Keystone XL Pipeline — Game Over?

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the climate blogosphere. Perhaps the biggest news that has hardly garnered any headlines is the protest taking place on a daily basis and acts of civil disobedience by those hoping to call attention to the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is still under review by the Obama Admin. While the focus of the protests and civil disobedience is the approval of the pipeline, it is primarily about the development of the tar sands, which poses a significant threat to climate stability.

So far in the past two weeks, 706 arrests have been made during protests against the proposed pipeline from Canada’s filthy tar sands in Alberta all the way through the US to gulf refineries. Among those arrested are NASA’s James Hansen, Bill McKibben and actress and activist Daryl Hannah.

Hansen has written “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”

In other words, if the tar sands are developed and exploited, it’s game over.

Here’s a quote from  Hansen’s essay on why he’s engaging in an act of civil disobedience:

The scientific community needs to get involved in this fray now. If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster.

Although there are multiple objections to tar sands development and the pipeline, including destruction of the environment in Canada1 and the likelihood of spills along the pipeline’s pathway, such objections, by themselves, are very unlikely to stop the project.

An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.

Hope he’s wrong, but fear he’s right.


This pipeline is an illustration of the nature of policy development and the conflicts between what the science says about risks and threats and the interests of various policy agents. These interact to determine if and how public policy is developed.

Tar sands development presents a tricky policy problem for political decision makers. The industrialized world is facing peak conventional liquid fossil fuels. There is increasing demand for liquid fuels due to economic growth around the world. Development of tar sands means $$$ in royalties to the Canadian and provincial governments and mucho dinero for corporate developers.

Royalties from the development of the tar sands is a big factor in this. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Alberta Oil Magazine:

As royalties collected from natural gas slip to a projected 12 per cent share of the province’s non-renewable resource revenue, down from a high of 72 per cent in 2002-03 and 49 per cent as recently as 2008-09, revenue from oil sands activity is projected to rise to $4.1 billion in the year ahead – more than double the combined take from natural gas and conventional oil. The total represents a 70.5 per cent jump from 2006-07, when the province collected $2.41 billion from oil sands producers, and is 16 per cent more than the $3.5 billion bitumen windfall initially expected for the full financial year that ended March 31, 2011.

In other words, the Alberta government is seeing a drop in revenues from natural gas and conventional oil, but an increase in revenues from the development of the tar sands. More than enough incentive to ignore the science.

The development of the tar sands represent jobs and revenues for Canada and are seen as a secure politically stable source of liquid fossil fuels for America. Yet, there is a perception problem faced by the fossil fuel industry. The public supports conservation and protection of the environment. The tar sands have a bad image due to media reports over the years, including pictures of dying birds covered in oil from the tailing ponds, destruction of boreal forests, and other environmental impacts. As reported in the Toronto Star, a recent study found that birds are dying in the oil sand tailing ponds at a rate 30 times that reported through industry sources.

As a WikiLeaks memo shows, the tar sand’s bad image has resulted in backroom wheeling and dealing between government officials and industry lobbyists around managing public perception of the pipeline project. There has to be a rehabilitation of the tar sands industry in order to overcome public opposition — or diffuse public concern. Spend a few hours watching CNN and you will see EXXON adverts about unconventional sources of fossil fuels such as fraking.

The WikiLeaks memo llustrates everything that is broken about our systems of government and the power of industry over public policy development.

For example, as the WikiLeaks memo details, the State Department hired Cardno Entrix to help with its assessment of the Keystone project:

The State Department has completed two environmental impact statements on the pipeline with the help of Cardno Entrix, a private environmental consulting firm that has said its biggest clients include TransCanada Corp., the owner of the Keystone pipeline system, whose current routes extend from Hardisty, Alberta, to Oklahoma and Illinois.

Cardno Entrix gained national attention last year as the environmental consultant for BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency has criticized the resulting assessments as fundamentally flawed.

Seems to me impossible for a consulting firm to do an objective analysis of a project by one of its own clients…

UPDATE: Go and read Deep Climate’s new post “The Institute” on a new astroturf org “The Ethical Oil Institute”.

Here’s a teaser:

Today I’ll take a first look at the hitherto unknown entity behind the latest push to defend the Alberta oil sands (a.k.a. tar sands). I’ll review the emerging roles of the Conservative-linked masterminds behind the initiative, namely pundit and author Ezra Levant and government spokesperson turned blogger Alykhan Velshi. And I’ll introduce Levant’s silent partner in the Institute: Calgary lawyer Thomas Ross,who also happens to be a partner at oil patch law firm McLellan Ross and one of the leaders of the firm’s initiative. All of this belies the studiously cultivated image of as a “grassroots” organizational effort; indeed, it looks more and more like industry sponsored  astroturf.

