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EPA on Keystone XL: Significant Climate Impacts from Tar Sands Pipeline

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In a draft assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, consultants for the U.S. State Department judged that building it would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because the analysts assumed the tar sands oil would find a way out with or without the new pipeline.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not agree. Keystone XL’s ability to carry an additional 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day is vital to expanded production of the tarry crude in Alberta. The EPA contends that the analysis by State got the economics all wrong. In particular the consultants were too optimistic about the ease with which the oil could be moved by railroad—an alternative already in use. But such tar sands oil transportation alternatives can more than triple the cost of moving crude. State’s report also neglected to consider the potential for congestion on the railroads with an uptick in oil transport, EPA contends. Of course, from a greenhouse gas perspective, transport by pipeline results in fewer emissions than transport by rail, truck or barge.

The bottom line, from a climate perspective: “oil sands crude is significantly more [greenhouse gas] intensive than other crudes, and therefore has potentially large impacts,” wrote EPA’s Cynthia Giles about the State Department’s attempts to assess the full implications of Keystone. “Lifecycle emissions from oil sands crude could be 81 percent greater than the average crude refined in the U.S.,” a difference that can grow “depending on the assumptions made.”


The EPA also cited its experience from cleaning up after the spill of tar sands oil from a pipeline near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. This pipeline, smaller than Keystone XL, managed to spill some 20,000 barrels in 2010, much of which ended up at the bottom of the river. Despite three years of clean up effort, the river will have to be dredged because the oil sands crude “will not appreciably biodegrade,” Giles wrote. In other words, the kind of microbes that chewed up the oil from BP’s blown out Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico could find no purchase on diluted bitumen from Alberta. Such heavy oil results in the tarballs ubiquitous along the Gulf Coast and, apparently, a layer of tar at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. All of that experience suggests that would-be pipeline operator TransCanada should be required to prepare for such submerged oil in the event of a leak from Keystone XL as well as having equipment in place to deal with a spill before it happens, the EPA suggests.

That’s a particular concern because, despite a re-routing around ecologically sensitive regions in Nebraska, the Keystone XL pipeline would still cross over the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer: the Ogallala.

All of that leads the agency to object to the State Department’s analysis on the grounds of “insufficient information” and “significant” environmental objections. What impact, if any, that has on the approval or disapproval of the pipeline by the Obama administration remains to be seen but the impact of Keystone XL on climate change is clear.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 9:19 pm 04/23/2013

    The EPA is disregarding the negative environmental impact happening overseas, which can only increase as long as we continue to outsource petroleum production and piping. A lot of those places don’t have regulatory environments and cleanup capabilities similar to ours. Of course this is just in-house squabbling within the administration, which will approve the pipeline anyway. Just a little show for the Green Wing, to demonstrate how deliberative and thoughtful they’re being before they throw a political bone to Hillary 2016.

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  2. 2. dbtinc 9:01 am 04/24/2013

    Purely a political debate. We are going to continue to use these resources one way or another. Much as I hate to say this the economy trumps these objections.

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  3. 3. Sisko 9:33 am 04/24/2013

    The only meaningful debate is whether the investment in the pipeline will bring sufficient jobs to the US to be worth the investment. There is no doubt that the US needs to jobs. There is also no doubt that the fossil fuel resource will be utilizied at some point so the CO2 will eventually be released. The EPA is over stepping it authority imo.

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  4. 4. dubay.denis 9:34 am 04/24/2013

    The problems at the root of these objections already cost our economy. It’s just that those costs (damage to health, drinking water supplies, soil fertility, as well as to property and agriculture from storms and sea level rise, droughts, floods, etc.) are not recognized for what they are, they are “externalized”. If they were recognized and accounted for accurately, a carbon tax would suddenly be perceived as a fair way to internalize those costs. So it is only the very short-term view of the well-off, with blinders on, that allows one to conclude that the economy trumps the environment.

