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How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Tests

communicated by Jim Williams

Sierra Club and Oil Change International have created a report on the climate effects of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to send to President Barack Obama with the intention of giving the President all the information he needs to reject the pipeline. The report finds that the bitumen produced from the tar sands of northern Alberta would push climate change into overdrive. The report concludes that the Keystone XL pipeline is the “linchpin” of further tar sands expansion and will lead to at least a 36 percent increase over current tar sands production. Below is the Introduction to the report. The full report can be found at the following link given at the end of the article.

A Report by the Sierra Club and Oil Change International


“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And the national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” --President Obama, June 25, 2013

The Obama administration’s decision on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a choice about our climate future. Tar sands are one of the most carbon polluting sources of oil on the planet, and limiting tar sands expansion is critical to fighting dangerous levels of climate change. Climate scientists, energy experts, and even Wall Street and industry analysts agree that the oil industry’s plans to expand tar sands development are not possible without this pipeline.

How much oil we use and how carbon-polluting that oil is will have a huge impact on our ability to mitigate devastating climate change. As our nation begins to suffer the impacts of climate change -- superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and floods -- Americans across all political and geographic divides are demanding climate action and the clean energy that will help our economy transition to a sustainable future.

In his historic climate speech on June 25, 2013, President Obama affirmed that the Keystone XL decision could only be made responsibly in the context of the project’s carbon pollution. The answer to the climate test is unequivocal: Keystone XL is a climate disaster. As this report will illustrate, rejecting Keystone XL is one of the most important decisions President Obama can make to protect future generations from devastating climate change.

This report begins with a review of the global carbon context in order to define the term “significantly.” How do Keystone XL’s emissions fit into the mandate to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent globally over the next 40 years in order to stabilize the climate at safe levels? Here we find that the science is quite clear: a pipeline that would contribute 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 e) each year for 50 years risks blowing our ability to mitigate dangerous levels of climate change. In and of itself, Keystone XL is found to be a significant polluter.

Next the report looks at the upstream implications of Keystone XL. Why is the approval of this pipeline worth billions to the tar sands industry, and why are environmentalists getting arrested to stop it? The report brings together analyses and reports from the foremost investors and companies working in the tar sands to answer this question. Together these industry experts paint a picture of a landlocked asset that requires massive pipeline expansion to grow. Keystone XL is hailed as a linchpin of further tar sands development. Experts predict that the approval of the pipeline could lead to a 36 percent increase in tar sands exploitation. Suddenly, the uproar over the Keystone XL decision makes sense.

Next the report next looks at the climate implications of expanding tar sands production. Tar sands are one of the most carbon-polluting sources of oil on the planet; the U.S. government estimates that oil from tar sands may be 22 percent more carbon-intensive than average oil used in the U.S. The report brings together information not only on the pollution from producing and burning gasoline and diesel from tar sands, but also looks at its byproducts such as petroleum coke and the implications of destroying boreal forest to mine tar sands. This evidence illustrates that further developing Alberta’s tar sands must be avoided at all costs to prevent catastrophic greenhouse gas emissions.

In the months since President Obama committed to judging Keystone XL on its carbon pollution, many observers have wondered if there are steps that Canada could take to mitigate the harm done by Keystone XL. The report illustrates the impact of expanding the tar sands through Keystone XL is too massive to be mitigated.

The report then demonstrates that the Keystone XL would be a pipeline through, not to, the United States. It would deliver tar sands to America’s leading export refineries, providing a major outlet for Canadian tar sands to reach global market. In contrast to recent claims made by the pipeline’s proponents, bringing additional supplies of heavy oil into the Gulf Coast will not replace oil from sources like Venezuela. Instead, the pipeline would create a surplus of heavy oil, some of which would be exported in its crude state. If Canadian heavy is forced out to the world market, this will encourage more tar sands development, and release more climate-disrupting pollution.

Finally, this report reviews the conflict-of-interest scandal that has obscured the carbon pollution implications of the pipeline in the Department of State’s recent assessments of its environmental impacts. By laying out troubling evidence about the State Department’s hiring of a contractor with strong connections to the oil industry to assess the pipeline, we stress the need for an objective and sound analysis of the project’s true environmental impacts.

This report cites a large body of scientific evidence and industry expertise demonstrating that Keystone XL is key to unlocking massive expansion of one of the world’s most carbon-intensive sources of oil, an environmental Armageddon. The answer to President Obama’s Keystone XL climate question is straightforward. Yes, Keystone XL will lead to significant, dangerous exacerbation of climate-disrupting pollution. President Obama said that, “failure to address climate change” would be a betrayal of our children. He must reject Keystone XL.

The full report and the many references it contains can be found at the following link:

Last updated:  04/01/2013.   Content © 2013-2013 by the Sierra Club.