The State Department released its initial reassessment of the environmental impact of constructing the Keystone XL pipeline late Friday—and the document quickly enraged environmentalists and seemed to buttress the arguments of pipeline proponents.
Since it’s a draft, the report made no recommendation one way or the other on building the pipeline. But it raised no major environmental concerns with doing so. This is the key paragraph:
Based on information and analysis about the North American crude transport infrastructure (particularly the proven ability of rail to transport substantial quantities of crude oil profitably under current market conditions, and to add capacity relatively rapidly) and the global crude oil market, the draft Supplemental EIS concludes that approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.
In other words, the State Department believes the Keystone pipeline won’t have any real effect on how much tar sands oil is ultimately refined and brought to market, and thus, that it will have no substantial impact on climate change. Specifically, the report says blocking the pipeline would only lessen emissions by 0.07 to 5.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. For context, in 2010 the United States emitted 6,821.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010.
Environmentalists hotly contest this claim, with a considerable amount of data on their side.
There are an estimated 240 gigatons of carbon stored in the tar sands, which is half of what scientists estimate is needed to avert more than 2 degrees of global warming. Releasing it is the equivalent of adding 4 million cars to the road. If you read the State Department report closely they are not really debating that, but rather contending that the oil will be extracted one way or another, so building the pipeline makes no real difference in the end.
This just isn’t true: for one, the industry itself has repeatedly said that building the pipeline would indeed expand tar sand drilling. The State Department asserted in the report that railways could be used to transport the tar sands oil absent any pipelines, but that’s quite debatable: only 0.69 percent of western Canada’s oil moved by rail in 2011 and there’s a continent-wide shortage of rail cars.