Bloomberg View: The Anti-Keystone Crowd's Bogus Claims

The environmental case for approving the Keystone XL pipeline
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Americans concerned about pollution and climate change have traditionally stood with science, in particular the consensus that greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity are warming the earth and changing the climate. Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, in contrast, seem to deliberately ignore the evidence that the pipeline wouldn’t lead to environmental disaster.

The pipeline would do little to increase greenhouse-gas emissions in North America. It would merely enable Canada to send its crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries via a north-south pipeline rather than rail or ship and allow the U.S. to get more of the 8 million barrels of oil it imports each day from a good neighbor.

Pipeline foes say that by pumping 700,000 barrels of crude a day to the U.S., Keystone would encourage maximum development of the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Extraction of this thick, dirty crude requires heavy equipment to inject steam underground to unearth the liquefied tar. The process is therefore relatively more expensive and higher in carbon emissions than simple drilling for liquid oil. Similar steam-injection processes used to extract oil from deposits in California’s San Joaquin Valley, however, haven’t received the same kind of attention. If these processes are so intolerable, why would the U.S. oppose them in Canada but allow them to proceed at home?

Extraction methods are getting cleaner. By 2015 carbon-capture technology is expected to reduce emissions from Canadian oil sands by as much as 35 percent. Even now, when you look at the entire well-to-wheels life cycle of the oil sands crude, its emissions are at most 20 percent greater than normal, because most of oil’s emissions come from burning the fuel.

Like every sentient being, the project’s foes are worried about the pipeline’s potential to leak oil within the U.S. TransCanada is taking pains to ensure the pipeline is designed for the heavy crude it’s meant to carry and would be safely operated. Even so, we could expect a leak or two a year of more than 2,000 gallons of oil, according to the 2011 environmental impact statement on the project issued by the U.S. Department of State. In most cases, however, such spills are expected to be contained in a small area and easily cleaned.

Blocking the Keystone pipeline wouldn’t save the world from environmental catastrophe—nor would it save the economy, as its supporters have argued. The reason to approve the pipeline is that it would keep Canadian oil flowing to U.S. refineries in the most efficient way, within the bounds of safety. This is reason enough.

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