State Department hides the real cost of Keystone

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Michael Brune
You know the news is going to be bad when it’s buried at 4 p.m. on a Friday. If you dump news then, it’s because you hope nobody will pay attention.

But that’s when the State Department’s deeply flawed analysis of the Keystone XL oil pipeline proposal was released. If the timing of the unveiling was a sign the State Department knew it would be controversial, the content is an indicator that the department did not do its duty to thoroughly analyze the impacts of this dirty and dangerous project.

While the State Department acknowledges that tar sands crude is nearly 20 percent more greenhouse-gas intensive than conventional oil, it makes the mystifying claim says that the overall environmental impacts of the pipeline would be limited. That’s because — it claims — tar sands oil would be mined and drilled anyway. That’s just one of the inaccurate assertions that make this report useless.

Currently, 1.8 million barrels of tar sands oil per day are being produced. Permits have already been issued that would allow that extraction to expand to 5 million barrels per day — and the oil industry would like to go even higher. But that same industry is the first to admit that it desperately needs new pipeline capacity to do so.

“When I talk to producers in Alberta,” said Alex Pourbaix of Transcanada, “as long as Keystone XL goes ahead, they view that there’s pretty sufficient takeaway capacity to get us to late in the next decade.”

In other words, the industry itself admits that it will have trouble expanding its extraction of the toxic tar sands without Keystone XL, meaning the State Department’s fundamental assumptions are not only inaccurate but also incredibly cynical.

By this same logic, why would anyone in North America stop new coal plants from being built, if coal were just going to be burned in China and India anyway? Why would we try to replace fracked gas or mountaintop-removal coal with solar and wind, if we’re powerless as a country to lead the world to a clean-energy economy?

The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has succeeded in securing the retirement of 142 coal plants all across the country. Although we’ve begun to see a clean-energy turnaround outside the Beltway, we’re still looking for a real sign of strong leadership inside Washington, D.C.

Instead, we keep hearing about the inevitability of fossil fuels: All the oil will be burned, no matter how extreme. Coal and natural gas should be mined, drilled and fracked. Too often, we even hear these tired arguments from climate champions who should know better.

If they don’t know better, they will learn quickly. After a year marked by record droughts, record wildfires and record temperatures, the threat of climate crisis has become a dangerous reality. The last thing we can afford to do is open up the floodgates to a toxic fuel source that would make matters even worse.

Oil companies are spending millions to convince us that we don’t have any choice in the matter, but the truth is that we can power our economy and our nation with clean energy that doesn’t threaten the future of our planet. Across the nation, clean energy is surging and our consumption of dirty fuels is dropping. In the past four years, our wind capacity has doubled and solar installations have increased by a factor of five. Wind energy is creating new jobs and powering homes and businesses in record numbers across states like Iowa, California and Texas. And the president has signed into law new vehicle efficiency standards that will cut the number of fill-ups for American families in half.

But all that progress to fix the climate crisis could be wiped out if Keystone XL moves forward. President Obama needs to reconcile his soaring oratory on climate with strong action to turn away from dirty fuels like tar sands oil. Last Friday, the State Department made the president’s job much more difficult. But it’s still not too late to stop this pipeline. If the president is serious about turning around the climate crisis, he should throw state’s analysis in the trash and reject Keystone XL.

Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club.

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