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  5. 5. JPGumby 9:56 am 04/24/2013

    Looks like another case of environmentalists (and I count myself as someone very concerned about the environment) picking the wrong battle to fight, more for emotional reasons than anything else. You can tell this from the “kitchen sinking” in the arguments – is it because that oil is carbon intensive, or is it because any oil pipeline has spills, or is it because it’s tarry and yucky, or ….

    This one source of oil will not be the one thing that drives fossil fuel usage. That will be driven by broader policy and economic forces. Nor is it a particularly bad or dangeous project. But it will create American and Canadian jobs and decrease American dependence on imported oil (with all the Geopolitical implications that has). Fighting it this way makes those fighting it look out of touch and, well, nutty.

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  6. 6. Shoshin 10:25 am 04/24/2013

    The Keystone pipeline protests are purely political. If the “science” was the issue, there are far larger, more impactful coal projects in the Lower 48 to go after.

    But the protestors don’t as they are paid by the lobbyists to hobble Canada’s oil to the benefit of North Dakota’s. No environmental story here, just billionaires paying millionaires to do their dirty work. Not much different then professional sports really.

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  7. 7. fastartcee 2:45 pm 04/24/2013

    There is such deep hypocrisy here. Yes, oil from the tar sands is worse than oil from under Texas, but what about the energy from COAL that powers so much of the US, including the power that probably runs the presses that print Scientific American. FAR worse than tar sands oil, isn’t it. The environmental devastation associated with coal is also much worse than at the tar sands plants.

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  8. 8. Postman1 4:55 pm 04/24/2013

    Another instance of the nuts in charge at the EPA overstepping their bounds. Defunding and dismantling is the ultimate solution and the more anti-American they become the more likely that solution is. States have their own equivalent agencies in place which can easily take over and run much more efficiently. They may even stick to real environmental issues instead of political agendas.

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  9. 9. Wayne Williamson 6:23 pm 04/24/2013

    I really don’t get it. Why isn’t a refinery built near by.

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  10. 10. dubay.denis 4:02 pm 04/25/2013

    Not so sure tar sands oil is worse than coal,either getting it or using it.

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  11. 11. Morgainele 6:45 pm 04/25/2013

    you don’t have your facts straight, Here’s the reality:

    With billions in profits at stake, the oil industry is pulling out all the stops to get Keystone XL built. TransCanada alone spent $1.3 million in
    lobbying in 2011, and pro-pipeline members of the House of Representatives took $12 million from the oil industry in 2010–2011. Millions more have gone to pro-pipeline special interest groups like
    the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as other lobbyists and political operatives, to make Keystone XL
    their #1 priority…. And not because of US citizens…or because of jobs or because of energy security… Its purely for profit.

    Re Energy Security:

    Keystone XL will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but transport Canadian oil to American refineries for export to overseas markets.

    Keystone XL is an export pipeline.

    According to presentations to investors, Gulf Coast refiners plan to refine the cheap Canadian crude supplied by the pipeline into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America. Proceeds from these exports are earned tax-free. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.

    Retired Brigadier General Steven Anderson said it plainly:
    “The Keystone XL pipeline will not reduce
    America’s dependence on Middle East oil, or do
    anything to get us off oil completely, which is
    key to America’s national security future.” An
    increase in fuel economy of just 2.5 mpg would
    completely eliminate the need for all the oil
    carried by this pipeline.

    Reducing demand for oil is the best way to improve our energy security. U.S. demand for oil has been declining since 2007. New fuel-efficiency standards mean that this trend will continue once the economy gets back on track. In fact, the Energy Deptartment report on KeystoneXL found that decreasing demand through fuel efficiency is the only way to reduce mid-east oil imports with or without the pipeline.

    Gas prices:

    Keystone XL will INCREASEvgas prices for Americans—Especially Farmers. By draining Midwestern refineries of cheap Canadian crude into export-oriented refineries in the Gulf Coast, Keystone XL will increase the cost of gas for Americans.
    TransCanada’s 2008 Permit Application states “Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally PADD II [U.S. Midwest], are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil. Access to the USGC [U.S. Gulf Coast] via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in [the Midwest] by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude. The resultant increase in the price of heavy crude is estimated to provide an increase in annual revenue to the Canadian producing industry in 2013 of US $2 billion to US $3.9 billion.”

