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Reasons Why President Obama Must Reject Keystone XL

From the media coverage of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, one might get the impression that the only real issue is whether its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would substantially contribute to global warming. For people who are in denial about climate change, this is no reason at all for holding it up. And so both houses of Congress have voted to give the go ahead to TransCanada, the Canadian company that wants to build it.

Climate change is real, and the fact that Keystone XL has moved as far along toward approval as it has is a source of distress to many of us who have taken the time to become informed about the causes of global warming. Although the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS), prepared for the State Department, concluded that whether this particular pipeline gets built will have little incremental impact on climate change, many of us who have read relevant parts of the FSEIS do not find its analysis persuasive. Rather, we find it deeply flawed.

There are many other reasons why a great many people – including a diverse coalition of organizations such as the Cowboy Indian Alliance – are so strongly opposed to this proposed pipeline. I will offer some comments on other reasons in part two of this commentary next week. This part focuses on climate change.

Keystone XL would transport a form of crude oil extracted from the “tar sands” region of Alberta. According to the FSEIS, oil derived from tar sands is about 17 percent more GHG-intensive than conventional varieties of crude oil consumed in the United States. That’s “wells-to-wheels” and does not appear to account for the loss of the carbon sequestering function of the forests that are being clear-cut and stripmined or cut up into fragments for in situ extraction. Mining the tar sands is an ugly, dirty business. See for yourself: Google “tar sands Alberta.”

South of the border, we don’t seem to care much about the impacts in Canada. The FSEIS says that even if the pipeline is not built, the government of Canada and the fossil fuel companies will find a way to get the tar sands crude to refineries, even if they have to ship it by rail. This conclusion, which has been widely reported in the media, is based on a “market analysis” which, in effect, ignores the possibility that governments around the world will actually step up and deal with GHG emissions sometime in the next few decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that in order to reduce the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts on ecosystems and human populations, we – humanity – must achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions so that global warming (as measured by globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature) does not exceed 2 degrees Celsius (2ºC) above the pre-industrial average.

The IPCC projects that to limit the cumulative average temperature rise to no more than 2ºC, we need to keep the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to no more than the equivalent of 450 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide (CO2). The IPCC also calculated the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emissions from all human-caused sources since 1870 that could be released into the atmosphere without crossing that 2ºC limit. This amount, our “carbon budget,” is about 2900 billion metric tons (gigatonnes, or Gt). As of 2011, the IPCC found that about 1900 Gt had already been emitted, which leaves about 1000 Gt in our carbon budget if we are going to have a reasonable chance of avoiding some of the more catastrophic, and irreversible, impacts of climate change.

In making its projections for the impacts of climate change, the IPCC has considered a large number of scenarios, including “baseline” or “business-as-usual” scenarios and scenarios that include various mixes of policies and strategies to reduce emissions. In its “Summary for Policymakers,” the IPCC used four scenarios, or “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs), to simplify the presentation of their findings. One is labeled “RCP2.6” and includes a stringent scenario for reducing GHG emissions. This is the only one of the four RCPs that the IPCC considers “likely” to keep the CO2 concentration below 450 ppm through the 21st century. This will require reducing human-caused GHG emissions by 2050 in the range of 40-70 percent below 2010 levels, and to zero by 2100.

One conclusion that many people have drawn from these numbers – what could be called the takeaway message – is that we need to leave most proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. By some estimates, at least three-fourths, and perhaps as much as seven-eighths, of known fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned. For more on this point, a good source is the Carbon Tracker Initiative. This is also discussed in a 10-page memo that seven organizations delivered to President Obama in December 2014 (available on the website of Bold Nebraska).

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In other words, the people of the world need to make the global economy move beyond fossil fuels. This means, among other things, much more extensive use of a wide range of solar and other renewable energy technologies, much more emphasis on efficiency, as well as other strategies such as land-use planning to reduce the need for motor vehicles. This transition is not going to magically happen. It’s going to take action at all levels of government, which is going to take citizens demanding that their governments act responsibly.

The market analysis in the FSEIS simply ignores the possibility that the governments of the world might actually deal with climate change. The market analysis considers a number of scenarios for supply and demand for tar sands crude, but in none of the scenarios does the cost of delivering tar sands crude to market reflect policies (such as a price on carbon) that could be implemented to internalize the costs associated with climate change.

As governments implement such policies and adopt other strategies to move beyond fossil fuel-fired private vehicles (such as electric vehicles with batteries charged by wind power), the scenarios in the FSEIS market analysis will be rendered worthless. And so will the conclusion that the tar sands are going to be extracted regardless of whether Keystone XL is built.

This flaw in the FSEIS was noted in April 2014 in a letter to President Obama signed by 104 scientists and economists. They said that the “business-as-usual energy scenarios” used in the FSEIS “would lead to a catastrophic six degrees Celsius rise in global warming.”

The State Department’s FSEIS does not entirely ignore the IPCC’s call to avoid passing through the 450 ppm threshold. There is a brief mention of a 450 ppm scenario in chapter two of the FSEIS (pp. 2.2-42 – 2.2-44) Relying on its market analysis, chapter two of the FSEIS concludes that the impacts of Keystone XL on the prices charged for transportation fuels “would not be large enough to influence market behavior in development of more fuel efficient vehicles, development of alternative transportation fuels (including electrification of the vehicle fleet), or reduction of total vehicle-miles traveled.”

The FSEIS then jumps to the conclusion that “even if the United States, and/or countries around the world, adopt more aggressive policies that would reduce the consumption of crude oil (including those necessary to achieve a trajectory towards stabilizing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere in line with the 2 degree global goal), there is likely to be a market demand for substantial increases in the volume of crude oil such as those derived from the oil sands over the next 20 to 25 years.” This is how the FSEIS rationalized not doing any serious analysis of alternative energy sources and energy conservation as an alternative to the proposed project.

The FSEIS may be correct in asserting that the Keystone XL pipeline by itself will not drive market behavior enough so that we move away from using oil for transportation fuel. But it does not follow that market demand for tar sands crude will “continue to increase.” As people become better informed about the impacts of climate change and the options for moving beyond fossil fuels, and as governments respond to the concerns of their citizens, “markets” for energy goods and services will change.

It won’t happen with the current Congress, but before long we will have a comprehensive national policy for reducing GHG emissions, with market mechanisms and appropriate incentives for renewable energy and efficiency. We must – the stakes are too high. I have to believe that the American people will rise to the occasion.

Dean Suagee is of counsel to Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, LLP, in Washington, D.C. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.