Keystone XL: State Department tells the environment to drop dead

The U.S. State Department appears to be cooking the books in its studies of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Could this be a sign that the Obama administration is preparing to approve a project that potentially could be the tipping point for uncontrollable global warming?

Given President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, and the State Department’s questionable assertion that the Alberta tar sands would be further developed without the pipeline, there is no time to lose. Tucked away on page 9 of State’s Keystone XL Pipeline final supplemental environmental impact statement executive summary, is this tidbit:

“The updated market analysis in this Supplemental EIS … concludes that the proposed Project is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas.”

Were that true, extraction of the Alberta tar sands would still constitute a monumental environmental disaster, but a series of studies indicates that canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline would put the brakes on further development.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

The most recent of these reports, issued on March 3 by Carbon Tracker International, finds that the cumulative amount of greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to the Keystone XL pipeline would be approximately equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 1,400 coal-fired power plants. The study states:

“Through 2050, cumulative lifecycle [greenhouse-gas] emissions attributed to ‘KXL-enabled production’ range from 4943 to 5315 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. … Cumulative ‘KXL-enabled’ incremental emissions through 2050 are … nearly equal to total U.S. CO₂ emissions in 2013.” [page 2]

The Carbon Tracker International study concludes that the models used in the State Department’s environmental impact statement “appear incompatible” with the goal of holding the eventual rise in global average temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius. Environmentalists and climate scientists widely predict runaway climate change if temperatures rise beyond that point.

The above figure of about five billion metric tons is a conservative estimate. A discussion in Scientific American says another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, and that all the oil that could be recovered today under current technology represents 22 billion tons of carbon. To put those figures in some perspective, the total amount of carbon thrown into the atmosphere by human activity in all history is 578 billion tons — and one trillion tons would bring the world to the tipping point, according to Oxford University scientists who maintain the Trillionthtonne.org web site.

Speeding up global warming

Oil Change International bluntly says it is “shocking” that the State Department ignored the target of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius “despite the fact that even [State’s] flawed models revealed that the carbon impact of the pipeline could equal as much as 5.7 million cars each year.” The group concludes:

“By avoiding any consideration of climate safety, the State Department report is blindingly clear on one point, if only by implication: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not compatible with a climate safe world.”

As it is, human activity is warming the world. The last month in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was February 1985 and the last year in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was 1976.

Tar-sands oil requires more energy and water than other sources, leaves behind more pollution, and is more corrosive to pipelines. Extracting it therefore generates more greenhouse gases than ordinary production.

A Scientific American article, “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?,” reports that the “Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product” and “the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day.”

The State Department is attempting to duck responsibility by claiming the tar sands would be developed without the pipeline, an assertion not necessarily shared by business proponents. A RBC Dominion Securities report says production would be “deferred” without Keystone XL. TD Bank, one of Canada’s largest, issued a report stating that no further oil expansion is possible without more pipelines. The report said:

“Canada’s oil industry is facing a serious challenge to its long-term growth. Current oil production in Western Canada coupled with the significant gains in US domestic production have led the industry to bump against capacity constraints in existing pipelines and refineries. Production growth can not occur unless some of the planned pipeline projects out of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin go ahead.” [page 1]

Economic benefits are misrepresented, too

So the pipeline would enable a major boost to tar-sands production — and global warming. It is not only the environmental impact that is misrepresented, however. Pipeline opponents believe that potential economic gains are greatly overstated by the U.S. government and TransCanada Corporation, the company behind the Keystone XL project.

The State Department’s final supplemental environmental impact statement makes big claims for the pipeline:

“During construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and approximately $2 billion in earnings throughout the United States. … Construction of the proposed Project would contribute approximately $3.4 billion to the U.S. GDP. This figure includes not only earnings by workers, but all other income earned by businesses and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services demanded by the proposed Project, such as profits, rent, interest, and dividends.” [pages 19-20]

TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute go further and claim that the project would create 119,000 (direct, indirect and induced) jobs. A study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute, however, throws cold water on these grandiose assertions. At least 50 percent of the steel manufactured for the pipeline would be made outside the U.S., the Cornell report said, and that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. The report said:

“[T]he job estimates put forward by TransCanada are unsubstantiated and the project will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but that the project could actually kill more jobs than it creates. … Job losses would be caused by additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change. Even one year of fuel price increases as a result of Keystone XL could cancel out some or all of the jobs created by the project.”

