18 February 2013

Ten XL-sized Myths From Both Sides of Keystone Pipeline Debate

As some 35,000 opponents to the Keystone Pipeline gathered in front of the White House yesterday trying to persuade President Obama to just say no to the pipeline, I reflected upon some of the myths about the pipeline that have been bandied about by both sides on the issue.

Keystone XL protest in Washington.
(photo by Shadia Fayne Wood/Project Survival Media
via 350.org)
There are, as in most things, no absolutes in this debate. Digging deeper than the rhetoric and sloganeering, we find that both sides exaggerate the impacts of the Keystone Pipeline, the positives and the negatives.

Here are ten myths about the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL), some of which I shared on the Payne Nation radio show a little over a year ago:

1.) Stopping KXL will help stop climate change - With the potential to transport an estimated 590,000 barrels a day, KXL certainly has a large carbon footprint. Yet, it is really only a drop in the barrel of global contributions to greenhouse gases. And if KXL is stopped, there is no guarantee there won't be alternatives to getting this oil to market; in fact, there are at least two proposed alternatives through western Canada being considered.

2.) KXL will create tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of jobs - Jobs will be created, certainly, in the US, Canada, and probably elsewhere. But it is too difficult to substantiate the claims of either proponents or opponents, which range from one million to 200,000, and from 15,000 to "as few as 20" once construction is completed. Of curious note, according to one source, in TransCanada's 2008 original permit application, the pipeline developer claimed "a peak work force of approximately 3,500 to 4,200 construction personnel." Temporary construction jobs, that is, and probably "person-year" jobs (i.e. 1 person working full-time for one year.) 

3.) Tar sands oil is not worse for climate change - Proponents of KXL claim that tar sands oil only produce 6 percent more carbon than conventional crude oil, but other reports estimate the amount to be more than 20 percent. Whatever the amount, there is certainly going to be an increase, which could lead to health risks from emissions and potentially increase the costs associated with increased climate instability.

4.) America needs the tar sands oil - The oil from KXL was never intended for US markets. It will make its way to the Gulf Coast refineries, where it will likely be put on the more lucrative global market. TransCanada stated as much in a presentation to investors, suggesting greater profits for the company. Besides, with greater fuel efficiency standards, our need for oil may in fact be decreasing not increasing.

5.) The US should buy oil from a friendly neighbor like Canada rather than hostile countries - The US has steadily been reducing its dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf for years. In fact, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, Canada and Latin America already supply more oil than Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.  

6.) Tar sands oil will lower gas prices in the US - According to several studies, KXL oil will have little or no impact on overall US gas prices, which are set by a much more complicated set of global market factors.

7.) Tar sands oil will increase gas prices in the US - Again, KXL oil will have little or no impact on gas prices across the US, although according to a recent study, it could increase prices in the US Midwest by 10-20 cents per gallon, as the oil bypasses that market and heads south.

8.) Oil leaks from the existing pipeline have little impact on the environment - Proponents of the pipeline like to downplay the environmental impacts of oil leaks. However, the existing Keystone pipeline, to which the one under debate would be an extension leaked at least 12 times in 2011, including one spill in North Dakota that amounted to 21,000 gallons of oil, and a different tar sands pipeline spilled over 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. Such spills have an economic impact as well. The costs of the Kalamazoo River cleanup exceeded $650 million. 

9.) Tar sands oil will reduce US dependency on foreign oil - It depends upon how you define "foreign oil." Arguably, Canada is still not a part of the US and, even if some of this oil were to make it into the US market, in the scheme of things, it matters little where oil comes from in what is a complex, interdependent global market. And, if the tar sands oil will be refined in Port Arthur, TX, by a refinery half-owned by Saudi Aramco, as some suggest, where does the oil come from after all? 

10.) Building the KXL is inevitable - This argument has been made by proponents for years -- and even a few environmentalists. The latter suggest trying to stop KXL diverts attention from coming up with the full suite of solutions we'll need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels over the long haul, invest in alternative energy, and address climate change. 

I remain skeptical about the claims on both sides of the Keystone Pipeline, but I hope that the Obama administration will take a look at all the data and come to a reasonable decision about what to do, rather than give in to the side with the largest wallet or most strident voice.