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5 Reasons the Keystone XL Pipeline Flunks President Obama's Climate Test

Energy

In December at Georgetown University, Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action and the Center for American Progress Action Fund brought together experts from around the U.S. and Canada to answer the question: Can Keystone Pass the President's Climate Test? Could the Keystone XL pass President Obama’s test of not “significantly” increasing carbon pollution? The unanimous answer from climate scientists, economists, researchers and carbon offset experts: No.

Here is what the experts had to say:

1. More Pipelines = More Tar Sands Development

Dr. Mark Jaccard: A professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Earlier this year, President Obama stated that he would only approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it did not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." That's President Obama's own test, and as speaker after speaker at the summit made clear, the Keystone XL pipeline flunks it—badly.

As the summit’s keynote speaker, I was honored to approach the question from the vantage point of an environmental economist, energy modeler and former member of Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

First, there is no doubt that more pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil are an essential precondition to enabling increased development of tar sands production. And, although high-paid sophists might attempt to argue that the tar sands oil would be developed anyway, their fierce, relentless campaign to pressure the U.S. into approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline definitively proves otherwise.

Second, major investments aimed at increasing tar sands production are not compatible with preventing the planet from high-risk levels of global warming. In other words, Keystone must not be approved if the goal is to avoid exceeding the 2ºC upper limit that scientists believe is the absolute maximum temperature increase compatible with avoiding more serious impacts of climate change.

Third, since Canada is accelerating the global tragedy of climate change for self-enrichment, it is incumbent on the U.S. to assume the leadership role on climate and rejecting Keystone XL is a key area where this leadership must occur. The U.S. government should explain to the Canadian government that it hopes to jointly achieve our common national emission reduction promises for 2020 and pressure other countries, such as China, to do the same. To put it bluntly, the U.S. must recognize that if the most powerful country in the world doesn't act, this global tragedy of the commons will continue.

2. Without Dramatic Pollution Reductions, Climate Change’s Going to Get Ugly

Dr. Mark Trexler: A climate risk broker and has specialized in climate change since 1988.

Twenty-five years ago I worked on the first carbon offsets, but the situation today is very different. It is not a question of can we offset a project like Keystone but should we and what kind of message does it send about climate change as a priority.

Unlike 25 years ago, when offsets got companies thinking about CO2 mitigation for the first time, assuming that regulation would eventually be forthcoming, offsets today can actually suggest just the opposite. If 25 years after the first offsets companies permitting a major infrastructure project only need to pay a modest amount of money on offsets, it could easily reinforce most companies' already implicit assumption that they will never face climate policy that seriously addresses climate change.

While it is tempting to argue that in the absence of material climate policy doing something must be better than doing nothing, that is simply too low a hurdle to feel good about. The reality is that carbon offsets in a voluntary system can’t get us anywhere close to climate stabilization, and could actually end up locking long-term CO2 emissions or even increasing total emissions (e.g., by grandfathering a piece of fossil fuel infrastructure against future regulations because it's already been offset). The fact is, you can offset a lot of things—Keystone XL, coal-fired power plants, etc.—but in the absence of a mandatory carbon cap you can still end up with an absolute increase in emissions over time.

If the decision is made to offset a new piece of infrastructure, it is critical to ensure that the offsets are “additional.” Offsets only work if they reflect emissions reductions that would not have occurred but for the incentives created by the carbon market. There are huge volumes of “reductions” that are already happening, from mass-transit to nuclear power plants, having nothing to do with those incentives. But these reductions are not “additional,” and they can't offset anything. 

There are certainly a number of ways we could look at offsetting an infrastructure project like the Keystone XL pipeline. But at the end of the day if we don’t stabilize CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which actually requires dramatic emissions reductions, climate change is going to get ugly.

3. Keystone XL = 4 Million New Cars a Year on Canada’s Roads

Clare Demerse: The director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian sustainable energy think tank.

Last month, I joined a panel of climate scientists to consider what the Keystone XL pipeline would mean for climate change.

President Obama has said the proposal, which would move oil sands from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, should only be approved if it won’t significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Our conclusion was unequivocal: Keystone XL fails the President’s climate test.

Here’s why. 

If it were built, the Keystone XL pipeline would make the economics of oil sands expansion more favorable.

That’s because the Keystone XL pipeline would open up significant new access to desirable markets, at a fraction of the cost of moving oil sands on rail from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

By improving the economics for companies, Keystone would spur new oil sands production.

Oil sands produce more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. So if you produce more of it, you’ll get more of the pollution causing climate change.

I work at a Canadian clean energy think tank, so we assessed the climate impact of Keystone XL on the Canadian side of the border. The greenhouse gas pollution generated “upstream” by producing enough oil sands to fill Keystone’s capacity would be equivalent to adding over 4 million new cars a year to Canada’s roads.

The oil sands are a real outlier in Canada’s emission picture. The sector is already our fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. Emissions forecasting from Canada’s federal government shows that the projected growth in oil sands emissions to 2020 is large enough to cancel out all the emission reductions other parts of our economy are projected to make.

The rapid growth in oil sands emissions is also the single biggest barrier standing in the way of Canada hitting the 2020 climate target it shares with the U.S.—a target President Obama is taking steps to meet.

Canada’s federal government has not produced any kind of plan to hit that 2020 goal. And despite years of negotiation with industry, and more than a few missed deadlines, there is still no federal limit of any kind on greenhouse gas pollution from the oil sands.