Those burdens will not be borne by TransCanada nor the oil companies, but they will get to keep the profits. Just the way the “market” likes it.

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17 comments on “Keystone XL: State Department tells the environment to drop dead

  1. xraymike79 says:

    The “safe” 2 degree meme is a false one.

    The only course of action that would have a hope of saving anything resembling a civilization is the abandonment of capitalism and the adoption of a whole new socialist paradigm that reconfigures modes of production. As Ivan Mészáros correctly stated, “…the extermination of humankind is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”

    We’ve already locked in warming of greater than 4C, as the CO2 equivalent of all GHG’s is now greater than 478ppm (as of summer 2013) and growing rapidly with positive feedback loops such as the loss of Arctic albedo, methane release from thawing tundra and deep ocean clathrates, changes in ocean chemistry, etc. Rising oceans, altered weather patterns, and consequent extreme drought/flooding from anthropogenic global warming will make the planet inhospitable for most life currently residing on Earth.

    We continue with business-as-usual at our own peril while the true ‘long emergency’ of climate chaos” slowly unfolds.

    • I wish it weren’t so, but you are correct across the board. Ivan Mészáros’ statement says it all, doesn’t it?

      As to the two degrees C. figure, the consensus isn’t that two degrees is “safe,” it is that it represents the outer limit as to what might be reversible with drastic, immediate steps. James Hansen, in the article to which you linked, argues that two degrees might lead to worse chaos that commonly predicted and that anything beyond one degree C., which we are almost at, is highly dangerous.

      Given the extreme weather all parts of the world are being increasingly treated to, I don’t have an argument against Mr. Hansen, although I don’t know that what he says is really much different from the consensus of climate scientists.

      Regardless of how we analyze the numbers, humanity is on the path to unprecedented catastrophe.

  2. According to Greg Palast, Keystone is being built for the personal benefit of the billionaire Koch brothers – namely to supply their “dirty” oil processing plant in Texas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P36p-zhhkL4

    They also have a starring role in the new film Greedy, Lying Bastards – about the climate denial movement they created.

  3. Alcuin says:

    Well, now …. I have a bone to pick with your focus, Systemic. That is very, very rare for me, as you know. Your post is all about the evils of the Keystone XL pipeline. Please read Cory Morningstar’s brilliant analysis of the tar sands issue and then tell me why Warren Buffet spent $26 billion in 2009 to buy the 77.4% of Burlington Northern that he didn’t already own . I’m very sure that you’ll agree with me that it is exceedingly dangerous to stand between a capitalist and his sources of profit. Keystone XL is a diversionary tactic, brought to us by Bill McKibben and his buddies in the other NGOs. The game is over and 99% of the people don’t have a clue. There’s plenty more about this issue in other posts by Cory on her blog.

    • I did read the analysis to which you linked. Rather long on hyperbole and short on facts, in my opinion. Its thesis that the movement against the Keystone XL Pipeline is really a scam to divert attention because oil companies can ship all the oil they want via railroads is simply not true. Please note the references in my post by banks that finance these sorts of infrastructure projects who say pipelines are needed. Those are reports intended for corporate audiences, not the public, and that is when they tell the truth because they are discussing the bottom line.

      If the point is that the fight must be far bigger than the pipeline — that, in fact, it is the tar sands themselves that must be stopped, I am wholly in agreement. But most of the literature I read stresses that very point. Certainly people like James Hansen stress that point. The pipeline needs to be stopped because in itself it is a grave danger to the environment, including fragile aquifers in Nebraska. We should not underplay that. But, as the evidence indicates, stopping the pipeline will also make it more difficult to increase production in the tar sands themselves.

      In fact, the Harper government is trying desperately to build a pipeline west from the tar sands to the British Columbia coast, where it would be shipped via ocean-going vessels. This, too, would be an environmental disaster waiting to happen. There is already a strong movement opposing this proposal, led by Canadian First Nations peoples through whose lands said pipeline would traverse. The main port in northern British Columbia is Prince Rupert, and there is an activist population there — I remember local fishermen used their boats to blockade a U.S. ship over a local dispute a few years ago. The fight against both pipelines are vital and need to reinforce one another.

