A new study in Nature Climate Change challenges the pollution estimates associated with Keystone XL. While the US State Department has provided a relatively conservative estimate — much to the pleasure of President Obama, who has indicated he’ll only approve the pipeline if it ‘doesn’t significantly exacerbate‘ CO2 pollution — the researchers found that the real impact could be 400% higher. That’s quite an appreciable difference, and it highlights the problems with pushing through environmental impact reports quickly, failing to consider wider implications in pollution estimates and letting oil and gas exploration trump environmental concerns.
This is just the latest chapter in the extended boondoggle surrounding Keystone XL, the massive tar sands pipeline proposed to route crude oil from Canada through the United States. Among other things, the pipeline has been plagued with leaks, protested by indigenous people and ranchers alike and heavily criticized by groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s wildly unpopular with environmentalists, and that’s why the State Department’s estimates were so important: They laid out a clear case for pushing the pipeline through against the will of many North Americans, on the grounds that it wouldn’t contribute to climate change. (Apparently localized impacts like destroying habitats and communities were less pressing concerns.)
Now, researchers Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus say the story is more complicated, and that the metrics used by the State Department were wrong: “We find that for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase 0.6 barrels owing to the incremental decrease in global oil prices. As a result, and depending on the extent to which the pipeline leads to greater oil sands production, the net annual impact of Keystone XL could range from virtually none to 110 million tons CO2 equivalent annually. This spread is four times wider than found by the US State Department (1–27 million tons CO2e), who did not account for global oil market effects. The approach used here, common in lifecycle analysis, could also be applied to other pending fossil fuel extraction and supply infrastructure.”
They accuse the State Department of failing to consider how the pipeline would affect global oil prices. If the price of oil drops as a result of an increase in supply, demand and use are going to increase — which results in a net increase of carbon emissions. The exact scope of the impact is unclear, as it would be determined by how much oil is sold at any given time and how prices are controlled, but Keystone XL will have an effect on global oil supplies — and that effect will be much greater than if oil and gas firms use alternative transportation methods.
This has significant implications that don’t stop with Keystone XL, as the researchers pointed out. Oil and gas exploration are expanding at a rapid rate, and they’re pushing into increasingly remote areas because accessible supplies of high-quality oil are declining. Even the Arctic isn’t off limits, as proved by Canada’s explorational mission to map the seabed — and identify possible new sources of oil. Industry firms are advertising services like remote sensing and pushing for the use of satellites and other tools to access oil and gas supplies. More and more pipelines are springing up worldwide, and as the problems with Keystone XL illustrate, officials may not be considering their potential impact thoroughly enough.
Are environmental impact reports and other evaluations being rushed through, to the detriment of the environment? That may have been the case with Keystone XL, where tremendous political pressure from the oil and gas industry is coming to bear on regulatory officials and politicians. Are agencies in charge of approving applications for new developments, pipelines and transit systems fully considering the potential environmental impact of oil and gas projects, or are they relying on the potentially limited and faulty estimates with massaged numbers provided by the industry itself, along with agencies working to support such proposals?
Photo credit: tarsandsaction.