Environmental benefits from the Keystone XL pipeline

Michael Giberson

The National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups have been lobbying against the Keystone XL pipeline proposal as a sort of proxy battle against production of crude oil from Canadian tar sands. Robert Hahn and Peter Passell suggest that, as the tar sands will be developed whether or not the pipeline is built, the practical effect of stopping the pipeline project is increased delivery of Canadian oil by railroad instead. Not only does railroad delivery of oil come with its own risk of spills, it is a more costly mode of transportation largely because it takes more energy to move crude oil by rail rather than pipeline. And “takes more energy” means “burns more energy” means more greenhouse gasses and other air emissions during delivery.

Since a pipeline would be the cheapest and best way to deliver Alberta’s oil to market, if the National Wildlife Federation and other groups succeed in imposing some more complicated and costly delivery method then at the margin some production in Alberta will be deterred. The result: U.S. will instead buy the oil that would have come from Alberta from elsewhere, and have it delivered by ocean-crossing tankers. Last I looked oil tankers were not propelled by rainbow juice and unicorn kisses, so those likely alternatives will come with their own set of greenhouse gasses and other emissions.

Assuming the tar sands are developed – and as Hahn and Passell say, “last time we looked, Canada was a functioning democracy capable of making its own decisions” – the pipeline is likely the most environmentally friendly way of delivering the oil to consumers.

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3 thoughts on “Environmental benefits from the Keystone XL pipeline

  1. If you’re going to talk about the energy costs to transport the oil, shouldn’t you talk about the energy costs to refine it as well? The heavy oil from Canada is very energy intensive and difficult to refine. Also, unlike light sweet oil which gives you volume gain when you refine it, with the heavy oil you get volume loss.

  2. All of this seems to assume that the development of the tar sands is an either/or proposition. That ignores basic economics. The pipeline would lower the cost of bringing oil to market, and hence increase the effective price received for oil from the tar sands. Developers will respond to this higher price by developing more and more marginal tar sand deposits. So yes, the pipeline would reduce the GHG emissions associated with a barrel of oil from any particular tar sand mine, but the lack of such a pipeline will mean that development of the tar sands will be slower than with a pipeline. What would be the overall impact on GHG emissions? I don’t know, but the calculation is a lot more complex that Hahn & Passel seem to imply.

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