measures and cleaner alternatives is the path toward achieving national and economic security in the face of a volatile global oil market. And as both the Pentagon and the State Department have pointed out, climate change poses the one of the greatest national security threats facing our country – and Keystone XL would only add fuel to the fire.

Proponents of Keystone XL argue that it will enable increased production of tar sands which will increase the amount of oil available to our allies in Europe. It is worth noting that by acknowledging Keystone XL’s role in enabling tar sands expansion, proponents of the project are tacitly acknowledging that the pipeline will generate the substantial climate emissions associated with that expansion. Nonetheless, Keystone XL is unlikely to have a significant impact on Europe’s energy security. As Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations has pointed out, the world oil market is large and fluid. While diverting 830,000 bpd of tar sands from Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest is likely to increase tar sands prices in that 4 million bpd refinery market, it is just a drop in the bucket relative to the 90 million bpd international market. According to Michael Levi:

“[T]he idea that U.S. oil exports would give Europe some sort of special buffer is silly. The world oil market is pretty flexible, and U.S. exports would be a drop in an already large sea. To the extent that Europe is constrained in its ability to switch oil sources quickly, that’s because of infrastructure, something U.S. exports wouldn’t change.”

Moreover, while the State Department review of Keystone XL has acknowledged that the majority of the tar sands crude from that pipeline is likely to be exported internationally after being refined in the Gulf Coast, the FSEIS concluded that the pipeline wouldn’t increase exports of crude oil or refined products to Europe.

In other words, while Keystone XL may have an impact on climate and the bottom line of tar sands producers, it has little relevance in the policy discussions surrounding the Ukraine. However, it does play a significant role in the debate around U.S. and Canadian climate emissions. And as both Secretary Kerry and the Pentagon have highlighted, climate change poses one of our country’s most pressing national security threats. This view has been mirrored by a number of high-profile military voices who have rejected Keystone XL as counter to the needs of the public and U.S. military preparedness, including:

The reality is that the only tried and true means of reducing our dependence on a volatile global oil market is by reducing our dependence on oil through greater efficiency and alternatives. And the U.S. has already made significant strides in that direction, decreasing its crude oil consumption by two million bpd since 2005. Policies including the recent CAFE auto-efficiency standards adopted last year are forecast to reduce U.S. oil consumption by a further 3.1 million bpd by 2030, saving consumers over $1.7 trillion and supporting advance vehicle manufacturing jobs.

Purported energy security benefits from Keystone XL are a mirage. In fact, the tar sands pipeline would only exacerbate one of the nation’s most pressing national security threats – climate change. Lawmakers serious about shoring up U.S. national security should consider adopting policies that reduce U.S. dependence on the global oil market and build a bridge toward the clean and sustainable technologies of the future.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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