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 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 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT