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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Develop Renewable Energy, Not the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

Summary.  TransCanada, the sponsor of the Keystone XL pipeline project, filed an updated application for approval with the U. S. Department of State.  The Department issued a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement evaluating the application.

It addresses many immediate environmental concerns focusing on the pipeline route and its environmental integrity.  This post focuses on a more fundamental issue.  It restates the opposition of this blog to approval of the pipeline because if granted, the project would ensure a long-term commitment to continued and prolonged emissions of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas.

The energy economy is likened to a zero-sum enterprise, balancing investments in conventional carbon-based fuels for energy, worsening global warming, and developing renewable energy sources, improving the global climate.  The longer mankind accumulates higher and higher levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the worse global warming and its harmful effects on humanity become.  It behooves all nations to abate emissions and migrate to a carbon-free energy economy, sooner not later.  Accordingly, it is recommended to deny the XL permitting application.

Background.  The Keystone XL oil pipeline (XL) is an international transport pipeline project intended to carry bitumen (Alberta tar sands oil) from the Canadian border to refineries on the U. S. Gulf Coast.  Its sponsor is TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, LC.  Since the project has an international aspect, involving oil transport across the Canada-U.S. border, it requires positive review by the U. S. Department of State (DOS) and approval of the President.  The query to be resolved is whether approving XL is in the national interest.

         A first approval request was considered in 2011 with inconclusive results.  The proposed route passed over important subterranean aquifers in Nebraska.  The DOS Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) generated at the time dealt extensively with this issue.  Ultimately concerns over the susceptibility of the pipeline to failure leading to contamination of the aquifers led to failure to approve the project.

TransCanada has modified the proposed route through Nebraska to reduce  potential contamination of aquifers.  In addition, a portion of the original pipeline project from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast is now under construction, as it does not require approval by the Administration.  The revised application has resulted in a Draft Supplemental EIS (SEIS) prepared by DOS in March 2013.  After formally releasing the SEIS in April 2013, any interested party may submit comments (see Note for details) for consideration and possible response before the final SEIS is issued.

         Tar Sands.  The oil available in Alberta is a surface-accessible mixture of a thick oily substance with the consistency of tar, called bitumen, with sand and clay.  Bitumen must be heated with hot steam to liquefy it, permitting separation from the minerals mixed with it.  Before shipping, bitumen is further refined to provide a synthetic crude oil suitable for pipeline transport.  Alternatively, bitumen can be diluted with liquid hydrocarbons to permit it to be pumped in the pipeline as well.

The Provincial Premier of Alberta, the province in which the tar sands are located, visited Washington, D.C. for the fourth time in 18 months during the week of April 8, 2013.  Alison Redford came to lobby for favorable action on XL.
Manmade global warming has become a serious problem in recent decades.  Mankind’s burning of fossil fuels, and other industrial and agricultural practices, are generating ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.  These accumulate because most carbon dioxide, the product of burning, and some others of the gases, remain in the atmosphere for long times.  There is no natural mechanism that removes these gases once emitted.  They remain active, accumulating to create a more intense greenhouse effect, for a century or longer.  It is the total accumulated burden of greenhouse gases, not their annual rate of emissions, that governs the intensity of the greenhouse effect.

The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.  This post discusses aspects of the SEIS presented in the Executive Summary.
The American portion of the pipeline under review extends from the Canadian border in Montana, traverses South Dakota and Nebraska and ends at Steele City, NE.  This portion is 875 miles (1408 km) long and 36 inches (91 cm) in diameter.  It will carry Canadian tar sands bitumen.  A branch, carrying shale oil from North Dakota, and other crude oils, will join it.  Its total capacity is intended to be 830,000 barrels per day, of which 555,000 barrels per day is currently committed to transporting Canadian bitumen.  Ultimately the sources of the oil stocks it will carry would be determined by market decisions. 
The SEIS devotes extensive attention to potential localized environmental effects, especially in the case of leakage.  These have been amply addressed elsewhere, including the SEIS, by both proponents of the pipeline and its environmental opponents. 

Construction of the U. S. portion of XL is estimated to cost US$3.3 billion for directly incurred expenses.  Direct employment during construction would be about 3,900 full time jobs over the 1-2 years envisioned for construction.  Once operating XL would need fewer than 50 employees.  The construction site is a moving front progressing along the route, requiring a 110 foot wide right of way during construction, which would be restored to a permanent 50 foot right of way upon completion, amounting to 5,584 acres (2,259ha) of land.  It includes 44 valve stations and 18 pumping stations along this segment. 

Climate change impact of XL.  The Executive Summary reports that operation of the proposed XL project is expected to lead to the emission of about 3.2 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year of operation, mostly devoted to generating the electricity to operate the pumping stations along the pipeline.  The SEIS states this is comparable to the energy requirements of about 626,000 gas-powered cars, or about 398,000 homes using electricity, for one year. 

These figures account only for the operational emissions of the XL Project under review.  The full length of the U. S. portion of the pipeline from the Canadian border to a Gulf Coast terminus is about 1,700 miles, or almost twice the length of the proposed Project.  So the numbers in the preceding paragraph should be approximately doubled to account for transporting tar sands bitumen from the Canadian border to a Gulf Coast refinery. 

In addition, on a life-cycle basis extracting and refining of Alberta bitumen is more energy intensive than that of conventional oils, releasing about 17% more CO2.  As noted above in the Background section, this is because of the extra heat energy needed to liberate the bitumen from its mineral composite.

