State Dep't.: Not Building Keystone Pipeline Could Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Barbara Hollingsworth | February 4, 2014 | 1:06pm EST
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Route of proposed Keystone pipeline project. (U.S. State Department)

( --  Not building the 875-mile Keystone XL Pipeline could result in the release of up to 42 percent more greenhouse gases than would be released by building it, according to the State Department.

Not building the pipeline “is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the [Canadian] oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the department noted in a long-awaited environmental report released January 31st.

But the “No Build” option is likely to result in an increased number of oil spills, six more deaths annually, and up to 42 percent higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the State Department concluded.

The proposed 36-inch pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from western Canada through the Bakken oil fields of Montana and South Dakota before connecting to an existing pipeline in Nebraska on its way to Gulf Coast refineries.

The project will create an estimated 42,100 jobs and add $3.4 billion to the U.S. economy.

TransCanada first applied for a presidential permit to build the pipeline in 2008, but the controversial project has been in limbo ever since the State Department delayed a decision to issue the permit in 2011 due to environmentalists’ concerns that the pipeline would increase GHG emissions and threaten underground aquifers.

It will do neither, according to the project’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).

However, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf warned reporters during the department’s daily press briefing Friday that the release of the SEIS “is not a decision. It’s another step in the process as prescribed by the executive order,” adding that Secretary of State John Kerry will become involved in the Keystone pipeline permit process “for the first time.”

“There’s no deadline for Secretary Kerry to make a decision,” Harf said. “I stress that this [SEIS] is only one factor in the determination that will weigh many other factors as well, and for Secretary Kerry, climate and environmental priorities will of course be part of his decision-making, as will a range of other issues.”

In a conference call with reporters after the SEIS was released, Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, reiterated Harf’s comment that “this document is only one factor that will be coming into the review process for the permit. This is one of the elements that we will be looking at as we move into the national interest determination.”

The State Department, which must sign off on the project because it crosses an international border, notes that crude oil extracted from the western oil sands in Alberta will still be shipped to refineries by railcar or tanker even if the pipeline permit is not approved. And that comes with its own set of hazards, the SEIS pointed out.

Using a “wells to wheels” lifecycle analysis that starts with the extraction of crude oil and follows it to its end-use as gasoline or diesel fuel, the SEIS  noted that  “the total annual GHG emissions (direct and indirect) attributed to the No Action scenarios range from 28 to 42 percent greater than for the proposed [pipeline] Project.”

That’s because the fumes released by the combustion of diesel fuel from railcars and trucks, and the extra electricity needed for expanded marine terminals to handle oil tankers and barges, would create significantly higher levels of GHG emissions than the pipeline itself.

“There is also a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines,” the State Department report noted. “Adding 830,000 barrels per day to the yearly transport mode-volume would result in an estimated 49 additional injuries and six additional fatalities for the No Action rail scenarios compared to one additional injury and no fatalities for the proposed Project on an annual basis.”

The SEIS also points out that “rail transport has more reported releases of crude oil per ton-mile than pipeline or marine transport.”

Of 1,692 oil spills reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration(PHMSA) between January 2002 and July 2012, “321 were pipe incidents and 1,027 were involving different equipment components such as tanks, valves or pumps,” according to the SEIS.

However, “the number of barrels released per year for the No Action scenarios is higher than what is projected for the proposed [pipeline] Project,” the State Department report stated. And although more oil is released per incident when a pipeline fails, “this constraint is offset by the increased statistical likelihood of spills associated with these alternative modes of crude oil transport relative to pipelines.”

The other major environmental concern holding up approval of the pipeline is the possibility that an oil spill from the pipeline could contaminate the underground Northern High Plains Aquifer (which includes the Ogallala Aquifer) and the Great Plains Aquifer (GPA). But the SEIS notes that this is highly unlikely due to the geological characteristics of the area:“Modeling indicates that aquifer characteristics would inhibit the spread of released oil, and impacts from a release on water quality would be limited.”

The SEIS also considered environmentalists’ concern that the Keystone pipeline, which would cause a loss of only two acres of permanent wetlands, would adversely affect endangered wildlife.  The report concluded that it would not.

“Of the federally listed, proposed, and candidate species, the endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) is the only species  that is likely to be adversely affected by the proposed Project…but not likely to jeopardize [its] continued existence,” the report stated.

American burying beetle (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Nor would the Keystone project seriously impact the livelihoods of the 263,300 people living in the sparsely populated pipeline corridor.

“After construction, approximately 5,569 acres would be retained within permanent easements or acquired for operation of the proposed Project,” the SEIS added, but property owners would still be able to “farm or conduct other limited activities” within the pipeline’s 50-foot right of way.

The State Department’s 30-day public comment period on the Keystone Project SEIS ends on March 7th.

The business and economic reporting of is funded in part with a gift made in memory of Dr. Keith C. Wold.

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