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Obama Talks Keystone XL...Again

The president talked at length about the pipeline last week. Here’s where he’s right and where he’s wrong.

During an appearance by President Obama at South Carolina’s Benedict College on Friday, an environmental activist asked whether his recent veto meant that he’d stop Keystone XL once and for all. Like a true politician, the president didn’t answer the question directly, but his comments made clear what he thinks of the pipeline and climate change. Here’s the breakdown.

What he said: “Its proponents argue that it would be creating jobs in the United States. But the truth is, it’s Canadian oil that’s then going to go to the world market. It will probably create about a couple thousand construction jobs for a year or two but only create about 300 permanent jobs.”

Where’s he’s getting that: Keystone XL supporters regularly inflate job-creation estimates. In 2010, TransCanada commissioned a study that claimed its pipeline would create nearly 119,000 jobs. That study has been thoroughly debunked, and the company itself doesn’t even mention it anymore. That doesn’t stop politicians from doing so, though—they often even go beyond those already inflated figures. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, for example, claimed on the floor of Congress that the pipeline would generate “millions of jobs.”

President Obama has his figures mostly correct. A January 2014 State Department report concluded that the pipeline would create 3,900 temporary construction jobs in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. If construction were to take two years or more, that number would be cut in half. A 2011 report from Cornell University reached similar conclusions, predicting between 2,500 and 4,650 temporary construction jobs.

The president slightly overstated the number of permanent jobs, which the State Department pegged at only 50. Even the TransCanada CEO admitted in late 2014 that the permanent jobs likely wouldn’t number more than 50.

What he said: “The way you get the oil out in Canada is an extraordinarily dirty way of extracting oil, and obviously there are always risks in piping a lot of oil through Nebraska farmland and other parts of the country.”

Where he’s getting that: Tar sands are dirty in so many ways that it’s hard to know exactly what kind of filth the president was talking about. Extracting tar sands is carbon-intensive. By most estimates, extracting, processing, delivering, and combusting a barrel’s worth of tar sands oil releases at least three times and possibly as much as four times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a barrel of conventional crude oil.

The president could also have been referring to tailings—the slurry of water, sand, silt, clay, chemicals, and hydrocarbons leftover after a tar sands operation takes its oil from the ground. Tailings ponds cover more than 68 square miles in northern Alberta, which is 50 percent larger than the footprint of Vancouver. Research shows that the ponds are leaking toxic chemicals into the surrounding groundwater, contaminating rivers that indigenous communities rely on, and killing ducks (in the thousands) unfortunate enough to land in them. Tar sands mines are also significant sources of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other air pollutants.

Nebraska farms would definitely be better off without an oil pipeline nearby. The Keystone 1 pipeline (the part of Keystone that’s already built) suffered 14 leaks in its first two years of operation, including a 2011 accident that spilled 21,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota. (“Leak” probably isn’t the best word for a disaster of that magnitude.) TransCanada has suffered similar safety problems with its other pipelines.

What he said: “We’re not going to authorize a pipeline that benefits largely a foreign company if it can’t be shown that…it would not contribute to climate change.”

Where he’s getting that: Here’s the relevant section from the 2014 State Department report, stating the conditions needed for the pipeline to make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions:

If [the benchmark West Texas Intermediate oil] prices fell to around approximately $65 to $75 per barrel, if there were long-term constraints on any new pipeline capacity, and if such constraints resulted in higher transportation costs, then there could be a substantial impact on oil sands production levels.

All of them have come to pass. West Texas Intermediate prices not only dropped to $65, they went far below that. At the time of this writing, a barrel of West Texas Intermediate is selling for less than $50. There are constraints on pipeline capacity, as tar sands producers themselves have mentioned when canceling or delaying new projects. The alternative to pipeline transport, crude by rail, costs nearly three times as much. A month ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supported this analysis, concluding that Keystone XL would exacerbate climate change.

The president should stop wondering whether anyone can show that the Keystone XL pipeline would contribute to climate change—the numbers don’t lie.

What he said: “When you start having overall global temperatures go up…that starts changing weather patterns across the globe. It starts raising ocean levels. It starts creating more drought and wildfires in some places. It means there are entire countries that may no longer be able to grow crops, which means people go hungry, which then creates conflict. It means diseases that used to be just in tropical places start creeping up, and suddenly we’ve got a whole new set of insect-borne diseases like malaria that we thought we’d gotten rid of—now they’re suddenly in places like the United States. We start running out of water.”

Where he’s getting that: From scientists and newspapers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says “[s]ea level has been steadily rising at a rate of 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year since 1900. This rate may be increasing. Since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 0.12 inches per year.”

Several studies have shown that increasing droughts have intensified wildfires. The island nation of Kiribati has purchased land in Fiji because saltwater is infiltrating farms on Kiribati, making growing food there nearly impossible. Researchers recently linked (somewhat controversially) the Syrian conflict to climate change. (The Pentagon is also worried about climate change fueling unrest.) The World Health Organization has repeatedly warned that climate change will move infectious diseases into new areas.

As for “we start running out of water,” well…just call someone in California or Texas.

What he said: “Right now you’re thinking about just getting through classes and exams, but what you have to appreciate, young people, is this will affect you more than old people like me.”

Where he’s getting that: Here’s a sentence that has never been written before: The president obviously hasn’t read the polls. If he had, he’d know that young people are more worried about climate change than “old people” like him. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the majority of people who believe that humans are causing climate change and are worried about its effects are younger than 50. In contrast, most of the Americans who reject the basic science of anthropogenic global warming are in their fifties or older.

The president isn’t entirely wrong—some research suggests younger people are slightly less engaged in the climate change “debate” than their elders—but, if he wants to admonish people for not accepting the reality of climate change, he might target a slightly older audience. Like Congress.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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