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Pipe Schemes

Is Keystone XL "the linchpin for a continued expansion of the tar sands"?

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As congressmen go, Rep. Mike Doyle is pretty friendly toward the environment. Doyle, who represents Pittsburgh and many suburbs, reliably votes for conservation, renewable energy and fighting air and water pollution. In 2009, he labored to garner support for the Waxman-Markey bill, which had it passed would have been landmark climate-change legislation. In 2013, Doyle's rating on the League of Conservation Voters' National Environmental scorecard was 82 percent — nearly double the U.S. House average.

Until recently, Doyle had also unfailingly opposed bills supporting TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. The 875-mile pipeline, running from Alberta to Nebraska, would transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of Canada's tar-sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries. Pipeline opponents have staged protests at the White House branding it an ecological and climate disaster.

The project requires White House approval, and President Obama rejected TransCanada's original application in 2012. In January, the State Department issued an impact study that said Keystone XL wouldn't harm the environment because the oil could be transported by other means. But Obama has yet to rule on TransCanada's revised application. That delay frustrates pipeline supporters. It also frustrates Doyle, who in November voted to approve the permit allowing pipeline construction. Doyle, a Democrat, says he voted mostly to urge Obama to simply make the call. Though he likes that the pipeline would create construction jobs, Doyle says he'd also be fine if Obama said "no."

While the Senate blocked the measure, the Keystone XL debate remains with us. What's really at stake?

The tar sands (technically, "bituminous sands") aren't liquid underground, like conventional crude. Rather, bitumen is a thick goo that is either strip-mined or burned from the ground, rather than drilled for. Such processes have destroyed huge swaths of Alberta's virgin forest, and created toxic runoff and other industrial damage. Tar-sands production is also much more energy-intensive than producing conventional oil; it takes two tons of tar sands to make one barrel of oil.

Canada's oil production is fifth-highest globally, and more than half of it comes from the tar sands. Tar-sands reserves are vast, and could be exploited for decades. That's what climate activists fear: Because of bitumen's higher carbon content and bigfoot extraction methods, using tar-sands oil emits 17 percent more greenhouse gasses than using conventional oil. Climatologist James Hansen — twice arrested protesting Keystone XL — has famously said that Keystone XL would be "game over" for the climate.

Doyle, however, agrees with those who argue that tar-sands oil will be produced even if Keystone XL is denied. "They're gonna do it one way or another," he says — whether via another pipeline (say, one headed to the West Coast) or by rail.

Pipeline opponents, by contrast, view Keystone XL as "the linchpin for a continued and grand expansion of the tar sands," in the words of Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce. Critics, noting that pipeline projects in Canada itself also face public opposition, say that halting Keystone XL would at least slow tar-sands extraction. And they point out that rail isn't a cure-all substitute. Disaster-prone, rail transport of oil faces grave safety concerns. And then there's capacity. According to a June 2014 report by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, even greatly expanded rail capacity wouldn't meet tar-sands growth projections: "The capacity provided by all the [pipeline] proposals" — including Keystone XL — "will be needed by 2030 to meet the forecast growth."

Still, the wild card is the price of oil. That State Department report, for instance, predicted that because rail's expense shaves profit margins, "pipeline constraints" could affect tar-sands production after all if oil prices drop below $75 a barrel. At press time, oil was going for about $60 a barrel.

Oil prices, of course, change continuously. Doyle's long view is that, Keystone XL or not, our climate strategy must be to move more quickly toward renewable energy.

But just as Doyle says he'll keep fighting for renewables in Congress, the green groups that support that struggle will also be battling this pipeline. Says Lena Moffitt, a National Wildlife Federation climate-change expert: "Even if tar-sands projects are economical, we don't have to be the country locking in this low-cost option for the most polluting industry on the planet."

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