Stopping Keystone won’t stop climate change

Why should Democrats hand Republicans a cause celebre?

February 4, 2014 7:00AM ET
President Barack Obama at a Keystone XL pipeline site in Cushing, Okla., in 2012.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

More than five years after TransCanada’s initial application to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, it is hard to read the State Department’s 44-page summary (PDF) of its report on the project without concluding that it is time for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to stop stalling and just green-light the project. And that is even before you consider the politics of an issue that Republicans have turned into a very fruitful talking point.

Strictly from an environmental standpoint, the State Department summary suggests the 875-mile pipeline — which would extend from Morgan, Mont., to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect to the already built southern leg of the pipeline — is probably the cleanest and least risky way to transport crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. (This assumes the oil will be extracted and transported even if the pipeline is not built, which the authors make clear is what they think is going to happen.)

“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” reads the summary.

So why not take Keystone off the table?

The report depicts a project that largely clears the hurdles Obama laid out in June 2013. He said then that “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.” It is true that if the pipeline is built, the U.S. contribution to emissions (through the life cycle of the crude) would increase, making it harder for Obama to meet his targets for cutting emissions. But the study suggests that the net effects globally would be minimal at most, because crude extraction — and emissions — would continue.

Obama also said that the project must be “in our nation’s interest,” a criterion bolstered by findings that rail transport would create more risks and pollution than the pipeline and that Keystone would produce a small economic boost. More than 42,000 jobs would be generated during a two-year construction period — including 3,900 construction jobs in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas — and 50 permanent jobs once the pipeline is operational. The construction phase would add $3.4 billion to the GDP, a 0.02 percent rise; the operational phase would increase property-tax revenues in 27 counties.

Environmental advocates will be understandably upset if the administration approves the pipeline. But Obama is addressing their concerns in other ways that have far more impact than blocking Keystone would.

This is a close call for Obama and Kerry, both champions of the environment with longstanding concerns about climate change. One way to look at it is, is this the right fight? Republicans have capitalized on Keystone quite effectively and will keep it up if given the opportunity. “I will build that pipeline if I have to myself,” Republican nominee Mitt Romney said during his 2012 presidential campaign, a message that resonated with voters. The stakes are not presidential this year, and the pipeline would be built in four states that seldom vote Democratic. Yet there is broad symbolism to the issue as well as a competitive Senate race in Montana that could determine which party controls the Senate.

Environmental advocates will be understandably upset if the administration approves the pipeline. But Obama is addressing their concerns in ways that have far more impact than blocking Keystone would, such as introducing fuel-efficiency standards that could cut greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and light trucks in half by 2025.

Beyond that, he has bigger battles to fight. The administration’s new regulations to curb emissions at new coal plants have sent coal-state politicians to the barricades, with even more contention on tap later this year when the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue another batch of regulations for existing plants. On top of that, Obama’s new counselor, John Podesta, is looking for more ways the administration can slow climate change on its own — a prospect that is already roiling Congress.

The State Department analysis raises real doubts about whether Obama and Kerry need to create another political combat zone. First off, the pipeline would have a negligible impact on climate conditions over its lifetime. Whether it is built or not, the report says, we can expect warmer winter and summer temperatures, a shorter cool season, longer summers and all the other effects of climate change.

Keystone needs approval from the administration because it crosses an international border. If it is denied, the oil could be transported in part by rail. Direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions would be 28 percent to 42 percent higher under three alternative transport methods involving rail, the study found. As for spills, more of them happen on trains, but more barrels are released per year from pipelines because pipeline spills, when they occur, are bigger. “There is also a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines,” the report says. Adding 830,000 barrels per day — the capacity of the pipeline — would result in 49 additional injuries and six fatalities a year by rail, compared with one additional injury and no deaths by pipeline.

The summary notes that those statistics are based on data through 2009 and therefore do not include last year’s Lac-Megantic derailment and explosion in Quebec or Tesoro pipeline spill in North Dakota. A comparison of the two incidents seems to underscore the relative risk findings of the State Department study. The first tragedy involved more than 70 cars carrying 50,000 barrels of crude; it killed 47 people and destroyed about half of Lac-Megantic’s downtown. In the Tesoro spill, 20,600 barrels escaped through a quarter-inch hole in the pipeline. The crude spread over about seven acres of a wheat field, was contained by clay and did not contaminate any water, according to state officials.

Tesoro and North Dakota got lucky. Large spills do have the potential to pollute groundwater and aquifers. On the other hand, only 4 percent of spills from 2002 to 2012 were large, the report says, and 79 percent were small. The route of the pipeline has already been altered in a way that reduces exposure to the Ogallala Aquifer, a major water source in the Great Plains, and the State Department says Keystone has agreed to prevention and cleanup measures that exceed what is required.

The public has 30 days to comment on the State Department report, and seven federal departments and the EPA have 90 days. So whatever happens won’t happen soon. There wouldn’t be a job surge in selected states by the time people vote in November. Still, there is plenty of time for a final decision on Keystone before the elections and a chance for Obama to conclude that on its merits, there is no reason to hand this weapon to the GOP.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter