Why Environmentalists are Wrong on Keystone XL

If not for the US government’s latest demonstration of incompetence that played out at the end of last week (a.k.a. sequestration), the top news story might have been a report issued by the US State Department late Friday.

The report was the Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL Pipeline project, and it was unwelcome news for environmentalists who have been protesting the crude pipeline extension that would link Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

It may seem arbitrary, given the large number of oil and gas pipelines that already criss-cross the US, that this particular one has generated such a high profile debate around energy security and the environment. But this debate isn’t really about a pipeline. This pipeline isn’t going to make or break the development of Canada’s oil sands, nor — as I will show here — is it going to make a measurable difference with respect to climate change.

(Related: How Much Oil Does the World Produce?)

The truth is that the Keystone XL pipeline is symbolic. The environmental movement sees the pipeline as a continuation of a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle that is leading to a climate catastrophe. Pipeline supporters argue that the pipeline will create jobs and strengthen our relationship with Canada, our most important source of oil imports. The truth is that it isn’t that big of a deal either way.

State Department Findings

The newly-released SEIS reads very much like the “final” EIS that the State Department released in August 2011, and once more environmentalists are in an uproar. The problem, as I see it, is that they are making emotional arguments, which aren’t necessarily effective against a technical assessment. When you “do the math,” it becomes clear that their focus on this project is a misallocation of resources. They are consuming political capital fighting the wrong battle.

According to the new SEIS, “Approval or denial of the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.”

Further, the report considered alternate scenarios. Without pipeline routes to move the crude from the oil sands in Alberta, the oil would be moved by rail, it concluded. Because there is a higher cost associated with rail, the report projected slightly lower production by 2030: “the incremental increase in cost of the non-pipeline transport options could result in a decrease in production from the oil sands, perhaps 90,000 to 210,000 bpd (approximately 2 to 4 percent) by 2030.”

On the other hand, if some of the other pipeline projects that are under development go forward, the decrease in production by 2030 is projected to be a more modest 20,000 to 30,000 bpd if Keystone XL is denied.

How significant are these numbers? Even if the largest production shortfall of 210,000 bpd is realized — and presuming the supply wouldn’t simply be developed elsewhere — this only amounts to 0.2 percent of current global oil demand.

Further, because global carbon dioxide emissions are actually dominated by coal consumption, the savings in carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere would amount to only 0.07 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions. (That’s a straightforward calculation based on the carbon dioxide emitted by 210,000 bpd divided by global carbon dioxide emissions according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy). How small is that? That level of contribution wouldn’t even be measurable above the background noise of global temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations. It is certainly smaller than the margin of error in measuring global carbon dioxide. No matter how you slice it — even assuming that stopping Keystone will forever keep the entire capacity in the ground — you can’t reach even a hypothetical savings of 0.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Environmentalists Respond with Emotional Pleas

How did environmentalists respond to the report’s findings? By denying the findings, rationalizing, and appealing to emotions.

For example, prominent environmental activist Bill McKibben — who has led many of the protests against the pipeline — said “Groundhog Day — we’re hearing the same rehashed arguments from the State Department about why a great threat to the climate is not a threat at all. Mother Nature filed her comments last year — the hottest year in American history.”

That is an appeal to the emotions, not an argument based on the technical merits (or lack thereof).

(Related: Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions — Facts and Figures)

Next to McKibben, NASA scientist James Hansen is probably the leading opponent of the pipeline. His response to the SEIS findings was “To say that the tar sands have little climate impact is an absurdity. The total carbon in tar sands exceeds that in all oil burned in human history.”

That is another emotional argument, and a bit of misdirection because his second sentence has no bearing on the first. The total carbon in tar sands does in fact exceed all oil burned in history. But a very small fraction of that will ever be economically recoverable. The total oil in place (OIP) in Canada’s oil sands amounts to 1.8 trillion barrels. However, the amount that can be economically produced — the reserve — is only 170 billion barrels.

Why are Keystone XL opponents resorting to such arguments? Because as the SEIS showed, their arguments fall apart on the technical merits.

A paper from the University of British Columbia calculated that burning the entire Athabasca reserve could raise global temperatures by 0.03°C. If you could actually burn all the oil in place, the calculated global temperature rise could be as great as 0.50°C. But, and this is a very big BUT — even if Canada could grow its oil production from the current levels of 3.5 million bpd up to the 10 million bpd levels of Saudi Arabia and Russia, it would take 500 years to produce that much oil. If we are still relying heavily on oil in hundreds of years it is probably safe to assume that we survived the climate catastrophe.

Other environmentalists have taken issue with the notion that the railroads are capable of transporting large volumes of oil. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz from the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “Rail doesn’t appear to be an alternative for the quantities that will be transported by Keystone XL.”

That’s sort of like arguing that airplanes can’t fly as one passes overhead. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has reported that the US has already seen shipments by rail — which is a more carbon intensive method of transport than pipelines — grow over the past five years from near zero to over 1 million bpd. That is more than the capacity of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion. Canada is projected to triple deliveries by rail this year. Should we really believe that Canada can’t rapidly grow their rail shipments of oil, just as we have done in the US? The SEIS also noted that there are 48,000 rail cars on backorder in North America.

The Canadian government isn’t looking at this emotionally. Canada’s natural resources are a major source of revenue for the country. The Canadian government is going to do everything in its power to foster development of those resources. To think that those resources will remain in the ground in the face of strong global demand is naive.

Which brings me to an important point.

Whether Keystone is or isn’t approved, the real story here is the world’s growing demand for oil. Trying to restrict oil supplies — which is what Keystone XL opponents are attempting to do — is futile when global demand for oil continues to grow. Bill McKibben demonstrated this point himself when he said “One of the great ironies of my life is that I have a carbon footprint the size of a small Indian village.” If McKibben himself can’t get by without fossil fuels, why do we expect others to be able to do so? Also keep in mind that small Indian village would like the same mobility that the developed world enjoys, and is consuming more oil to achieve that goal.

And as long as the world demands oil, the crude will find a way to market. The only way to stop it is to curb demand, not try to cut off supplies. The war on drugs demonstrates every day the futility of that approach.


My point here is not to bash pipeline opponents. I understand their motivation, and I know that they believe they are engaged in the most noble of causes. I understand their desire to get involved and “do something” about climate change. Nor am I trying to bash Bill McKibben. Mutual friends have assured me that I would like him a lot if I met him (but they also tell me that he would never consent to allowing me to interview him about the technical merits of his arguments). I just think he — and the other protestors — are being naive in choosing this particular battle. They won’t make any meaningful impact on climate change even if they manage to stop Keystone XL. The reason that is important is that they could be channeling their energy into things that could potentially make a difference.

Some might argue “Well, at least they are trying to solve the problem.” But this particular issue would be like me going down to the beach as a hurricane is incoming and yelling for it to go away. I could organize protests against the hurricane (and get myself arrested in the process for my noble cause), and make emotional pleas that we can’t afford more hurricanes. But most people would recognize that I am wasting time and resources that could be better spent in more productive pursuits.

The reason many Keystone XL opponents have yet to come to this conclusion is that they are still convinced that yelling at the hurricane can make it change course. It can’t, but there are actually effective things that could be done to mitigate the impact of hurricanes. (See last week’s column How Oil Can Improve Our Long Term Energy Situation). But they won’t be pursued as long as people are convinced that shouting at the hurricane is making a difference.

(Edited to add that the Washington Post — not exactly a bastion of Conservatives — agrees with me: Environmentalists are fighting the wrong battles).