New Keystone study flawed, say critics

Environmentalists say there's bias behind new research stating oil sands pipeline would have 'no material impact'

The Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil from Canada's Alberta province (pictured) to refineries in Texas.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

A new study has mirrored an earlier report by the U.S. State Department that said the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would have "no material impact" on the level of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. -- a crucial conclusion because President Barack Obama has said that the pipeline's influence on overall emissions figures would be "absolutely critical" to whether he approves the controversial project.

The pipeline, slated to be developed by TransCanada Corp., would transport oil sands crude from Canada's Alberta province and oil from the northern United States to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. With access to the Gulf Coast refineries, Canadian tar sands oil could make its way to the international market.

The latest study about the proposed project was completed by consulting and research firm IHS CERA Inc -- which bills itself as a global provider of energy information and analytics based in Englewood, Colo. The company found that without the pipeline, the use of alternate transportation routes, such as rail, would leave the amount of production of oil sands -- petroleum deposits found in large quantities in Canada -- basically unchanged.

The conclusions were similar to those found in March by the State Department in its draft environmental impact review of the proposed 800,000-barrel-per-day pipeline that would cross into Canada. The State Department conducted its own review because the pipeline would cross international borders.

But the findings have been met with skepticism from environmental advocates who say the companies conducting the reviews are not impartial on the controversial matter. On Aug. 5, the inspector general of the State Department opened an inquiry into whether the contractor it hired to research and write the environmental review of the pipeline had a conflict of interest.

The department's investigation highlights the debate that has exploded over oil sands production. Despite some supportive studies and the estimated economic potential of the pipeline, many environmentalists continue to cite what would amount to high environmental and social costs if the project were to be approved.

In July, for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said that over 50 years the Keystone pipeline could potentially add up to 1.2 billion more metric tons of carbon pollution over what would happen if it carried conventional crude -- roughly equivalent to the carbon emitted annually by the 230 million cars currently operating in in the U.S.

Such a prospect would run directly counter to the Obama administration's plans to reduce carbon emissions. In June, the president said that his plan to combat climate change "begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy -- using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy."

Not cheap, not clean

Yet experience with earlier tar sands pipelines mark this energy source as anythng but clean. A 2010 pipeline failure in western Michigan spilled more than 840,000 gallons of "dilbit" (diluted bitumin--the treated heavy crude oil like that which would be pumped through Keystone XL) into the Kalamzoo River--the biggest pipeline accident in U.S. history. Just last March, a pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Ark. released thousands of gallons of oil and forced the evacuation of 22 homes.

An ongoing Canadian leak of tar sands oil continues to plague a northern Alberta forest. The spill began in June, and experts are still stumped as to how to stop it.

Dilbit accidents tend to be harder to clean than other spills because the heavy crude is stickier and can sink in water.

Environmentalists and energy analysts also say that building the pipeline would only perpetuate dependence on fossil fuels instead of moving North America toward renewable energy.

"Industry opinion is that the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to tar sands expansion," Anthony Swift, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Al Jazeera.

The NRDC report also added that without the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands production in Canada is limited, but if the pipeline connects the oil with refineries, production and emissions would increase. Without the pipeline, the only viable alternative would be rail, and according to the NRDC transporting heavy crude by rail is untenable.

NDRC's report differs from the ones by IHS Cera and the State Department because it looks at longer-term outcomes.

Swift pointed to IHS Cera as another company that has a potential conflict of interest with respect to the proposed pipeline.

"IHS Cera is an industry think-tank, funded by companies that are producing in Alberta," Swift said.

"I wouldn't call them a lobby, but I wouldn't say they have no interest in the outcome either. We know tar sands is carbon intensive."

A report by Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer advocacy group, said that Keystone XL would raise gasoline prices in the United States, possibly by as much as 20 to 40 cents per gallon in the Midwest.

The report adds that the final destination of any oil produced from Canadian tar sands and refined in the U.S. would not be American gas stations. It would likely be sold on the international market -- which would in turn drive up the price.  

Renee Lewis contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and wire services

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