On Keystone

I read Ryan Lizza’s extensive piece on the Keystone pipeline in the New Yorker a while back and ended up feeling frustrated that Lizza seemed to push the anti-Keystone position, but ultimately failed to take a side, and left me wanting a little more clarity.   Not long after, I listened to Lizza interviewed on Fresh Air and decided that there’s just not enough good policy analysis to support an anti-Keystone position.   After the interview I resolved to blog about my frustration with this becoming a seeming sine qua non of the US environmental movement despite being based on questionable policy analysis at best.  As you know, I’m always frustrated by the complete lack of seriousness with which conservatives so often approach policy, so I found it especially galling to see liberal environmentalists (and I happily call myself both) being similarly guilty on a high profile issue.  All that, but I’m lazy and distractible.

Into the breach steps Chait, who wrote an excellent post hitting on most all my concerns and frustrations on this issue.  Now that he’s done the hard work (and there’s really little question who’s better to read), I get to cut and paste:

Estimates differ as to how much approval of the Keystone pipeline would increase carbon emissions, but a survey of studies by the Congressional Research Service found that the pipeline would add the equivalent of anywhere between 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year. By contrast, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s proposal for EPA regulations would reduce U.S. emissions by 10 percent per year – 30 times the most pessimistic estimate of Keystone’s impact.

Of course, it’s far from clear Obama will settle on a regulatory proposal as aggressive as the NRDC’s. But that’s just the point. Even slight gradations in the strength of possible EPA plans matter more than the whole fate of the Keystone pipeline. And yet McKibben and tens of thousands of his followers are obsessed with a program that amounts to a rounding error at the expense of a decision that really is the last chance to stop unrestrained global warming…

Sprinkled throughout Lizza’s story are statements by various supporters of the anti-Keystone movement to the effect that they seized on Keystone because they needed something to rally environmentalists on…

Lizza doesn’t frame these observations as a damning indictment, but they do amount to one. The logic of the decision was the opposite of what it appeared to be: Rather than build a movement as a means toward the end of stopping Keystone, Keystone was the means toward the end of building a movement. Cap and trade was dead, Keystone was the best thing they had, so they went with it.

Later in the piece, Lizza notes as an aside that the back-of-the-envelope calculation undergirding Hansen’s “game over” warning turns out to be wildly incorrect: …

Oh! So developing the Canadian tar sands isn’t Game Over, or anything close to Game Over? While framed in the story as a minor detail, this seems like an enormously damning fact. In much the same way that conservative Republicans initially decided to shut down the government on the mistaken belief that doing so would defund Obamacare, and had to stick with their strategy once they had rallied millions of followers to the cause, environmental activists appeared to have built a strategy upon what was at best a rickety factual premise.

Now the anti-Keystone activists (and less transparently, Lizza) seem to believe that there’s huge symbolic value in the President taking this step that is completely unaccounted for in a traditional cost/benefit analysis.  The idea is that Obama making such a bold move is a game changer that recasts and reframes the environmental and climate change debate that entirely new avenues of useful policy change open up.  Maybe.  But color me skeptical.  For now, I’ll stick with hard-headed analysis of how much this oil will actually impact the climate and it’s likelihood of finding some other way to market (please, you just know they’ve got to find some way).

At this point, to be convinced that Obama really should stop the Keystone pipeline, I’d like to see some evidence, rather than just hopeful conjecture, that in so doing there would be ongoing implications throughout climate policy.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

9 Responses to On Keystone

  1. Mike Barr says:

    I am much more concerned about the consequences and risks of fracking than I am of Keystone. In fact, I say build the pipeline. And let technology and capital find a way to extract, transport, and refine the tar sands with minimal environmental damage.

  2. Russell says:

    I think there is more to it than just the air.

    “Texas Hydrologist’s Report Highlights Dangers of Keystone XL to Water Supplies

    Lawrence Dunbar, a Houston-based hydrologist, released a groundbreaking report on Wednesday that underlines the dangers of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to East Texas’ water supplies. The report details the threat to the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, which provides drinking and irrigation water for 10-12 million Texans, due to the high likelihood of a leak from the corrosive tar sands and the nearly impossible clean-up of the heavier than water substance.”