    Independent analysis of these figures found this would increase per-gallon prices by 20 cents/gallon in the Midwest.

    According to an independent analysis U.S. farmers, who spent $12.4 billion on fuel in 2009 could see expenses rise to $15 billion or higher in 2012 or 2013 if the pipeline goes through. At least $500 million of the added expense would come from the Canadian market manipulation.

    Jobs:

    TransCanada’s jobs projections are vastly inflated.

    TransCanada have always maintained (NATURALLY!) that the Keystone XL pipeline, will provide a huge boost to the US economy through the generation of over half a million permanent jobs.

    A study which they commissioned in 2010 stated that the construction of the pipeline would create 118,935 temporary jobs, mostly in construction and manufacturing whilst the pipeline was being built; an additional 553,235 permanent jobs due to the increased US oil supply.

    BUT the State Department has released a report which actually estimates a far lower number of jobs will be created. (and other reports back this) The one to two year construction phase of the pipeline will likely only create around 42,100 jobs, and this number would fall to just 35 permanent jobs in order to perform maintenance and inspections along the entire length.
    THIRTY FIVE PERMANENT JOBS!

    As for those temporary 2 year jobs, most of them are low-paying labor, like on Keystone I pipeline. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) both oppose the pipeline. Their August 2011 statement:

    “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil. There is no shortage of water and sewage pipelines that need to be fixed or replaced, bridges and tunnels that are in need of emergency repair, transportation infrastructure that needs to be renewed and developed. Many jobs could also be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation—jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.”

    Safety:

    A rupture in the Keystone XL pipeline could cause a BP style oil spill in America’s heartland, over the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million people. AND when anyone suggests we have the technology to clean up the oil, they are wrong. The dispersent used to sink the oil in the gulf Horizen spill was proven in 2011 by a Georgia Tech study to be over FIFTY times more toxic that the oil itself! We have a MAJOR health crises emerging as a result which is being hushed by big oil. If nothing else concerns you-this should.

    The U.S. Pipeline Safety Administration has not yet conducted an in depth analysis of the safety of diluted bitumen (raw tar sands) pipeline, despite unique safety concerns posed by its more corrosive properties.

    If you think you can TRUST TransCanada cause they say its safe….consider this; TransCanada predicted that the Keystone I (ONE) pipeline would see one spill in 7 years. In fact, there have been TWELVE spills in ONE year.

    Tar sands crude contains massive amounts of heavy metals and cancer-causing toxins and must be pumped at extreme temperature and pressure.

    AGAIN TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline had 12 spills in its first 12 months of operation. Spills on Keystone XL would pollute
    waterways, destroy farmland, and put drinking water at risk ……along the entire 1,700-mile route. And its not a question of IF. Its a question of WHEN.

    More info:

    The company was ordered to dig up 10 sections of pipe after government-ordered tests indicated that defective steel may have been used.

    KeystoneXL will use steel from the same Indian manufacturer.
    Keystone XL will cross through America’s agricultural heartland, the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, the Ogallala aquifer, sage grouse habitat, walleye fisheries and more.

    In a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a group of retired four-star generals and admirals concluded that climate change, if not addressed, will be the greatest threat to national security.

    NASA’s top climate scientist says that fully developing the tar sands in Canada would mean “essentially game over” for the climate.

    Extraction and refinement of oil sands are more GHG-intensive compared to conventional oil. The EIS estimates that the additional annual GHG emissions from the proposed pipeline could range from an additional “12-23 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent… (roughly the equivalent of annual emissions from 2 to 4 coal-fired power plants)” over conventional crude oil from the Middle East. The EPA believes that the methodology used by the State Department is inaccurate and could underestimate GHG emissions by as much as 20 percent. Given that the expected lifetime of the Keystone XL pipeline is fifty years, the EPA notes that the project could yield an extra 1.15 billion tons of GHGs using the quantitative estimates in the EIS.

