The Environmental Left and Keystone XL

Man walking on pipeline. Flickr/Creative Commons/Lenny K Photography

Why, on every measure, Keystone XL opponents’ arguments don’t hold up.

Everything old is new again, the latest manifestation of which is the reaction of the environmental Left to the news that President Donald Trump has issued presidential memoranda and an executive order resurrecting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and beginning the process of reversing the abject obstructionism of the Obama administration toward infrastructure investment for the production and transport of fossil fuels.

Only those with hearts of stone could fail to laugh at the anguish and hysteria attendant upon the Trump actions. They are “unwise and immoral.” “Keystone XL is a carbon bomb that would cook the planet.” “Donald Trump has been in office for four days, and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be.”

And so on. Such deeply Pavlovian reactions reveal much about the Mussolini-like mindset of the leftists—all within climate-change dogma, nothing outside climate change dogma, nothing against climate change dogma—but zero about the actual realities of climate effects, safety issues and all the rest. And so let us address the various arguments made against Keystone XL, which can be summarized as follows:

• Keystone XL would worsen climate change significantly.

• The pipeline would threaten jobs and communities with spills.

• The pipeline would increase dirty tar-sands oil production in Canada because shipping tar-sands oil by rail to the Gulf Coast has proven too expensive.

• The project would create only thirty-five permanent jobs and only 1,950 temporary jobs during a two-year construction period.

• The pipeline would threaten water resources, as it would pass within a mile of more than three thousand drinking-water and irrigation wells, and cross more than one thousand rivers, lakes and streams.

• Most of the Canadian tar-sands crude would be refined and shipped overseas rather than used in the United States.

With respect to climate change, Keystone XL would transport 830,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude oil, the total GHG emissions from which would be 147–159 million metric tons per year on a life-cycle basis. In the extreme case in which that oil does not displace any other crude oil production elsewhere in the world, the increase in GHG emissions would be about 0.4 percent of the world total. So: what would the resulting temperature effect be in the year 2100, using the National Center for Atmospheric Research climate model, under the highest IPCC assumption about the climate sensitivity of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations? Answer: about four ten-thousandths of a degree, a number rather inconsistent with apocalypse view of Keystone XL as a “carbon bomb that would cook the planet.”

Transport of oil by pipeline is substantially safer and lower-risk in terms of spills than transport by rail or truck, the real-world alternative to Keystone XL. An examination of the data shows that for crude oil and petroleum products in the United States, pipelines carry about 70 percent of the ton-miles; the respective figures for water transport, trucking and railroads are 23 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent. If we ignore water transport (not relevant as an alternative for Keystone XL), the data on incidents—explosions or fires, releases (spills) of five gallons or more, fatalities, personal injuries requiring hospitalization, or all-inclusive property damage exceeding $50,000—are summarized in Table 8 of Green and Furchtgott-Roth, “Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil.”

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