Groups battle on Keystone XL pipeline

President Obama has yet to decide whether to move ahead with the pipeline’s northern leg, which crosses into Canada. The project would bring Canadian oil sands from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

Industry and Republicans are pushing hard for the pipeline, calling it a jobs and economic boost. They also see Obama’s pending decision as a litmus test for how he will deal with the oil-and-gas industry in his second term.

Environmental groups and Democrats want Obama to nix the pipeline.

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They have concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, and point to a messy and costly oil sands pipeline spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River as a reason to deny the project. They also say the project would be a setback for Obama's environmental accomplishments, such as new vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and emissions limits on new coal-fired power plants.

Danielle Droitsch, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Thursday that oil sands expansion “is not inevitable.” She said opposition to the oil sands in Canada has stymied smaller pipeline construction, threatening oil sands industry growth.

Nathan Lemphers, senior policy analyst with Canadian environmental think tank Pembina Institute, said Keystone would facilitate a 36 percent increase in oil sands production.

“The key limitation for oil sands growth is pipelines,” said Lemphers, who detailed his findings in a report. “Keystone XL will directly enable greenhouse gas emissions.”

Much of Canada’s resistance stems from the nature of oil sands itself, said Lorne Stockman, research director with Oil Change International.

The hydrocarbon in oil sands is bitumen, a thicker substance than light crude oil and one that contains 24 percent more carbon, Stockman said. The higher carbon content, along with less hydrogen, makes it harder to refine into liquid fuel.

What gets left behind in that refining process is petroleum coke, a coal substitute. Stockman said in a separate report that analyses of Keystone’s greenhouse gas emissions have excluded the burning of petroleum coke, which releases 54 percent more carbon per ton than conventional coal.

“Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke (petroleum coke) emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption. Thus the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted,” the report said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, praised the reports.

"The new reports show that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline is the key that will unlock the tar sands. If the pipeline is approved, the world will face millions more tons of carbon pollution each year for decades to come," Waxman said in a Thursday statement.

Republicans and industry, however, have focused on the pipeline's economic potential.

The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA)-commissioned study released Thursday detailed Nebraska's economic prospects from the project. 

In all, the CEA report concluded Keystone would add 5,517 direct and indirect jobs during construction. It would add another 302 jobs every year until 2029, though about 20 would be directly related to Keystone.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) has not yet permitted the pipeline to run through his state. He is currently reviewing an assessment from the state's Department of Environmental Quality that determined a revised Keystone route posed minimal environmental harm. 

Some of the project’s backers view Heineman's decision as one of Keystone's last major hurdles.

“As Governor Heineman examines the Department of Environmental Quality’s final evaluation report of the new route through Nebraska, we strongly urge the governor to review the results of this study and ultimately support Keystone XL pipeline and all the economic benefits that will accrue for the state,” CEA Vice President Michael Whatley said in a statement.

— This story was updated at 12:35 p.m.