      Finally, as to Warren Buffet’s purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. He has done what any capitalist wants to do — become a monopolist. There are six railroad companies that dominate North America, and two of them (BNSF and Union Pacific) are by far the biggest among those six. When you can count your competition on one hand, there is no more price competition; mighty good for the corporate bottom line. Most of North Dakota’s oil is already being shipped by railroad, and there is not much more capacity there, certainly not nearly enough to carry away significantly more of Alberta’s tar-sands production.

      Just last week there was an article in The New York Times about Albany, New York, becoming a major transit point for rail oil shipments and it becoming overburdened by a several-fold increase in those shipments. There is only so much rail capacity out there; that is why the pipelines are needed. There already is enough business for the monopoly railroads, including BNSF, to raise rates and bring in the profits. Sure they’d like still more oil shipments, but they already have plenty. Reversing the dramatic increase in oil shipments via railroad is another movement that needs to coalesce, and this, too, needs to be in concert with all the other issues.

      Finally, although many liberal NGOs certainly are worthy of criticism, simply dismissing all of them as fakes and Obama front groups is not only unfair, it is extremely bad tactics. I do a lot of organizing work in the fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (working with a local organization) and I can tell you that the Sierra Club and Public Citizen are doing terrific work on this issue. I am supposed to condemn them because I don’t agree with every position they take on every issue? No, that would be stupid, wrong and counter-productive. I can also tell you that Moveon, which exists to support Obama, in fact vigorously opposes Obama on TPP and there are Moveon organizers who have taken on leading roles in this fight, directly opposing Obama. You bet I will link hands with them on that issue and in fact I have.

      If we run around screaming that every group is a sellout and a fake, just how do we expect to build a movement? Different people are at different places. Those of us who understand the structural issues — i.e., the problem is capitalism and that it must be replaced by a humanistic system — have an obligation to patiently speak with people and help raise consciousness. In the meantime, there are immediate problems that must be solved and we won’t solve them without working with people who don’t share our perspective. Cory Morningstar might be proud to stand alone, but standing alone isn’t a movement. Sectarianism is a dead end, whether promoted by Leftists or liberals.

    • Alcuin says:

      I mulled your reply over for a time before responding, because you raise (as always) some good points. Is Cory Morningstar guilty of hyperbole? Probably. But I think that a degree of hyperbole in addressing such a serious situation is warranted. I don’t agree that she is short on facts, though. In your post, you have one reference to Toronto Dominion Bank and one to a security analyst, RBC Dominion Securities. I’d dismiss TD Bank’s analysis as self-serving and I’d also note that the date of the report is December 17, 2012. As for security analysts, I don’t have much respect for any of them – they certainly are not objective. Their job is to tout stocks for the trading fees that they collect from their clients’ buy and sell orders. The RBC report is dated February 11, 2013. That said, both reports say that without increased pipeline capacity, the exploitation of tar sands is only “deferred”, not stopped.

      Regarding Buffet: sure, as a capitalist, he’d like to be a monopolist. But I don’t think that is his ultimate goal; it is only a side-effect. His goal is profit, as I’m sure you would agree.

      The article I linked to is part 1 of a 3 part series. I’d encourage readers of this blog to read all three parts. At the top of the last part, there is a quote from a Wall Street Journal article dated September 5, 2013: “U.S. Refiners Don’t Care if Keystone Gets Built”. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall (should we expect less from capitalists?) so you can only read the first sentence or two, but I’m sure there is plenty of information available to support that article’s title should anyone care to do the research.

      Some years ago, before I started reading your blog, I would have described myself as a liberal/progressive. I voted for Obama in 2008, after all. Your posts have educated me and enabled me to step back and engage in a radical critique of the entire project of modernity. I’d describe myself as a hard-core anti-capitalist now. A critique of foundation funding of NGOs is part of that critique. Joan Roelofs has written an excellent book on NGOs entitled Foundations and Public Policy that I would encourage readers to find and study. I don’t “condemn” all NGOs, but I certainly have a jaundiced view of them and I think a lot more critical thought needs to be directed at them by liberals and progressives. Do I think most “liberal” NGOs are “Obama front groups”? I sure do. I don’t think that allindividuals belonging to the Sierra Club or Public Citizen or 350.org follow the party line, but I sure do think that one of the core functions of liberal NGOs is to manufacture consent to follow the capitalist line, to borrow a phrase from Chomsky.

