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Cumulative Climate Impacts of Tar Sands Pipelines

Last summer, President Obama delivered a major climate speech in which he laid out his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020. He also committed to deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline based on its climate impacts, stating unequivocally: "The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."

While the evidence shows that Keystone XL would result in significant greenhouse gas emissions and should be denied in its own right, it is only one of many proposed tar sands pipelines on the Obama administration’s desk. The State Department is currently preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for an expansion of Enbridge's Alberta Clipper pipeline, which would increase its capacity to over 800,000 barrels per day (bpd)—roughly the same size as Keystone XL. An expansion of Enbridge's Line 3 would transport up to 760,000 bpd of tar sands crude through the Great Lakes region; and a reversal of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline could bring up to 600,000 bpd through New England.

Because the tar sands deposits are landlocked in Alberta, the oil industry needs these pipelines to carry tar sands crude to U.S. refineries and overseas markets. Each one is a key part of the industry's plan to triple tar sands development to around six million bpd by 2030. Without these pipelines, much of the high-carbon tar sands would stay in the ground.

Last week, the Sierra Club and allies urged the State Department to evaluate the cumulative climate impacts of these pipelines as part of its Alberta Clipper EIS. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an analysis of the cumulative environmental impacts of a proposed project combined with other past, present and reasonably foreseeable projects. Federal courts recognize that "the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is precisely the kind of cumulative impacts analysis that NEPA requires."

In a recent decision, a court rejected federal agencies' attempts to downplay the climate impacts of permitting a coal mine based on the reasoning that other coal would be mined and burned regardless of their decision.

The State Department now has two major tar sands pipelines pending before it—Alberta Clipper and Keystone XL—and several more on the horizon. Yet so far, it has narrowly analyzed each pipeline in isolation without looking at their cumulative effect on tar sands expansion and the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the State Department’s EIS for Keystone XL claimed that the approval of any one pipeline project is unlikely to have significant climate impacts because other tar sands pipelines are sure to be built in the future, allowing unchecked tar sands expansion in any scenario. State relied on this same flawed logic to approve the original Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline and the first Keystone pipeline.

The State Department cannot keep claiming that tar sands pipelines are inevitable when it has the authority to approve or reject each pipeline. Looking at each project in isolation ignores the bigger picture—the State Department’s series of decisions on individual pipelines will cumulatively have massive climate implications.

The Sierra Club and its allies are not alone in calling for a broader look at expanded tar sands infrastructure. Last month, a coalition of leading scientists published an article in the journal Nature that called for a moratorium on tar sands pipelines and an end to the "tyranny of incremental decisions" that has already allowed tar sands production to double in the last decade. As the scientists explained, the "current public debate about oil-sands development focuses on individual pipeline decisions... When judged in isolation, the costs, benefits and consequences of a particular oil-sands proposal may be deemed acceptable…[b]ut impacts mount with multiple projects...." A narrow view of each individual project "creates the misguided idea that oil-sands expansion is inevitable." Instead, the scientists thus urged leaders to pause, and craft a broader energy strategy under which “decisions on infrastructure projects…are made in the context of an overarching commitment to limit carbon emissions."

In preparing its EIS for the Alberta Clipper expansion, the State Department has an obligation to analyze the project's cumulative climate impacts in the context of Keystone XL and other past and future tar sands pipelines. As the scientists caution: "Anything less demonstrates flawed policies and failed leadership. With such high stakes, our nations and the world cannot afford a series of ad hoc, fragmented decisions."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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