Keystone XL greenhouse gas emissions higher than estimates: Study

by: Obert Madondo  | Published Mon, Aug 11, 2014

Keystone Pipeline Handout

Keystone Pipeline Handout

A new study strongly suggests that U.S. State Department grossly underestimated the negative environmental impact of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

In its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment earlier this year, the State Department concluded that the pipeline wouldn’t be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, estimating the carbon impact would be 27 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. The new study estimates that Keystone would produce four times that amount: 110 million tonnes.

The research was conducted at the Stockholm Environment Institute by Peter Erickson and co-author Michael Lazarus. It was published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers argue that the State Department ignored the fact that, if built, Keystone XL would reduce the global oil price while causing demand for oil to rise.

“The most important difference between our analysis and the State Department’s is that we consider the price effects of adding oil supply (in this case, Canadian oil sands) to global markets,” Erickson told Climate Central.

If built, Keystone XL would ship 830,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands oil per day from Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Here’s what the researchers say in the study’s intro:

“Climate policy and analysis often focus on energy production and consumption, but seldom consider how energy transportation infrastructure shapes energy systems. US President Obama has recently brought these issues to the fore, stating that he would only approve the Keystone XL pipeline, connecting Canadian oil sands with US refineries and ports, if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Here, we apply a simple model to understand the implications of the pipeline for greenhouse gas emissions as a function of any resulting increase in oil sands production.

“We find that for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase 0.6 barrels owing to the incremental decrease in global oil prices. As a result, and depending on the extent to which the pipeline leads to greater oil sands production, the net annual impact of Keystone XL could range from virtually none to 110 million tons CO2 equivalent annually. This spread is four times wider than found by the US State Department (1–27 million tons CO2e), who did not account for global oil market effects. The approach used here, common in lifecycle analysis, could also be applied to other pending fossil fuel extraction and supply infrastructure.”

The new study is more bad news for Keystone XL. Last year, Oil Change International said the full cost of the Keystone XL “to society could be upwards of $100 Billion per year in damages to health, property, ecosystems, and the climate.”

U.S President Barack Obama has said he would only approve Keystone “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

I quote part of Obama’s remarks at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., in June, 2013:

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.”

Responding to the speech, Environmental Defence, one of Canada’s leading environmental action organizations, said Obama had shown leadership on climate change.

Environmentalists and opponents of Keystone are not only advancing the climate crisis argument. They also suggest that that investments in tar sands expansions are better spend on clean energy alternatives.

As usual, the rapidly anti-evidence, pro-business Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to dismiss the new study.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.