WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline could turn on whether Canada takes steps to offset increases in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the pipeline.
That's why environmentalists from the United States and Canada this week were pushing a message that there is no way to adequately offset the increase in emissions that the pipeline would bring.
Pipeline supporters, meanwhile, continued to focus on studies, including those by the State Department, that have found that approval of the pipeline would ultimately have little impact on emissions. That conclusion is based on the premise that all of that oil is coming out of the ground regardless of whether this particular project goes forward.
Both sides have plans for aggressive advertising and lobbying efforts in the coming weeks. Some movement on the pipeline by the Obama administration is widely expected by the end of the year. The State Department has not announced a formal time frame for making a recommendation to the president, however.
TransCanada's proposed pipeline would run from the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries of Texas, transporting more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day. It requires State Department review and a presidential permit because it would cross an international border.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Obama nodded to the benefits of integrating energy supplies with a reliable ally such as Canada.
“But I meant what I said; I'm going to evaluate this based on whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere,” he said in that interview. “And there is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.”
Asked if that could offset concerns about the pipeline, Obama said, “All of that will go into the mix” on the State Department's recommendation on the pipeline.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, environmental groups and climate experts made the case that the idea of offsets or mitigation doesn't hold up, in part because of Canada's aggressive plans for developing the oil sands.
“It is incompatible for Canada to both pursue a massive expansion of its tar sands industry and also meet international climate commitments,” said Danielle Droitsch of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That is why it is impossible for Canada to mitigate or offset the impacts of Keystone XL.”
They said the conservative government now in power in Canada is committed to expanding oil sands production and has shown little zeal for regulations to limit emissions. They also said that an overall decrease in emissions is required in order to hit international climate change goals and that any expanded tapping of the oil sands runs counter to that.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in a statement that only a small percentage of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from oil sands, particularly compared to coal, and pointed to the State Department finding that it would have limited impact, although opponents have criticized those studies as flawed.
“The fact is,” Howard said, “that this isn't about energy versus the environment, but where Americans want their energy to come from: places like the Middle East and Venezuela that are hostile to U.S. interests, or Canadian and American oil fields, where there are already substantial greenhouse gas regulations in place.”
In his own statement, Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, pointed to a recently released report by energy research firm IHS that found that the approval or rejection of Keystone XL would have no material impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions because the oil would flow through alternative transportation routes.
“Canada's oil and gas industry remains optimistic Keystone XL will be approved on its merits, and we know Canadian oil supplies can compete on a GHG basis against similar crude oil produced elsewhere,” Stringham said.
The environmental groups say that those alternative transportation methods are not such a sure thing, however, and that it's all a question of timing and capacity.
The sooner a large pipeline like the Keystone XL is built, the sooner all that additional oil starts flowing.