Even the most stringent proposals reportedly on the table in those negotiations are likely to leave Canada well short of hitting its climate target.

President Obama is right: Keystone XL matters for a lot of reasons, but it’s now first and foremost a climate question.

For oil sands companies thinking about whether to expand their operations or build new ones, a “yes” on Keystone would send the signal “full steam ahead”—tipping the balance towards new production and the associated greenhouse gas pollution.

On the other hand, a “no” on Keystone would tell oil sands companies, and Canada’s governments, that we have to start taking climate change more seriously to compete and prosper in a low-carbon future.

Until Canada’s governments have strong enough policies in place to make sure that the impacts of oil sands development stay below science-based limits, building new infrastructure that allows oil sands production to increase is the wrong choice.

4. Keystone Would Need 20-35 Million Credits Each Year to Offset

Erin Craig: CEO of TerraPass Inc., a company that develops greenhouse gas emission reduction projects.

Little attention has been paid to the Canadian government’s suggestion that it will enact climate mitigation policies in exchange for President Obama's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. This begs the question: Can the Keystone XL pipeline’s emissions be offset? 

My company generates and sells carbon offsets. I believe they are good and worthwhile, if done right. But setting up and operating an offset system is a major undertaking that is not quick or easy.

The first step is choosing the emissions source you want to mitigate so you can match its emissions with equivalent reductions somewhere else. In this case, the source is a massive oil pipeline that will galvanize tar sands development in Alberta, drastically increasing net emissions for decades.

Next, you need to develop, implement and track offset projects to reduce overall emissions throughout the life of the pipeline. These projects must be verifiable and subject to audit and, most importantly, must be new; they cannot be projects that would have been built whether or not you decided to seek offsets for the pipeline. Finally, after each project’s emission reduction effects are verified, the correct number of offset credits is established in a tracking system. From there, credits can be surrendered or traded.

The difficulty with offsetting the Keystone XL pipeline derives both from its enormous emissions profile, and from the short timeframe it would provide to identify and create new offset projects. For example, over the past five years California built a robust offset credit system, and many companies have worked hard to create projects that qualify. Yet, only three million emission credits have been issued to date. Placing that figure into context, somewhere between 20-35 million credits per year would be needed to offset emissions from the Keystone pipeline, and those emissions could begin as soon as 12-18 months after the pipeline’s approval.

Typically offset projects start delivering credits two to three years after inception. Rushing the process to create a large volume of offsets quickly generally forces unwise compromises that threaten the integrity of the entire system.

Canada could certainly consider using an existing offset system to hasten the availability of credits. The United Nations’ system created as part of the Kyoto Protocol is one example. This system has created a lot of credits, but it’s unclear that using them would have the desired effect. The U.S. did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and, thus, has no enforcement or auditing authority over Kyoto projects. Canada, having withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, is in the same position. In addition, the UN system is limited to offset projects in developing nations, so the mitigation funds would go overseas instead of stimulating the U.S. economy. Most importantly, we are talking about balancing the net increase in emissions should the Keystone pipeline be built. Credits from existing projects won’t balance a new emissions source, and new Kyoto project investment is at an all-time low.

Carbon offsets are effective tools for fighting climate change. But it’s not clear to me how to create legitimate carbon offsets for a project this large, as quickly as it would require. “Offset” is easy to say but hard to do well and impossible to do well under great time and political pressure. 

5. If We Can't Say "No" to Keystone XL, What Can We Say "No" To? 

Dr. John Abraham: A professor of Thermal Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team.

Can Keystone pass the President’s test of not “significantly” increasing carbon pollution? Emphatically “no” and here’s why:

First, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the Earth is warming. There's also no doubt that our use of fossil fuels, and the emission of carbon dioxide stemming from that use, is causing climate change. The consequences of this climate change include sea-level rise, droughts, heat waves and flooding. The economic and social consequences are enormous.

Second, the Canadian tar sands oil that the Keystone XL pipeline would transport is the dirtiest of the dirty fuels, the worst of the worst. This is both in terms of ecosystem destruction in the tar sands production process, as well as in tar sands' massive CO2 emissions per unit of energy on a "well-to-wheels" basis. To illustrate this point: the Keystone XL—and the 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil it would transport—would have a pollution footprint of 50-57 coal-fired power plants. Obviously, this would constitute a disastrous amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere which would lock us in to decades of high greenhouse gas emissions. That would make it harder to stop climate change and for very little benefit because the tar sands are going to be sold elsewhere.

Fortunately, all of this is avoidable. If, for instance, we just use energy more wisely through energy efficiency and energy innovation, this pipeline will not even be necessary. For instance, by increasing vehicle fuel economy by just four miles per gallon, the U.S. would save all the oil that would have gone through Keystone. The bottom line is simple. We can either: a) choose to use energy more wisely and have more money in our wallets or b) put in Keystone, pollute the planet, and spend more money. This is, frankly, what's known as a "no-brainer."

Finally, it's worth pointing out that if President Obama allows Keystone XL to go through, it would negate his otherwise excellent climate record. It would also become his (negative) legacy, by locking us into long-term pollution that would be disastrous for the climate. And again, it's all avoidable. But that's only if President Obama rejects this pipeline. In the end, the question is simple: if we can't say "no" to the Keystone pipeline, what can we say "no" to?

Visit EcoWatch’s KEYSTONE XL and TAR SANDS pages for more related news on this topic.

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