Environmentalists: Feds overlooking climate costs of Keystone XL

As House Republicans advance legislation to expedite the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists on Tuesday released a new report insisting the State Department is ignoring the full climate change damage that could result if the Obama administration approves the project.

The report by Oil Change International says the pipeline would unleash 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases annually — equivalent to the tailpipe emissions from more than 37.7 million cars. The report also takes aim at the State Department’s conclusion that oil companies would continue harvesting bitumen from Canada’s oil sands even if Keystone XL is blocked, because they could turn to other pipelines and trains instead.

“The tar sands production growth is not inevitable,” said Steve Kretzmann, with Oil Change International, the primary author of the report. “Keystone XL is a crucial linchpin in the tar sands’ growth.”

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Elizabeth Shope, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that the costs of transporting bitumen or synthetic crude by train are about three times higher than pipelines. That price differential means that “most of the tar sands that would flow through Keystone XL would stay in the ground if the pipeline is blocked,” Shope said.

Keystone XL would transport diluted bitumen and synthetic crude oil from Canada — along with some domestic crude harvested in North Dakota and Montana — to Gulf Coast refineries. The State Department is vetting the 875-mile northern leg of the project under a 2004 executive order that tasks it with determining whether border-crossing petroleum pipelines are in the “national interest.” Meanwhile, TransCanada is already building the southern portion of the pipeline, which is not subject to State Department review.

Environmentalists say Keystone XL would exacerbate climate change by encouraging companies to harvest more bitumen from Canada’s oil sands using mining or other energy-intensive steam-based methods. The result, they say, is a type of heavy crude that has a bigger carbon footprint — from production to combustion — than alternatives.

But last month, State released a fresh environmental assessment of the project that concluded Keystone XL was unlikely to dramatically boost demand for Canada’s oil sands or the amount of heavy crude oil processed in Gulf Coast refineries.

If Keystone XL were denied but other pipelines went forward, Canadian oil sands production might decrease by 0.4 to 0.6 percent by 2030, under State’s projections, and even if all pipelines were blocked, production would drop no more than 4 percent.

The State Department also forecasted there could be an additional 0.88 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released annually if the project were built — far from the 40 million prediction environmentalists have offered previously and the 181 million figure Oil Change International advanced on Tuesday.

Kretzmann said the group’s calculation was “conservative,” because it didn’t factor in changes in Canadian land use, including potential disruption to boreal forests in Alberta, from future oil sands development.

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And Oil Change International faults the State Department for “accepting the oil industry’s self-serving outlook of the inevitability of future oil production,” based in part on an earlier assertion by ExxonMobil that energy companies “will not leave 55 percent of the world’s proven reserves in the ground.”

Testifying before a House subcommittee last week, TransCanada pipelines executive Alex Pourbaix said that Keystone XL foes have wildly inflated the greenhouse gas emissions tied to the project.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are not waiting for State Department to finish its assessment.

On Capitol Hill, two House subcommittees today will be focusing on legislation authored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., that would expedite approval of the Keystone XL pipeline by deeming previous environmental reviews of the project sufficient and effectively authorizing other necessary permits. The legislation also would expedite judicial review of the pipeline, in anticipation of legal challenges.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power is slated to vote on the bill later today, queuing up similar action by the full committee on Wednesday. At the same time, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the bill, with witnesses from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the National Association of Manufacturers and Oil Change International.

Similar measures have passed the House before, advanced by Republicans who say the legislation is necessary to bring years of government reviews to a close. TransCanada first proposed building Keystone XL in 2005.

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Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline: