Pipeline project flunks the national-interest test

Last June, the president said he would not approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline if it “significantly exacerbates” carbon pollution.

The jury is already in on that question: The pipeline would dramatically increase production of tar sands oil and would undermine progress that the administration has made to curb carbon pollution. It would also be a public health nightmare for communities from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf. For these reasons and many more, we need to keep tar sands oil in the ground.

In preparing its environmental review of Keystone XL, the State Department went to great lengths to downplay the pipeline’s climate impact. It hired an oil industry consultant to write a review, which might help explain why none of the report’s climate-impact scenarios took into account the carbon-reduction targets that are already part of the president’s climate action plan. After 11 volumes and more than a thousand pages, not a single scenario assumed that either the United States or Canada would adopt policies that limit warming to globally agreed-upon levels.

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Yet despite these fundamental flaws, the State Department’s final review still allows that the pipeline would produce as much carbon pollution as nearly 6 million cars per year. In fact, independent studies have put that number north of 30 million. There are only 26 million cars in all of Canada! Regardless of which number you accept, it’s certainly a significant exacerbation of carbon pollution. And it’s all the president needs to know to reject Keystone XL. The problems don’t stop there, though. The report also asserts that tar sands expansion will happen with or without Keystone XL. In fact, full tar sands development depends on the Keystone pipeline. The Pembina Institute, an independent research group based

in Canada, estimates that Keystone XL would increase tar sands production by 36 percent.

But you don’t have to take their word for it, or mine. Oil industry executives, financial analysts and even Joe Oliver, the Canadian natural resources minister, have all said as much.

“In order for crude oil production to grow,” wrote Oliver in a memo last year, “the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project.”

But climate isn’t the only reason why this pipeline fails the American people. Because tar sands are more corrosive and abrasive than the crude oil in conventional pipelines, tar sands pipelines are far more likely to rupture and spill. And when they do, tar sands oil is both more toxic and much harder to clean up than conventional crude, sending volatile, known carcinogens into the air and poisoning water with heavy metals. One tar sands spill in Michigan polluted more than 35 miles of river in 2010 — three years and more than $1 billion later, it still hasn’t been cleaned up.

Some pipeline proponents argue that a pipeline would at least be less dangerous than using rail to transport tar sands. This is a false choice. Transporting tar sands by rail is unacceptably dangerous, as the current rash of derailments and explosions shows. Transport by rail is also more expensive — an important economic factor because tar sands are already a marginal investment. And rail transport will only become more expensive with new federal safety requirements on the way.

Fortunately, we — and President Obama — have smarter choices available to us. We can choose to reject poisonous tar sands altogether and to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. And we can choose to accelerate the progress we’re already making on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Obama has already shown how: Fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and now trucks, will cut U.S. carbon pollution by more than 10 percent. The administration’s first-ever standards on coal-fired power plants, the No. 1 source of carbon pollution in America, will slash carbon pollution even more.

As we move forward on clean energy, there’s no reason to open our borders to more of some of the world’s dirtiest oil. To do so would not be in the best interest of our climate or our nation.


Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.