NewsFebruary 3, 2015

EPA: Keystone XL to Emit 1 Billion Extra Tons of GHGs

By Bobby Magill

Follow @bobbymagill

The energy it will take to process Canadian tar sands oil and pipe it through the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is so great that it will lead to about 1.3 billion more tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the pipeline’s 50-year lifespan than if the pipeline were carrying conventional crude.

That’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion in its Feb. 2 comments to the U.S. State Department, which gave federal agencies until Monday to comment about whether  Keystone XL is in the natural interest. If built, the pipeline would send about 800,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands oil per day to refineries in Texas.

Canadian tar sands being mined in Alberta. The Keystone XL Pipeline, if approved, would carry thick crude oil made from the tar sands to refineries in Texas. Credit: Shell/flicker


Tar sands crude oil is thick, mucky stuff, and it takes more energy to transport and refine it than conventional crude oil, leading to the burning of more greenhouse gas emissions.

The additional emissions, measured in carbon dioxide equivalents, that would be released by the Keystone XL Pipeline are roughly equivalent to what would be released by 5.7 million passenger vehicles or 7.8 coal-fired power plants annually, according to the EPA.

Keystone XL opponents, including top climate scientists, are concerned that fully developing the tar sands would open up a vast reservoir of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, making it increasingly difficult to meet the international goal of preventing the globe from warming more than 2°C, or 3.6°F.

Keystone XL is currently caught in a lengthy approval process being led by the U.S. State Department, which is in charge of permitting the pipeline because it crosses an international border.

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The State Department’s own environmental analysis concluded that emissions from tar sands crude oil are 17 percent greater than conventional crude when measured from the time of extraction to the point of being burned as vehicle fuel.

The State Department concluded the Keystone would have a negligible impact on climate change because the pipeline’s demise would simply force energy companies to find other ways to fully develop Canada’s tar sands. In other words, the department concluded that it’s nearly inevitable the carbon locked up in the tar sands today will be emitted into the atmosphere no matter the fate of Keystone XL because the tar sands will have other routes to market.

But the EPA said the State Department should account for highly fluctuating oil prices in its final Keystone XL decision. In its analysis, the State Department assumed that high oil prices would be ample encouragement for energy companies to develop alternatives to Keystone XL.

Canadian energy companies are already planning those alternatives, with several pipelines in the works that would send tar sands oil to be refined on both of Canada’s coasts.

Without saying explicitly that the Keystone XL Pipeline would exacerbate climate change, the EPA affirmed that the pipeline’s climate impacts could be enormous if built.

“Until ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of oil sands are more successful and widespread, the Final (State Department environmental analysis) makes clear that, compared to reference crudes, development of oil sands crude represents a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” the EPA said in its comments.

An tar sands mine in Alberta. Credit: Michael Kalus/flickr


A 2014 study published in Nature Climate Change suggested that building Keystone XL would actually increase demand for crude oil, possibly quadrupling the maximum estimated greenhouse gas emissions expected to come from fully developing the tar sands.

Study co-author Michael Lazarus, senior scientist and director of the Stockholm Environmental Institute in Seattle, said Tuesday that the EPA is still assuming that increased tar sands production will not have any impact on global oil consumption.

“As our Nature Climate Change article points out, this is unlikely to be the case, and as a result, the emissions impact could be several times higher,” Lazarus said. “The (State Department) itself points this out, citing an early version of our analysis.”

Lazarus said the EPA is emphasizing that it’s important for the State Department to consider the effect of volatile oil prices on the likelihood that Canadian energy companies will use pipelines or rail to transport tar sands crude to market. But, he said, the effect of cheap oil on whether other tar sands pipelines will be built shouldn’t be overemphasized because crude oil prices are likely to rebound eventually.

“It’s something of a matter of time,” Lazarus said.

The State Department’s final decision on the pipeline was delayed indefinitely last year but could come at any time, especially now that Congress has approved a bill that would greenlight the construction of Keystone XL. President Obama is expected to veto the bill because it would override his administration’s authority to permit the pipeline.

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