      I do not think that Cory Morningstar stands alone. Not at all. Is she out on the fringe? Yes, I’d say that she is. But someone has to push the envelope so that people such as yourself, who have the ability to “patiently speak to people to help raise consciousness” have a platform to stand on. I’m not an activist. I’m seeking answers and I don’t have the patience to tolerate the sclerotic “progress” of the collective mindset. Thank God there are people such as yourself out there on the front lines. I applaud your efforts.

      • If my writings have influenced someone as clear-thinking and well-read as you, Alcuin, I am very flattered. Your thoughtful comments have triggered a necessary conversation here, and I hope other readers are finding this exchange useful, as I have.

        I read the articles to which you linked below. Both are well reasoned and I would agree with the sentiments expressed that it’s time to step up. Tim DeChristopher writes:

        “The truth is we’re not going to get anything done if we keep playing politics. Bill McKibben is wrong–this movement is not solving the climate crisis, and there’s no time to stick to the same old strategies a little longer, hoping for a different result. The crisis is here. … Rather than appointing ourselves representatives of frontline communities, let’s start listening to the people most affected and supporting their struggles–not just by paying lip service and not just by offering a few minutes of stage time at Powershift.”

        Yes! I couldn’t agree more. And as I alluded to earlier, linking up pipeline struggles in the U.S. with Canadian pipeline struggles, is one step toward doing that. And by struggle I do not mean signing an online petition.

        I share your frustration at the glacially slow progress at North Americans (and not only them) in grasping the depth and seriousness of our decaying economy and environment. But it is impossible to underestimate the power of the vast array of institutions that endlessly perpetuate the prevailing ideology. I think the adherence of so many well-meaning people to liberal NGOs is rooted here. How do we speed up the process of (real) education? If I had an answer for that, I’d have already shared it with everybody.

        One thing I do know is that it is up to those with knowledge and understanding to share them. I have given talks at dozens of Trans-Pacific Partnership forums, often sitting with representatives of liberal NGOs, and I never miss an opportunity to explain the grim realities of capitalism as ultimately responsible — not the greed of this or that corporation or the double-dealing of this or that political office holder. It’s the system acting under its own internal logic. Incidentally, not once has anybody given me a hard time for this.

        This is a problem of long standing: Leon Trotsky wrote about the difference between a “united front” (where more radical groups subsume themselves under moderates’ lowest common denominator “safe” tepid demands) and a “united action” (where groups retain their identities, march under their own banners and retain the right to critique the other groups marching with them). I always work on a “united action” basis. I’m happy to work with groups whose memberships generally haven’t reached the point I have on specific issues that require the widest possible movement. I have the opportunity to help others develop their critiques because I can freely speak on the issue from my perspective. Stopping the TPP is an emergency; this is a case where we have to act now with anybody who is willing to act from a principled position. Ditto the Alberta tar sands: We can’t wait.

        In the process of working in coalitions, people who come to the issue through liberal NGOs will hopefully have their eyes opened, by being exposed to systemic critiques, and thereby come to understand the root of the problem and gain the desire to step up tactics. I began my conscious life in high school as a liberal, but when I began to realize deeper understandings were necessary, I began studying socialist ideas. May many more do so.

      • Alcuin says:

        What I found most interesting about Tim DeChristopher’s video is how his description of the actions of the mainstream climate movement is eerily similar to a description of how capitalism works. NGOs “solve” one problem and are rewarded with more grants from the foundation funding their “solutions”. How does that differ from producing goods to be sold in the market? The focus is on short-term gains, with no long-term vision or moral framework, the exact same values that underlie capitalism. Because of this focus, virtually no one is paying any attention at all to the oppressed, the people of color, or the animal victims of climate change. Oh, people wring their hands when they see dead polar bears, but they still hop into their SUVs to go to WalMart to buy more video games for their kids. There is no room in capitalism for values. Capitalism is amoral and thus immoral.

  4. Roger Adams says:

    “Could this be a sign that the Obama administration is preparing to approve a project that potentially could be the tipping point for uncontrollable global warming?”

    I think it has already happened. With twenty six positive feedback loops already established that produce warming without further inputs from human cases, it would seem to be a little to late to talk of “tipping points.”

    • We have no time to waste, and you properly remind us that stopping global warming is not simply a matter of stopping where we are, but reducing the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

  5. Alcuin says:

    Food for thought about the Keystone XL protests at the White House this past week.

  6. Alcuin says:

    Tim DeChristopher’s thoughts on the mainstream climate movement.

  7. […] Video from the National Academy of Sciences […]

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