Keystone Fails The President’s Environmental Impact Test

NOTE: This is a guest post from Tom Steyer, investor and president of NextGen Climate Action.

Time and again, President Obama has made an explicit promise that he will not approve the Keystone pipeline if doing so negatively impacts the climate. Just this past weekend, he told a New York Times reporter, ďI meant what I said; I’m going to evaluate this based on whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere.Ē

If we break this issue down and examine it from every possible angle, it quickly becomes clear that there is no way for the President to allow for the pipelineís construction while simultaneously keeping his word to the American people.

On a gross basis, Keystone will cause an enormous increase in carbon emissions. According to an excellent new report from the National Resource Defense Council, the pipeline will add up to 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over the 50-year lifespan of the project. The Alberta tar sands are thought to be the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, and according to estimates by the State Department and the EPA, carbon emissions resulting from their burning are 81% higher than those from conventional oil on a well-to-tank basis.

Furthermore, while the State Department argued in its March draft review of Keystone that tapping the tar sands is inevitable, this argument now lies in tatters.

Transporting the oil to Gulf Coast refineries via rail is not economically feasible, as it involves prohibitively expensive start up costs stemming from time intensive expansions in rail infrastructure, not to mention the perilous prospect of a railway accident with devastating environmental consequences.

While there are four other prospective Canadian pipelines that would nominally help ship the heavy oil across North America to capable refineries, each of these projects face significant bureaucratic and political challenges, making their approval unlikely. Even if they were all given the green light (which is a near impossibility), they would still not provide the transportation capacity needed to enable the tar sand industryís medium-tier expansion plans.

The only question left for the Obama administration to consider then, is whether or not approval of the Keystone pipeline would result in a NET increase in carbon emissions. Is there a mitigation plan sufficient to offset the additional pollution? Is a mitigation plan even possible in the first place?

Given the type of oil and size of these reserves, the answer to the first question is a resounding no. Governments across the globe have so far failed to design adequate mitigation systems that would undo the harm from our reliance on fossil fuels. For proof of this, one need look no further than the EUís attempts at instituting a cap and trade system. While it remains to be seen as to whether mitigation rights ever existed as they were supposed to or were fraudulent from the get go, itís impossible to deny that there has been a vast oversupply of permits since the system was instituted. With permit prices under $9 per ton since 2011, companies across that continent have little to no incentive to solve this problem.

So when and if Canada vows that it will offset the burning of the tarsands through a similar uncapped system, there is no reason to view that promise is anything but empty. Thatís why itís so crucial that the Presidentís promise be rock solid.

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Mark D.
Mark D.4 years ago

Paul B. There is no excuse for Canada, especially "the world will be destroyed anyway" so "our favorite criminal Harper might as well be the first to destroy it". Canada's excuses for its massive environmental crimes make me want to gag.

Kay Martin
Kay M4 years ago

Thank you for a great article, and excellent comments from all the care 2 members. I do not want it, I do not think we need it, I will sign any and all petitions, to the president, the congress, the senate, the EPA, anybody that will listen, We have watched on TV the coverage of what a spill from one of those Pipelines can do to a neighborhood in Arkansas, an Indian reservation, forest, and stream in Canada, The spill in the artic. If this pipeline comes across America it will go thru out Bread Belt, where all of our food is grown, and under the ground is the only fresh water aquafare left in America, You all let Keystone spoil that we are without food andf water, What then you can not eat and drink Oil and tar sands...period. All Canada and the oil companies want is for us to take the risk, and they get the profit, Tel l Them , Not No, but Hell No, go somewhere else and poison their lands and water.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G4 years ago

Sooooo sick of this.... :(

Carmen S.
Carmen S4 years ago

thanks for sharing this, hope he blocks it, doubt he will

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson4 years ago


Paul B.
Paul B4 years ago

Do you think that Canada will just leave the oil in the ground if we don't buy it. Of course not. It will go to some other world market buyer and burnt. So the environmental impact will be was it would be in ANY case.

Plus, the pipeline is THE least impact on emissions, as rail and tanker truck each burn fossil fuels that the pipeline doesn't, saving more than any other conventional transport method.

And we have talked about reducing our reliance on Middle East or S. American oil supplies due to the fragile nature of our relationships, as a national security risk, Canada resources would be the least in that respect, except if DC would allow us to drill on government lands.

Ernie Miller
william Miller4 years ago

I hope he does the right thing but he is a politician and will do what the money tells him to.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

I suspect it would be cheaper over the 50 year expected life of the pipeline to BOTH bribe our too big to fail oil firms to mass produce and mass market the algal bio-diesel US Navy funds Algae Systems R&D to get cost-competitive with petroleum, they hope in 2016 ASAP AND to buy all leftover fossil fuels as reserves at $150/ton of carbon over the same 200 years it would take to use it up with business as usual.

Del Rykert
Del Rykert4 years ago

Vivianne M. Huh.. What have you been smoking?