    “Today Dr. John Stansbury, a Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at the University of Nebraska, released a study of the worst case spill scenarios for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. His study, the first independent analysis of the worst-case spill scenarios for the Keystone XL pipeline, cites significant flaws in TransCanada’s methodology for calculating both the frequency and severity of expected spills on Keystone XL. The study finds that Keystone XL will have more than eight times as many spills, take more than ten times as long to shut down in the event of a rupture and spill more than six times as much raw tar sands as TransCanada estimates. This is significant, as the State Department has relied on TransCanada’s projections to analyze the environmental impacts of Keystone XL. This study provides even more evidence that the environmental review for Keystone XL is deeply flawed and the proposed pipeline presents significant unaddressed safety risks.
    In particular, the study finds that Keystone XL could spill as much as 7.9 million gallons in Nebraska’s Sandhills above the Ogallala Aquifer and more than 6.9 million gallons of raw tar sands crude oil at the Yellowstone River crossing. After seeing 42,000 gallons of spilled conventional crude contaminate 240 miles of the Yellowstone River, it is clear that additional due diligence is necessary to address the larger risks posed by Keystone XL.
    Our pipeline system wasn’t designed with raw tar sands in mind. Our pipeline safety regulators admit that they haven’t evaluated the risks of tar sands crude and haven’t been involved in the environmental review for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Meanwhile, the State Department has relied on TransCanada for estimates for many of the project’s environmental impacts. We simply cannot afford to rubber stamp a pipeline that would cross 1,904 waterbodies and the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans and over a quarter of U.S. agricultural water. Our landowners, farmers, ranchers, and first responders deserve to have their government do responsible due diligence on their behalf.”

    • Steve Greene says:

      I’m actually open to rejecting Keystone for “standard” environmental concerns, i.e., oil spills, etc. I’ve just not read enough on that topic. I think stopping Keystone as a major strike against climate change is misguided.

  3. Russell says:


    The Congressional Research Service was a study done using employees of Keystone. One may be skeptical of what they find.

  4. Mike from Canada says:

    Pipeline companies (or some in particular) seem to have a poor record of maintenance and spill cleanup.

    Oil pipelines companies don’t appear to be doing a lot to engineer redundancy into the systems.
    For instance, pipes could be doubled with a thinner much less expensive outer pipe that can utilize leak sensors and detect pressure differentials to alert staff and close valves, carry automated equipment to inspect the pipeline from the outside as well as inside and act as diversion channels to carry leaking oil into less sensitive areas or built in holding tanks or channels. Better quality shut off valves have been recommended by oil pipeline engineers themselves.

    Important infrastructure should be designed and treated as such with safety and redundancy as the most important factor rather then profit generation. There is room for both profit and higher standards of safety. Oil pipelines are a very profitable industry.

    Government needs to get serious about ensuring pipeline companies increase standards both in building the pipelines and maintaining them.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Agree entirely. And the same definitely applies to fracking. But the political issue here is Keystone and climate change. And that’s where I part ways.

      • Mike from Canada says:

        I’ve expressed my concern over the oil sands to many of our elected representatives. It seems almost as if they don’t care what I think. They probably look at me in the same light as my some see my friend’s late mother who wrote weekly essays to the local paper about how girls tight pants destroy the moral fabric of society and cause pregnancies, crime and every other societal ill.

        For me the question is will the oil sands petroleum replace a current energy source that is a worse polluter?
        I’ve read contradicting reports on this, so I’m not sure. I would also suggest that this is not a zero sum game, more petroleum can reduce petroleum costs or keep them down and make it more beneficial for China to create more oil burning plants then coal. China has some of the dirtiest coal in the world and they are not shy about burning it.

        I don’t care for the oil sands oil in it’s current extraction methods which are carbon costly. Personally, I think they should build a nuclear power plant there and use the waste heat of the plant to separate the oil instead of using natural gas or the oil itself. But everyone is afraid of nuclear power now and I’m not sure how feasible it would be, although I understand the oil sands could produce oil for perhaps at least half a century, the life of a nuclear plant.

        If an oil pipeline isn’t built North to South, it will be built East to West and shipped to China. Or they will ship it via train to the West coast of Canada and it will still wind up in China. China will be happy to have it, as they have made very clear.

        If you look at the British Columbia coast on Google Earth you will see why I really don’t want (more) super tankers traveling down the inside passage. A bad oil spill here could be really, really bad.

        On Global Warming, I despair. My own countries current government isn’t serious and never has been. And I think the deniers will continue to deny as evidence mounts and coastal cities flood. They’ll be standing hip deep in water saying it feels chilly to them. And accuse us of being alarmist.

  5. Mike from Canada says:


    rather then = rather than

  6. H. Jenrette says:

    Since potable water is predicted to be a scarce resourse in the not too far off future, was the danger of acquifer contamination and that of other waterways considered in the study? Were the cleanup costs of spllied sands oil when the pipelines are not maintained properly also factored in? The oil companies have a poor record on maintenance.
    I think these factors are as important as CO2 emissions to take into account.
    Also, there are mixed messages as to whether such oil will be used in the U.S. or shipped overseas. Which is it?

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