The State Department recently released a report that determined that the pipeline would have ‘minimal’ environmental effect.

The potential environmental effects of the proposed Project have been assessed on both sides of the international border. In March 2010, the National Energy Board of Canada determined that the proposed Keystone XL Project is needed to meet the present and future public convenience and necessity, provided that the Board’s terms and conditions presented in the project certificate are met.

Future convenience and necessity. There is an inadequate discussion of the necessity of action to prevent dangerous climate change.

As Joe Romm notes, the tar sands could be up to 20 – 35% dirtier than conventional oil. Not only does syncrude release CO2 in its use, but unconventional oil derived from tar sands requires destruction of boreal forests, which are an important carbon sink. Extracting the crude from the sand and shale requires large amounts of water and energy, and leads to the creation of tailing ponds, which are environmentally toxic and a threat to migrating birds.

The EPA found fault with the draft environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline and claimed that it was too narrow in its consideration of the GHE impact of the project. It only considered the GHEs from the construction of the pipeline, not the upstream and downstream production of the crude it would transport and how construction of the pipeline would increase production.

“…we estimate that GHG emissions from Canadian oil sands crude would be approximately 82% greater than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis.”

Here’s an excerpt from Canada’s  National Energy Board’s decision:

“…the Board concluded that the Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects; however, there will still be some physical effects and the Board considered these under the NEB Act. The Board notes that there will be some increase in ambient noise levels from pump station operations, air emissions generated from various components of the construction and operation of the Project, a potential loss or alteration of some wildlife and wildlife habitat and impacts on vegetation along the RoW. Finally, the Board notes that a project of this nature will have an impact on landowners and those with interests in the land on the RoW, particularly during the construction phase.

Balancing of Benefits and Burdens

In weighing the benefits and burdens for this Project, the Board has determined that the benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline outweigh the burdens.”

Hmm. The National Energy Board is responsible, mandated to “regulate international and interprovincial aspects of the oil, gas and electric utility industries. The purpose of the NEB is to regulate pipelines, energy development and trade in the Canadian public interest.”

To regulate in “the Canadian public interest”. How does one define that? Is the development of the tar sands limited to Canadian public interests?

Climate is global.

When it comes to climate change and energy policy — which are of necessity interlinked — Government could listen to its own scientists, who clearly indict fossil fuels as the main source of CO2 and the main cause of current warming. They could refuse to approve the pipeline and future tar sands development on the grounds that it would be in the long-term interest of the public to reduce the levels of GHGs in the atmosphere and prevent increased warming, thus minimize the risk of climate destabilization. It could enact a carbon tax to ensure that people and industry pay the real price of fossil fuels, thus making renewables more competitive. It could reinvest part of that tax revenue into developing alternatives and it could give part of that revenue back to citizens and small businesses to help offset the higher cost.

To be honest? The time is not yet politically right for such a policy approach. Why? There is not enough political will. Political will, as I’ve written before, comes through public pressure. There is far too much incentive for governments to not act, because of the benefits to government coffers through royalties and through economic development, and let’s not forget the lobbying that goes on and the political contributions to parties from corporate interests.

The only way that such action will come about is through public pressure. The government would have to face a loss at the voting booth before it would consider such policy actions seriously. As long as confusion reigns about the threat of global warming — confusion fostered through The Inquisition of Climate Science and by the denial industry and its political and ideological lackeys — the government can not act and get away with it.

It can point to this lack of public consensus as a reason not to act, or just plain ignore the consensus that does exist. This confusion has lead to several decades of delay in action, and as long as other issues trump climate in the minds of the public, governments can side step real action on climate change, foisting the problem onto future governments, who will have an even more difficult problem to address and more costly solutions.

That is why actions such as those of the brave folks who were arrested recently are so necessary. It is only through public pressure that governments will make hard but right choices. As Sou writes, silence is deadly.  In his interview with Jerry Cope, Hansen quoted Einstein, who said, “Thought without action is a crime.”

We have to salute the actions of those in Washington and their willingness to be arrested in order to call attention to this huge threat we all face. This isn’t just a Canadian issue or an American issue or a cross-border issue. This is a global issue and citizens from around the world have to start seeing it that way and speak up. The crude may come from the Alberta Tar Sands and be burned in American vehicles, but the emissions are global and climate change will ultimately affect everyone.

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

5 Responses to “Keystone XL Pipeline — Game Over?”

  1. I have been told by a reliable source who works in the industry in IT, that this (the work done so far) is phase one of ten possible phases, with a planned 90 years work to come in the oil sands.

  2. As I understand there is also a lot of concern in Nebraska about water pollution from leaks in this pipe.

  3. There is an interesting debate going on about the validity of claims made by both sides about the pipeline, which may be worth thinking about if you have the time:

    Andrew Leach twitters many links in this area, which I would follow with caution:

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