Environmentalists: Keystone XL fails Obama’s test

Environmentalists on Thursday asserted that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline fails President Barack Obama’s test for approval, because it would exacerbate global warming.

The project is the “linchpin” to unlocking the development of Alberta, Canada’s oil sands using particularly energy intensive techniques, according to a report issues by the Sierra Club, Environment America and other groups.

“The Keystone XL presidential permit decision is so important precisely because it has critical implications for the rate at which tar sands are extracted,” the report said.

The report builds its case partly on previous assessments of industry representatives and financial analysts who cast TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline as essential for sustaining oil sands development. Other proposed pipelines that would take diluted bitumen from Alberta to Canada’s coasts for offshore transport face significant resistance in the country.

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The report takes direct aim at a draft environmental study the State Department released in March that concludes the pipeline would add only about 0.83 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year.

Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, stressed that the report contradicts the State Department’s conclusions that “there would be no significant impact on carbon emissions from Keystone XL.”

“This is really an effort to distract the American people from their number one priority and that is jobs,” Wohlschlegel said. “The pipeline stands to create hundreds of thousands of new American jobs, and it is time for the president to lead on the one thing Americans care about the most.”

And Katie Brown, with the industry group Oil Sands Fact Check, noted that “the American public is going to give more credibility to the Department of State, IHS CERA, and even prominent climate scientists, who have all said that Keystone XL will not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.”

“This ‘new’ report is just full of their old, worn-out talking points that have been thoroughly debunked,” Brown added.

The State Department currently is reviewing about 1.2 million public comments filed in response to that study and could make a final decision on whether the proposed border-crossing pipeline is in the “national interest” by early next year.

In a June 25 speech, Obama vowed that his administration will only approve the multibillion-dollar pipeline “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama also stressed that “the net effects of the pipeline’s impacts on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

The project is “a test of the president’s commitment” to combating climate change and “a choice about our climate future,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“We have begun to reduce carbon pollution in this country,” Brune said. “The tar sands pipeline — if it’s constructed — would be a disaster for the climate.”

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Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, said it is ludicrous to think “a giant pipeline to the dirtiest oil on earth wouldn’t significantly increase carbon emissions.”

The bitumen in Canada’s oil sands generally is harvested using strip mining techniques and other steam-based methods that have a smaller physical footprint but require more energy than other conventional oil production. The result, critics say, is a product that generates more carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases over its entire lifetime (from production to combustion) than alternatives.

But the oil industry counters that the product is already moving to Gulf Coast refineries — set up to process heavy crudes — via trains and other pipelines. There, it is displacing similar crudes from Venezuela and Mexico.

Although TransCanada Corp. needs a presidential permit to build the northern leg of Keystone XL, a 485-mile-long southern leg of the pipeline is almost completed. Texans who live along the pipeline’s route and in the shadow of refineries that would process the crude on Thursday called for a congressional hearing on the effects Keystone XL would have on the Lone Star state.

In particular, they want Rep. Lamar Smith, the San Antonio Republican who heads the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, to hold a hearing on the possible climate change effects of the pipeline, both nationwide and in Texas.

Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, said the study released Thursday challenges Smith’s assertions that there is no real increase in greenhouse gases associated with the pipeline.

“We are challenging Chairman Smith to come home to Texas and hold hearings in Texas about the impact in Texas that climate change is already having,” Smith said.

Smith’s science panel held a hearing on the environmental effects of Keystone XL in May, with one witness from an environmental group that has opposed the project.

Following the hearing, Smith sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry noting that one witness concluded in his testimony that even under the most extreme emissions scenario forecast by the Environmental Protection Agency, the total temperature change tied to additional carbon emissions from Keystone XL would be 0.00001 degrees celsius per year.

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The environmentalists’ report takes a fresh look at some of the byproducts of oil sands production, including petroleum coke, which they call a “major source of additional carbon pollution.”

Commonly used as a fuel in coal-fired power plants and other industry processes, the report said pet coke “is responsible for some 10 percent more carbon dioxide than low-quality coal on an energy equivalent basis.”

According to the report:

“Given commonly held estimates, the Keystone XL pipeline would transport enough tar sands to produce 15,000 tons of pet coke each day.80 over any given week of operation the pipeline would be responsible for enough pet coke to fill the Washington Monument, and over the course of its lifetime would fill over 80 Empire State Buildings’ worth of pet coke. This amount of petcoke would account for 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year, the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to adding some 3.5 million cars to the road each year or nearly 5 average-sized coal plants.”

Keystone XL supporters say the project has already undergone significant reviews — stretching over five years — and further delays are unnecessary. The State Department’s inspector general is investigating the department’s handling of an environmental review, and that probe could push a decision into next year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said continued delays “will only drive Canadian production to be exported to China and Korea.”

And Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said a final decision is long overdue. “This tactic of delay and deferral must stop,” Hoeven said. “It is depriving America of jobs, hurting the American economy and hurting the American people.”

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