This writer has estimated the CO2 burden arising from actual combustion of tar sands bitumen, in the presumed form of gasoline, petroleum coke and other products of refining.  Depending on assumptions made, this estimate may have an error of perhaps 15%.  The result obtained is about 100 million metric tons of CO2/year resulting from burning the full complement of bitumen proposed for transport by XL.  [Update 04/23/13:  This XL-derived annual emissions forecast represents about 4.5% of total CO2 emissions for 2011 originating from burning petroleum-derived fuels in the U. S., according to data from the 2013 Annual Energy Outlook of the U. S. Energy Information Administration (Table A18), excluding international marine (bunker) fuels,]
This blog has opposed the XL pipeline for a fundamental reason, one little argued by others.  It should be the policy of the U. S. to accelerate the transition of our energy economy away from one dependent on carbon-based fuels toward one that relies on renewable energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases.  As pointed out in many recent posts, this should be done as soon as possible. 

Long Lifetime of Emitted GHGs. A major fraction of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, emitted into the atmosphere remains there for at least one century and probably longer.  (Natural processes remove the minor portion, but cannot accommodate the full amount emitted.)  Thus atmospheric CO2, and other manmade GHGs, will keep accumulating more and more until the rate of emission approaches zero.  This higher level of atmospheric GHGs worsens global warming and all its harmful effects on the planet and to mankind.  Thus early steps toward decarbonization of the energy economy are needed.

President Obama addresses climate change.  President Obama has proclaimed his support for efforts to combat global warming in both his Second Inaugural Address and his 2013 State of the Union address.  An important signal backing up his policy would be denial of a permit for XL.  This is because of the major additional annual rates of emission of CO2 over the long term that its operation entails, as detailed above.  Transnational transport and burning of Canadian bitumen and its refined products would contribute about 106 million metric tons of CO2 each year, for the full operational lifetime of the pipeline, i.e., for several decades.  The U. S. should take a policy stand that it will not be responsible for, or condone, such continued emission of GHGs, but rather that it will instead support deployment of renewable energy sources.

Pronouncements by TransCanada and the Alberta Premier are contradicted by their  actions.  The SEIS, presumably relying on declarations made by TransCanada, notes that it may not matter whether the U. S. approves the XL application.  Production of bitumen in Alberta and of crude oil in North Dakota would continue.  It states there are alternative modes of transport, involving other pipelines, rail, and truck, to carry Canadian bitumen to the Gulf.  Other destinations are also noted but were not evaluated. It also points out that the Gulf refineries already receive crude oil for processing by tanker transport from other sources.

Even so, TransCanada is actively campaigning for approval of XL and is laying groundwork for the Project.  For example, Mary Pipher, a Nebraskan opposed to the Project, points out in the New York Times of April 17, 2013 that TransCanada is using threats of exercising eminent domain (legal expropriation of property) against landowners along the XL right of way.

Alison Redford, the Premier of Alberta, has visited Washington, D.C. four times in the last 18 months seeking favorable action on XL.  During her most recent visit, she declared “We’re an exporting economy,” saying that Alberta’s bitumen would be harvested regardless of the approval of XL. “Alberta does have other options,” such as Canada’s Atlantic or Pacific coasts (New York Times, April 9, 2013).

The actions by TransCanada, described by Ms. Pipher, and the persistent campaigning in the U. S. by Premier Redford, clearly show that these interests are not ambivalent about the final decision on XL.  They are heavily invested in the outcome, and apparently actively pursue a favorable outcome.  To grant approval would further set back mankind’s pursuit of decarbonizing our energy economy by condoning continued fossil fuel use.

Conclusion: The energy economy is a zero sum enterprise.  In weighing whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the choice is not whether to approve it or simply to reject it. Rather the correct decision to consider is whether to prolong the fossil fuel energy economy or to expand our renewable energy economy.

As noted above, the pipeline, if built, commits us to continued atmospheric emissions of CO2 from this oil over its full service lifetime, i.e. 40 years or more.  [Update 04/23/13:  This represents about 4.5% of emissions from petroleum use in the U. S.]  The longer we delay to abate emissions, the harder it becomes.

The alternative strategy is to shift the investment that would be going into projects such as the pipeline into developing industrial scale, renewable energy sources and energy transmission infrastructure instead. We should stop harvesting tar sands oil and build wind farms and solar farms instead, and should reject new oil pipelines in favor of new transmission lines from those farms to energy consumers. The US$3.3 billion investment envisioned for the XL Project segment could develop significant renewable energy facilities such as these.  In this way, the overall energy economy is preserved, job demand remains vibrant, and global warming is addressed in a meaningful way.

[Update 04/23/13:  Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commented on the SEIS in a letter to DOS dated April 22, 2013.  The comments identify aspects of the SEIS that are inadequate and require further analysis or support.  These include (among others) first, the 17% or higher greater emission of GHGs required to produce Alberta bitumen compared to a range of crude oils from conventional sources.  The letter requests an assessment of overall social costs for this increase.  Second, the letter requests a more thorough market analysis supporting the SEIS conclusion that regardless of whether the Project is approved Alberta bitumen production will not change significantly.  Third, the letter requests further details on how the U. S. and Canada can cooperate to mitigate GHG emissions in the production of bitumen (including carbon capture and storage) and possible use of renewable energy to power the operation of the pipeline.  These and other failings in the SEIS currently preclude the EPA from approving the XL Project.]

Public comments on the SEIS may be submitted
a) by email to,
b) using the internet at, or
c) by mail to:
U.S. Department of State
Attn: Genevieve Walker
NEPA Coordinator
2201 C Street NW Room 2726
Washington, D.C. 20520.

© 2013 Henry Auer

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