    Another MYTH:

    There is a peculiar idea In American policy circles that Canadian tar sands production will be expanded at the same rate whether the Keystone XL pipeline is built or not. This view is
    not shared by Canadian government and industry officials; In other words, it is not shared by experts who observe the industry on a daily basis.If the crude does stay underground, that will be a good thing for the climate. The tar sands are thought to contain as much
    as 240Gt of carbon, about half of what scientists say we can burn to stay below 2 degree Celsius of warming.You don’t need to listen to those who oppose the pipeline to know this. Experts, industry leaders, and economists have known that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is the industry’s best hope to expand tar sands production and profits. In their own words:

    “Canada needs pipe — and lots of it — to avoid the opportunity cost of stranding over a million barrels a day of potential crude oil growth.”
    CiBC Oil industry faced with ‘serious challenge’ as pipelines fill up, Td warns, Financial Post, Dec 17, 2012

    AND

    “Canada’s oil industry is facing a serious challenge to its long-term growth. Current oil production in Western Canada coupled with significant gains in U.S. domestic production have led the industry to bump up against capacity constraints in existing pipelines and refineries.” Oil industry faced with ‘serious challenge’ as pipelines fill up, Td warns, Financial Post, Dec 17, 2012

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  12. 12. Morgainele 6:49 pm 04/25/2013

    Please share the following info widely: This applies to any spill from Keystone…

    Petroleum experts now state the 2010 BP oil spill could not have been cleaned up without an unprecedented chemical experiment. When the oil began to pour unabated into the Gulf, BP used millions of gallons of a toxic dispersant, Corexit, to sink the oil. Immediately, strange things began to happen to the environment and to the people working near the water. At first it seemed the problem was limited to the 140,000 cleanup workers hired by BP to deal with the tide of oil reaching the shore.

    Almost to the person, they started getting sick. Then, people living far away from the cleanup started getting sick as well. Over time, fishermen started noticing strange aberrations: tumor-infested fish, eyeless baby dolphins, and shrimp with huge blisters. Then entire fisheries begin to fail. It may sound like a sci-fi film…but it’s reality.

    Now scientists estimate that over six million people have been exposed and tens of thousands will be facing fatal consequences. A health campaign to deal with the related issues does not exist and symptoms of toxic chemical illness are growing over a four-state area. In 2011, a Georgia Tech study determined that Corexit used during the spill made the oil 52 times more toxic. In this case of oil spill deja vu, it is not lost on many residents that a third of all the cleanup workers from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster are now dead. The same dispersants were used then as now and the same health symptoms exist in the Gulf population.

    Today, oil continues to surface and BP still sprays the toxic dispersants in an attempt to hide the problem. Corexit is now a key ingredient for all oil spill response plans nationwide. In thousands of coastal communities new drilling plans are moving forward at full speed and millions are vulnerable to the next oil disaster and its horrifying consequences.

    In December, 2012 a controversial legal settlement gave BP control of the only health clinics to treat people sick from the spill.(They are sitting idle.) Meanwhile, entire communities of low-income clean-up workers have been denied rights to any health claims.

    Bottom line:

    All coastal states are at risk of living through what these communities are in the midst of. Its not a matter of IF it happens. Its just a matter of when. And right now, if the Keystone XL pipeline goes through…it will bring these risks of oil spills and dispersent use and its consequent chemical nightmare into the interior states…risking water supply at a whole new level.

    With unique access, RisingUP (the documentary) concentrates on the actions of residents of these communities as they struggle to take back control of their lives and a health care system co-opted by BP.

    See RisingUP trailer here:http://www.risingupfilm.com/?page_id=6

    Link to this
  13. 13. Postman1 8:35 pm 04/26/2013

    @Morgainele = Total BS. What a waste of time to try and make sense out of two looooong BS comments.

    Link to this

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