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Keystone XL’s Climate Impact Could Be Four Times Greater Than State Department Claimed

An aerial view of a mining site for Canadian tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are the type of fuel that would be transported in Keystone XL.

An aerial view of a mining site for Canadian tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are the type of fuel that would be transported in Keystone XL. CREDIT: Josh Burstein/NextGen Climate Action

If the controversial northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is approved and built, the resulting amount of carbon emitted into earth’s atmosphere could be up to four times greater than the U.S. State Department estimated, a new scientific paper shows.

Researchers Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Environmental Institute say the State Department’s assessment of the pipeline’s potential carbon emissions failed to consider whether consumer demand for Canadian tar sands oil — the type that would be transported in Keystone XL — would increase worldwide if the pipeline is built. If it is built, it could cause a rush of new Canadian tar sands crude oil to come on to the global market. If that happens, global prices of oil will decrease, and demand for it will increase. If demand increases, more oil will be burned, causing increased carbon emissions.

Depending on how much the pipeline increases oil production, its climate impact could amount to anywhere from zero to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, the study showed. That’s a margin that’s four times wider than what the State Department forecasted — an emissions range of 1 million and 27 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

“We were surprised when we looked back at State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement, it wasn’t clear how they considered this effect.” Lazarus told ThinkProgress on Monday. “We were surprised at how little this has been examined.”

Opponents of Keystone XL have often made the argument that the pipeline’s construction would increase production of Canadian tar sands crude oil, an unconventional type of oil that’s embedded in sand and mud. Separating the oil from the mud is complicated — scientists say the process produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil.

But the State Department and those who want to see the pipeline built say that’s not true. “At the end of the day, we are going to be consuming that oil,” former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has said. In other words, Keystone XL’s construction would not impact the climate because Alberta’s carbon-intensive tar sands would inevitably be developed, pipeline or not.

Erickson and Lazarus say the problem with the State Department’s assessment is that it didn’t even consider the possibility that production would increase. “There’s a lot of uncertainty that should be accounted for,” Lazarus said.

“If the pipeline doesn’t help oil sands production expand, if all the oil is gonna get out there otherwise, then there’s no increased [climate] impact. We don’t dispute that,” Erickson added. “But what we’re looking at is, to the extent that the pipeline does help oil sands expand more than it otherwise would, then there’s this climate effect and it looks to be big.”

There have been indications from both the oil industry and the federal government that Keystone XL would increase production of the Canadian tar sands. Indeed, even the top executive of the company contracted to build Keystone XL has admitted that the pipeline is essential for speedy tar sands development.

“Developing tar sands is an opportunity that’s going to be lost for decades to come if new pipelines do not immediately come online,” TransCanada CEO Ross Girling said in January. “If you miss an opportunity, you may lose it for decades and decades to come.”

The International Energy Agency has also stated that tar sands expansion “is contingent on the construction of major new pipelines,” and RBS Dominion Securities of Toronto warned that up to 450,000 barrels a day of tar sands production could be put on hold between 2015 and 2017 if the Keystone pipeline is not approved.

So why wouldn’t the State Department consider global carbon impacts in its assessment? The answer might be that there are still questions as to whether the U.S. government can legally consider worldwide impacts — whether Keystone’s potential impact on global consumption is within the State Department’s scope. It is a United States-based project, after all.

But Lazarus said that shouldn’t matter. “We need to consider, especially from a climate change stance, that emissions know no borders when it comes to greenhouse gases,” he said. “It seems imperative that wherever one is supposed to look at emissions implications of a policy, one must look at it from a global perspective.”

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