Top Scientists Write Letter to Congress, Oppose Keystone

With possible House and Senate votes on the Keystone XL pipeline looming, climate activists — including several prominent climate scientists — are once again rallying to oppose the oil pipeline. As The Hill newspaper reported this morning, Senate Republicans may attach an amendment to an unrelated highway spending bill that could come up for a vote as early as Tuesday. The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and David Vitter (R-La.) would allow Congress to require a permit for the pipeline project, rather than leaving it up to the Executive Branch to determine the pipeline's fate. House Republicans are also planning to vote on a bill that would require that the pipeline be approved. 

In January, President Obama, under pressure from environmental groups and a congressionally-mandated deadline, rejected TransCanada's permit application to build the pipeline, which would transport up to 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. The existing Keystone pipeline already can transport 590,000 barrels of oil into Illinois and Oklahoma, but the Keystone XL project would extend the pipeline all the way to the Gulf of Mexico

The existing Keystone pipeline (solid line) and proposed Keystone XL pipeline route (dotted line). Credit: TransCanada. 

The administration said the tight timeline to determine the pipeline's fate prevented a review of alternate pipeline routes that would avoid the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer region in Nebraska. 

In a letter to House and Senate leadership Monday, 15 leading climate scientists expressed their opposition to the pipeline project on the grounds that it would cause further harm to the climate system. The scientists wrote:

“The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, one that it does not make sense to exploit. It takes a lot of energy and water to extract and refine this resource into useable fuel, and the mining is environmentally destructive. Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control. It makes no sense to build a pipeline that would dramatically increase exploitation of this resource.

“When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy — and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

“We can say categorically that this pipeline is not in the nation’s, or the planet’s best interest.”

Scientists who signed the letter include NASA's James Hansen, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, and Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (full disclosure: Oppenheimer and Somerville are Climate Central Board members).

During the run up to President Obama's decision, many of the same climate scientists sent a letter to the White House urging the administration to turn the pipeline down, on the grounds that it would transport oil that, when burned, would release harmful climate-warming gases. Several climate scientists, including Hansen and Jason Box of Ohio State University, even demonstrated in front of the White House in 2011. Hansen said if the pipeline is completed, it's “game over” for any hopes of stabilizing the climate.

Other climate and energy experts disagree with that assessment, including Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has laid out his views in a series of blog posts and op-eds.  

The scientists' letter is part of a 24-hour campaign by more than 30 organizations to generate more than 500,000 messages to the Senate in opposition to the pipeline ( is maintaining a running tally of signatures).