As the State Department weighs approving an oil pipeline stretching from Canada to Texas, experts are divided on whether the Keystone XL project would worsen global warming.
The split opinion is coming to a head, as the House considers a bill speeding up the approval process for the $7 billion pipeline and the State Department readies release of a final environmental assessment in August. In the middle are protesters, analysts, researchers and industry officials floating wildly different numbers about the greenhouse gas impact of the the TransCanada proposal.
Take NASA scientist James Hansen, who wrote a public letter in June suggesting that the fate of the planet rests with the 1,700-mile Keystone XL project.
The climatologist said the proposal is a steppingstone to exploiting the entire oil sands region in Canada, where a vast amount of carbon dioxide sits underground in sand formations. Hansen asserted that its extraction would mean "game over" for the Earth when combined with emissions from coal. Canada holds the second-largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.
"The scientific community needs to get involved in this fray now," wrote Hansen about Keystone XL. "If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster."
But some independent analysts and supporters of the pipeline say there are flaws in those arguments.
They note that Keystone XL would ferry about 700,000 new barrels of oil a day from Canada, a fraction of the amount needed to spew into the air 400 gigatons of carbon, the catastrophic figure cited by Hansen as waiting to emerge from the oil sands. University of Alberta business professor Andrew Leach, who blogged about Hansen's assessment and does not have a stance on the pipeline, said it could take until the year 3316 to extract the amount of oil cited by the scientist.
Secondly, proponents of Keystone XL say that oil production in the Canadian region will continue no matter what, and that developers will find a way to transport the oil overseas if the United States declines to approve the pipeline.
In that sense, some say, Keystone XL actually could reduce emissions in comparison to other options. The carbon emissions associated with transporting oil to the Gulf Coast via pipeline are significantly lower than putting it on a diesel-powered tanker headed to China, said Richard Moskowitz of the American Trucking Associations.
"Whether Keystone XL is built or not, the oil will find a way to market," added Alex Pourbaix, a president at TransCanada.
Protesters coming to Washington
With the State Department announcing Friday that it will hold additional public hearings on the project this fall and will conduct a "thorough review" before the release of its August environmental impact statement, the debate is getting louder. As early as this week, the House could vote on a bill requiring State to issue a final permit by Nov. 1. Then, on Aug. 20, Keystone XL protesters will converge in front of the White House for a two-week stretch.
"The climate piece more than anything will be a focus," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the activist group 350.org, who joined Hansen and celebrities in spearheading the protests. "That nationalizes the issue." He said more than 1,200 individuals had signed up to attend the August event.
But are the protesters fighting a losing battle? Does Keystone XL really matter in terms of climate change?
The answer depends on the viability of alternative pipelines proposed to carry oil-sands oil to Canada's western coast and to the United States, with some saying the backup options to Keystone XL have little chance, while others say their development is just a matter of time.
Because the oil in Alberta is more carbon-intensive to produce than traditional oil, the ultimate emissions of the region hinge on whether the oil stays in the ground. Once the oil gets into vehicles, the emissions are roughly the same regardless of the fuel source.
The answer also partially depends on which competing analyses from three U.S. government agencies are believed.
Whose crude oil would be used without it?
In an initial assessment, U.S. EPA estimated that Keystone XL would result in annual emissions 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greater than those of U.S. average crude. That is equal to the emissions of seven additional U.S. coal-fired power plants per year.
But in a supplemental environmental impact statement this year, the State Department reported a range that was lower by as much as half, 12 million to 23 million metric tons of increased C02-equivalent emissions.
The discrepancy derives partially from different assumptions about which fuel would replace Canadian oil without Keystone XL. Middle Eastern crude produces less greenhouse gases in the production process than that from U.S. oil suppliers like Venezuela. There is no way entirely to predict which countries would feed U.S. supply without the Canadian pipeline in the future because of uncertainty about world events, analysts say.
"Without a broad greenhouse gas policy in place, there is no reason to expect that oil sands products would not be replaced with even higher-emission sources of oil," said Leach of the University of Alberta.
U.S. refineries already have invested in upgrades for heavy oil, which could favor supply from countries like Venezuela without Canada in the equation, said Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The International Energy Agency predicts that unconventional oil will meet a growing part of global demand, jumping from 3 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2035.
The oil industry is also quick to point out that Canada produces 2 percent of global emissions, with a fraction of that coming from the oil sands.
But perhaps more importantly, State concluded that the pipeline's related emissions essentially are irrelevant, because of the alternatives to Keystone XL.
Alternative pipelines under study
"Under most scenarios the proposed project would not substantially influence the rate or magnitude of oil extraction activities in Canada," State wrote in its supplemental draft environmental impact statement. "Thus from a global perspective, the project is not likely to result in incremental greenhouse gas emissions."
The department relied on a report from EnSys Energy, prepared for the Energy Department, that found that market demand exists to spur pipeline capacity similar to that of Keystone XL in the case of a State Department denial of a cross-border permit.
There are three proposed pipelines that could extend existing capacity from Cushing, Okla. -- the current destination of much of the oil sands crude -- to the Gulf Coast, Martin Tallett, president of EnSys Energy told ClimateWire. In his view, they would essentially do the same thing as Keystone XL, since one of the biggest goals of the project is to move oil stuck in oversupplied Midwestern markets to the Gulf Coast, where it can fetch a higher price.
One of the alternatives, announced in April, is from Enterprise Products Partners and Energy Transfer Partners to build a 400,000-barrel-a-day pipeline from Cushing to Houston. The Enbridge Monarch Pipeline proposed last year would ferry 370,000 daily barrels out of Cushing, as well. The third project, called Magellan, also could add capacity.
"If two of these three are built, they would make up for Keystone," said Tallett.
Then there are plans to extend or build pipelines carrying oil sands crude to Canada's West Coast, where oil could be shipped to thirsty Chinese markets. Like the Cushing-Texas options, they would get around the need for approval from the U.S. State Department, since they would not cross U.S. borders.
An alternative route to China
For example, Enbridge Northern Gateway, if built, initially could carry 525,000 barrels a day of oil from Alberta to an envisioned port in Kitimat, British Columbia. Announcements about shipping agreements will be forthcoming in a year, after Canadian national hearings on the project start in January, said Paul Stanway, a spokesman for Northern Gateway.
Rail traffic into the United States could make up some of the slack, as well, perhaps as much as 10 percent of the envisioned capacity of the pipeline, said Glen Perry, CEO of Altex Energy.
One reason these projects are not further along in the regulatory process is that many developers have been waiting on the sidelines while the Keystone debate rages on, and will come forward once everything is settled, he said.
"Nobody is going to build a pipeline until XL lives or dies," he said.
Yet there are serious problems with the "production will happen anyway" arguments, said Danielle Droitsch, director of U.S. policy at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank. The State Department is extremely "disingenuous" in making that point, she said.
First of all, many Canadian politicians and business leaders are signaling that the industry's fate depends on Keystone XL, she said.
"If we don't get moving on these projects, our greatest risk in Alberta is that by 2020 we will be landlocked in bitumen," said Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert at an industry-sponsored conference in Edmonton in June. Bitumen is the form of petroleum stuck in deep sand formations in Alberta.
The comments indicate how deeply leaders are aware of the opposition to the Keystone alternatives, environmentalists say. Pipelines proposed to Canada's West Coast have run into challenges from First Nations leaders, in particular. More than 70 First Nations with aboriginal rights have spoken out against the project with concerns about oil spills and disruption of wildlife, with some pledging civil disobedience.
Compared to Native Americans in the United States, First Nations in Canada can have significant influence over land-use decisions and blocking projects, Droitsch said.
Despite predictions about forthcoming shipping agreements, the lack of commercial support for Enbridge Gateway is "unprecedented" for a project heading into regulatory hearings and indicates a serious lack of support, according to Droitsch. There also has been push-back against environmentalists worried about large oil tankers near a British Columbia port.
Oil transported to Canada's West Coast -- such as that with Enbridge Gateway -- is really the only backup option for the oil sands, said Ralph Glass, an economist at AJM Petroleum Consultants. Rail into the United States is not a viable option, he said, partially because the risk of spills would be higher with trains. The cost per mile is much higher with rail, as well.
Raising a 'moral question' in the U.S.
With those options in jeopardy, there really is a question whether the oil lost without Keystone XL would ever make it out of the ground, he said.
The argument that Venezuela would ramp up production to make up for Keystone XL is flawed, Droitsch said, since it's impossible to predict the behavior of global oil markets.
As for the concept of simply extending pipelines out of Cushing, Okla., there is no guarantee that those projects would carry oil-sands oil, Droitsch said. Since the lines would not run directly from Canada like Keystone XL, they could pick up some of the excess capacity of Middle Eastern crude, which is less carbon-intensive to produce, Droitsch said.
For McKibben, it is a "moral" question.
The United States is at a crossroads, where Americans must choose between burning more fossil fuels in their cars or moving to alternatives, he said. Construction of Keystone XL only will play into more demand for oil, rather than spurring investment in cleaner power. The vehicles burning oil from Keystone XL could produce the same amount of C02 as all the trucks and cars in Canada, according to Leach's analysis.
It's not that this project alone would lead to catastrophic emissions, but it would start a process that could lead to more pipelines down the road and even more extraction, according to McKibben.
Timing is also a key part of why the project is so important in terms of climate change, he said. Keystone XL could be operational by 2013, while other proposals could take five to 10 years to move through regulation, according to some estimates. Those future dates could come at at a time when public opinion about climate change is different, he said.
"There is a limited period of time to make this a fait accompli. Sooner or later, the world's going to come to its senses about carbon, at which point no one is going to invest hundreds of billions to get the stuff out of the tar sands," McKibben said.