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Keystone XL Report: Is It Really About the Environment?

Jan Lee
Jan Lee | Monday February 3rd, 2014 | 2 Comments

Keystone_XL_proposed_State_DeptIt’s here. The long-awaited report by the State Department on whether the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would have any detrimental impact to the environment arrived last Friday. As American households were buying up the beer, chips and last-minute preps for Super Bowl Sunday, arguably one of the country’s most popular annual holidays, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs dropped their newly minted report onto the airwaves.

Environmental organizations that have been hoping that the project would be rejected were quick to highlight the finer details of the report, which pointed out that there would be environmental impact from Keystone – a reasonable assumption for an 875-mile pipeline that would become the expressway for heavy crude and an increasing dependence on carbon-emitting technology.  During operation it would add the equivalent of 300,000 cars to the road, or 71,298 houses using electricity for one year. It would also have other potential effects that could ultimately contribute to climate change.

But anyone who read the fine details of the 44-page report realized within the first few pages that those points were extraneous and not relevant to the takeaway message of the report.

“For proposed petroleum pipelines that cross international borders of the United States, the President, through Executive Order (EO) 13337, directs the Secretary of State to decide whether a project serves the national interest before granting a Presidential Permit … If the proposed Project is determined to serve the national interest, it will be granted a Presidential Permit that authorizes the construction, connection, operation, and maintenance of the facilities at the border between the United States and Canada.”

The issue all along then, has not been whether implementing Keystone XL to ship bitumen contributes to climate change, but as President Obama said last year, whether it contributes significantly to climate change – the word “it” being the actual, tangible construction process and operation of the pipeline, not its intended use or how that much bitumen may affect the climate as it is used.

The authors of the report have taken pains to underline that difference, pointing out that whether the project is approved or not, climate change will still be occurring, as it has since the Industrial Revolution. The report gives a nod to the fact that human activity is considered the cause of much of the climate change, but doesn’t offer any concrete acknowledgement to whether the project is, in light of that cumulative result, a bad idea.

Taking those remarkable limitations into the picture, this is what the report did say:

  • One endangered species and 10 threatened species will be at risk. The endangered species is the American burying beetle. Most of the threatened species weren’t mentioned. Whooping cranes are among the threatened species.
  • 383 acres of wetlands would be impacted, with only 2 acres expected to be lost.
  • The U.S. GDP is expected to benefit by $3.4 billion.
  • While the project is expected to create 4,200 jobs during the construction phase, only 50 jobs, not all of them full-time, would remain during operation.  “This small number would result in negligible impacts on population, housing, and public services in the proposed Project area,” the authors state. (Although the report didn’t highlight this, that also means that the 50 jobs would probably not contribute significantly to the economy in local areas, either.)
  • 16 community groupings have been identified which would be at risk due to environmental justice issues. Interestingly, here the State Department steps out of the role of impartial risk evaluator, and explains how mitigation would be accomplished. The authors state that Keystone has agreed to “avoidance and mitigation measures” that include “ensuring that adequate communication in the form of public awareness materials regarding the construction schedule and construction activities is provided.”
  • GHG emissions for the crude oil to be transported are estimated at 1.3 to 27.4 metric tons of CO2 equivalents (MMTCO2e) annually. The authors explain the wide spread saying that there are many variables, including which study is used to determine the output.

Perhaps the most important detail to consider in this report is that the transportation of bitumen from Canada’s tar sands is already underway by railway. And production is increasing (pg. 16). So President Obama’s determination of whether the Keystone XL pipeline would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” is really all about the pipes, the construction and the strategy that will be used to expedite the oil project. As this report highlights so well, the issue was never about whether the environmental risks of bitumen use and transport was a good idea.

Image courtesy of U.S. Government


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  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Great analysis. It’s almost useless to put out a report like this that does not consider whether or not the pipeline will accelerate tar sands development and burning of fossil fuels. What an oversight. That said, whether you agree with it or not, that oil does seen to be finding its way to market and there is an argument that a pipeline would be much safer than rail…

    • J_N_Lee

      Thanks for the comment Nick. Good points. Seems like now would be a good time for the US gov’t to come up with some innovative incentive programs (ie, subsidies) aimed specifically at oil and gas co’s to help with transitioning and increasing investments in renewable industries. I am sure there’s ways to do that. Maybe then there would be less focus on bitumen.