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Guest post: Keystone XL? It s Not an Environmental Question


Keystone XL is the lesser of two evils. The other evil, is not building Keystone XL. This argument – to build, or not to build the transcontinental pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast - is a heated one. Classic. Environment verses humans. The earth versus polluters.

But, in this debate, we have forgotten something fundamental. The bulk of carbon emissions do not come from oil companies. They do not come from refineries, and they most certainly do not come from pipelines.

So where do they come from?

They come from you. They come from me. Americans emit an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide because we consume vast quantities of fossil fuel based energy (mostly by driving cars and using electricity). The average American emits roughly 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year – five times the global average. If we want to reduce these emissions, there are lots of ways to go about it, but the anti-Keystone movement is simply a distraction. The protestors of Keystone XL have the right intentions, but they are firing their arrows at the wrong target.

Here is a little analogy: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This group wants to decrease drunk driving deaths. How should they do that? Go after drunk drivers obviously. But if they were to follow the “stop the pipeline” protest model, it would be as if they went after Buick. But only Buick, and put them out of business. Would drunk driving deaths go down? No! It’s insane to think they would. People would just buy Fords or BMWs instead, and the drinkers would still drink. To stop drunk driving, you have to go after the drunks, not the car companies. To reduce carbon emissions, you have to go after the emitters, not the suppliers of energy.

Let’s be absolutely clear: blocking Keystone XL will not reduce carbon emissions because it will not cause Americans to use less oil. Last year, the Department of Energy contracted a neutral third party, Ensys (which used EIA data), to characterize the emissions, economic and supply impacts of building or not building this pipeline. According to the Ensys Keystone XL Report:

“The results show no significant change in total U.S. refining activity, total crude and product import volumes and costs, in global refinery CO2 and total life-cycle GHG emissions whether Keystone XL is built or not.”

Recently, I spoke with some of the protestors in front of the White House to learn more about why they oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. In our discussions, a valid point was brought up - that the oil sands fields are one of the biggest producible carbon stores in the world (they call them ‘carbon bombs’) and it would be best for the environment if they are never produced at all. This is true, it would be best for the climate if we stopped using all types of fossil fuels, including oil sands. But here is the problem: We can block a pipeline from Canada, but we can’t stop Canada from producing its own oil.

Canada already produces almost two million barrels of oil per day from oil sands (National Energy Board of Canada – and they aren’t going to just stop doing it because America says no to this pipeline. If the Keystone XL pipeline is blocked, TransCanada can just build a pipeline to the west coast of British Columbia and use tankers to move the oil to Asia. (By the way, they already have a major pipeline to the west coast – The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, and almost a dozen other major pipelines that come into the United States). You might argue, ‘Environmentalists in Canada will stop that pipeline.’ No they won’t. Pipelines and massive oil sands operations already exist. Keystone XL did not meet significant resistance in Canada, and as long as it is routed correctly, neither will a pipeline to the coast. The oil sands are an incredible source of jobs and revenue for Canada, and they will find a way to route the pipeline that does not meet untenable political resistance.

Just like Canada will keep producing, we will keep importing. If we don’t import from Canada, we will import more oil from the Middle East or Africa. The same amount of oil will be produced and consumed globally either way, but in the ‘no Keystone’ case, the oil will just have to travel farther, which could mean more carbon emissions because of transportation. The previously referenced Ensys report also mentions that,

“Together, growing Canadian oil sands imports and U.S. demand reduction have the potential to very substantially reduce U.S. dependency on non-Canadian foreign oil, including from the Middle East.”

Furthermore, we are lucky to get the oil. Canada already exports to Asia, where the market is actually cheaper to access. That is because to export from Canada to China, the required pipeline will be much shorter than to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and pipelines are very expensive (About $1 million per mile). As it was put in the Ensys Keystone XL Report:

“costs for transporting [Canadian oil sands] crudes to major markets in northeast Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) via pipeline and tanker are lower than to transport the same crudes via pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

There is valid concern over pipelines crossing sensitive areas, including aquifers. The pipeline should be routed so that any potential spill will have the least impact possible, as small spills should be expected to occur occasionally. However, the odds that oil spilled from a pipeline will actually contaminate an aquifer are low, and pipeline spills tend to be much less severe than tanker spills. The bottom line is this: if we don’t build a pipeline over land, the alternative to ship, in tankers, across oceans. The pipeline is the less risky environmental choice.

For the record, I believe very strongly that we need to reduce carbon emissions. The quickest, easiest, least expensive, least disruptive way to reduce carbon emissions is to stop using so much energy. Stop driving, turn off your air conditioner. If we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, we have to get serious about using less energy and using it more efficiently. Blocking Keystone XL will not get us any closer to solving the climate problem.

So here is the question: Do we want to import more oil from the Middle East, increase the risk of spilling millions of gallons of oil into the sea, alienate Canada, our biggest trade partner, and do nothing about worldwide carbon emissions? If the answer is yes, then stop the pipeline.

Photo credit:

1. Photo of Keystone Protestor in Washington, DC in October 7, 2011 by ElvertBarnes and used under this Creative Commons License.

About the author:

Scott McNally has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas. He has worked as an Environmental Engineer for Valero Energy Corporation, a Project Engineer for Shell Oil Company, and an energy and climate research intern for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This is Scott's first guest blog post at Plugged In - he was invited to be a guest blogger by Plugged In's Melissa C. Lott. You can reach Scott via e-mail at scottmcnally at gmail dot com.

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

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