Earlier this month, following a debate that had spanned nearly the entire duration of his presidency, President Obama finally rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. Environmentalists are celebrating a hard fought victory on this issue that Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently called “a fundamental litmus test of your commitment to battle climate change.”
I have long argued that Keystone XL took on a symbolic meaning far beyond what it deserved. I believe the reason it became such a significant cause for environmentalists is that pipeline opponents grossly exaggerated its importance. For example, high-profile climate change advocate James Hansen declared that if the oil sands are tapped, “it is essentially game over” for the planet, and that the pipeline would be a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” If you actually stop and look at the numbers, that claim is akin to “chicken pox is the most serious health threat facing mankind.” Seriously, look at the numbers. Or, if you like pictures, look at the pictures.
I am not going to revisit the issues here. If you want to see more detail, see my recent article While You Were Distracted by Keystone XL. All I want to do here is go straight to the punch line.
The Keystone XL would have been 875 miles of pipeline with a capacity to transport up to 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil. It was first proposed in 2008, and in 2010 the State Department issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement that concluded that the project was unlikely to have a significant impact on oil sands development or global greenhouse gas emissions, and estimated that if the oil was transported by rail instead an average of six people per year would be killed due to the increased rail traffic.
This led to years of protests, and paralysis by the Obama Administration who couldn’t make a decision either way. They kicked the can down the road for 5 more years. Meanwhile, in a world stripped of symbolism and wishful thinking, these things all happened since 2010 while this debate played out.
12,000 miles of oil transmission pipelines were built in the U.S. (Source).
The liquid petroleum pipeline network in the U.S. grew to beyond
190,000 miles. (Source).
Crude oil imports from Canada increased by 1.5 million bpd. (Source).
Canadian oil sands production rose by 700,000 bpd to reach 2.3
million bpd. (Source).
Crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. increased by a factor of 30
to reach 1 million bpd. (Source).
A train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in
Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. (Source).
While campaigning for reelection in 2012, President Obama announced
his strong support for the 700,000 bpd southern leg of the Keystone
Global demand for oil increased by 4.2 million bpd. (Source).
Global coal consumption increased annually by 270 million tons of oil
equivalent (the equivalent of 5 million bpd of oil), with demand in
Asia Pacific up by 15%. (Source).
Annual emissions of carbon dioxide rose by more than 2 billion metric
tons to an all-time record of 35.5 billion metric tons per year.
Those are facts, and they highlight the point I have argued throughout this debate. My position was never that the pipeline should be built, nor that it shouldn’t. It was that even in the most optimistic scenario one could concoct, it wasn’t the right target if the objective was (and it was) to materially impact carbon emissions.
People who were protesting Keystone XL were doing so on the basis of emotion and symbolism, but if you want to really address a problem the facts matter. Otherwise, the real world won’t give a damn about your symbolic victory, and rising carbon emissions won’t even pause briefly to acknowledge it.