A tough political decision that President Obama will soon have to make is whether to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline that would cross the international border between the U.S. and Canada. It is a highly controversial issue, one I do not find it easy to form an opinion on (see final paragraph) and about which I have had quite a few discussions with colleagues. What follows are some of the arguments that complicate my thinking and would constitute the elements of a decision memorandum I would send to the President.
Let me begin by reminding readers what the pipeline issue is all about. Quoting from Wikipedia: “The Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system to transport oil sands bitumen from Canada and the northern United States “primarily to refineries in the Gulf Coast” of Texas. The products to be shipped include synthetic crude oil (syncrude) and dilbit (diluted bitumen) from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta, Canada, and Bakken synthetic crude oil and light crude oil produced from the Williston Basin (Bakken) region in Montana and North Dakota. Two phases of the project are in operation, a third, from Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf coast, is under construction and the fourth is awaiting U.S. government approval as of mid-March 2013. Upon completion, the Keystone Pipeline System would consist of the completed 2,151-mile (3,462 km) Keystone Pipeline (Phases I and II) and the proposed 1,661-mile (2,673 km) Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project (Phases III and IV) . The controversial fourth phase, the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, would begin at the oil distribution hub in Hardisty, Alberta and extend 1,179 miles (1,897 km), to Steele City, Nebraska.”
Those opposed to the pipeline cite the contribution to carbon dioxide emissions from the mining of tar sands in Canada, the possibility and consequences of pipeline leaks associated with heated and highly pressurized bitumen, the initial (now modified) proposed path of the pipeline through areas above the Ogallala Aquifer (a major source of fresh water), and the potential delay in investments in renewable energy technologies due to the continued availability of oil resources.
The proponents of the pipeline argue that Canada will mine the tar sands and produce the bitumen and its associated carbon dioxide emissions regardless of what the U.S. decides (an alternative pipeline path would be to Canada’s west coast for sales to Asia), Canadian tar sands oil is already reaching the U.S. by train and new quantities could be shipped by rail as well (as Canada is already preparing to do), that obtaining oil from Canada is preferable to obtaining oil from the Persian Gulf and other countries and is in the U.S. national security and economic interest, and that pipeline construction today is under better regulation and is safer than ever before.
In his climate change speech at Georgetown University on June 25th (see earlier blog ‘The Beginnings of a U.S. Energy Policy’) the President seemed to hint that he would approve the pipeline, arguing that “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. 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.”
The use of the words ‘significantly exacerbate’ seems ‘significant’ in that it will be hard to argue that the carbon emissions from mininig the Alberta tar sands will add significantly to current global carbon dioxide emissions. Add they will, and add to oil availability they will as well, but by themselves and in terms of impact on climate change, not significantly.
Thus, if one assumes that the pipeline will be carefully regulated (and strict enforcement of regulations will be critical), that the Canadian tar sands will be mined regardless, that the new pipeline path is less risky for the Ogallala, and that the pipeline will reduce U.S. needs for other oil imports, I would approve the pipeline if it were my decision to make. This recognizes that our current need for liquid petroleum fuels to support transportation is significant and will continue for a while. However, this should in no way limit or slow down our efforts to electrify our transportation fleet, derive the needed electricity from renewable sources, and develop non-petroleum-based alternative fuels. I will say much more about these latter topics in future blogs.