Skip to main content

Keystone report can't have it both ways

By Sheldon Whitehouse and Henry A. Waxman
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Large sections of oil pipeline lie next to a family farm in Sumner, Texas.
Large sections of oil pipeline lie next to a family farm in Sumner, Texas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Review of Keystone XL pipeline information shows it's not in the national interest
  • They say tar sands oil spews 17% more greenhouse gas than crude oil refined in the U.S.
  • Writers: Report acknowledges tar sands oil from Keystone could worsen climate change
  • Oil companies will need even more pipelines to reach their goals, they say

Editor's note: Sheldon Whitehouse is a U.S. Democratic senator from Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chairman of the Committee's Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. Henry A. Waxman is a U.S. representative from California and the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He served as committee chairman from 2009-2010 and as chairman of the committee's Health and Environment Subcommittee from 1979-1994. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- For all the noise about the State Department's final environmental review of the Keystone XL Pipeline being a "blow" to pipeline opponents, the report contains more than enough information for Secretary of State John Kerry -- a respected environmental champion -- to conclude that the pipeline is not in the national interest.

Although you have to dig a bit, the report recognizes the dangers associated with the tar sands fuel that the pipeline would transport.

Oil from tar sands spews 17% more greenhouse gas than the average crude oil refined in the United States. If the pipeline operates at capacity, that's as much carbon pollution as 5.7 million more cars driving on our roads. This is enough added pollution to erase as much as 70% of the carbon pollution reductions from the Obama administration's recent motor vehicle emission standards.

Using the Obama administration's estimates of the social cost of carbon, that adds up to $128 billion in climate costs over the lifetime of the project, costs that can too often be measured in parched farmland, compromised human health and property damage from floods.

So how does the report admit the possibility of lasting environmental harm from the tar sands on the one hand while concluding that building the pipeline would not cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions on the other? It presumes that the tar sands fuels are going to get to market anyway, so the environmental damage happens with or without Keystone XL.

Opinion: Keystone a pipeline to future of dirty fuel

We think this presumption is seriously flawed. One key assumption is the report's forecast that crude oil prices will stay above $75 per barrel. Below that price, the report actually finds that Keystone does make a difference in driving tar sands production and greater carbon pollution. Contrary to the report's assumptions, there is a real chance that crude oil prices will fall below that level.

Energy commodity traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and experts at the International Energy Agency forecast a sharp decline in oil prices over the next decade.

The Energy Information Agency's low oil price forecast, which assumes slower economic growth in developing countries, projects oil prices around $75 or below from 2015 through 2040. In addition, the more successful international efforts are at promoting energy efficiency and new forms of clean energy, the more demand for traditional fossil fuels will shrink, pushing prices down.

Ruling jeopardizes Keystone pipeline
Longterm impact of Keystone Pipeline
Obama plans 'assault' on climate change

The report also presumes that all tar sands growth will come from low- cost projects, and higher cost tar sands projects won't be built with or without the pipeline. That's unrealistic: Higher cost projects are moving forward, but their continued economic viability will depend on variables such as low-cost transportation as well as sufficiently high oil prices.

The tar sands producers themselves belie the claim that Keystone XL won't make a difference in bringing the tar sands to market. The CEO of major tar sands producer Cenovus admitted that his company's plan to triple production in coming years was contingent on more pipeline capacity. Financial giants such as RBC Capital, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and CIBC have all linked the size of the tar sands industry to the availability of new pipelines. The desperate push over this pipeline shows how badly tar sands producers need Keystone XL.

Opinion: Keystone XL pipeline makes sense

Perhaps most serious, the State Department report fails to take into account the actions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, the United States and more than 100 other nations agreed that we need to limit the global temperature increase from carbon pollution to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). President Barack Obama affirmed that goal in his Climate Action Plan.

According to the models used in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysis, we must keep atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 parts per million to achieve the 2 degrees target. That's not possible if we maintain the status quo, much less bring online more and exceedingly dirty sources of fuel such as tar sands oil.

In a glaring omission, the Keystone XL review failed to factor in the 2 degrees limit, and assumed the continuation of business-as-usual practices for the next quarter century. We have almost no chance of meeting the 2 degree goal if any of the report's scenarios are realized.

Kerry's obligation is to determine what is in the national interest. For all its flaws, the report acknowledges that the tar sands that would get to market through Keystone XL could significantly worsen climate change. That's a risk that climate champions such as Kerry and Obama shouldn't be willing to take.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT