Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News > Post and Comments

Latest News

In Wake of State Dept Report on Keystone XL, Enviros Pledge to Keep Fighting

“The President has all the information he needs to reject this pipeline,” Keystone opponents say

A general rule in Washington, DC says that if news is breaking on a Friday afternoon, it’s usually bad news. Officials in the capital know that if they want to avoid negative attention on a decision or announcement, then the eve of the weekend is the best time to drop it.

Keystone protest poster in front of White HousePhoto by TarsandsactionEnvironmental activists are already mobilizing to hold anti-Keystone vigils across the US on Monday night.

It would seem, then, that the State Department’s release of its final environmental impact statement on the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would at 3 p.m. (Eastern Time) on a Friday would be discouraging for environmentalists opposed to the project. And, indeed, the initial reports appeared to confirm greens’ fears that the State Department analysis would offer the rosiest of scenarios. According to The Washington Post, the State Department review concluded that Keystone “would not significantly alter global greenhouse gas emissions.”

But in a flurry of press releases and statements put out this afternoon, environmental groups pointed out that a careful reading of the report — especially the various scenarios it forecasts — shows that the greenhouse gas emissions will increase if the pipeline is built. As the report states, “[t]he total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.”

In a tele-press conference held late Friday afternoon, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the NRDC’s Keystone XL campaigner, said: “The range of incremental greenhouse gas emissions for crude oil that would be transported by Keystone XL is estimated to be 1.3 to 27.4 million metric tons of CO2 annually. When it comes to climate change pollution, this tar sands pipeline would be like putting up to 5.7 million extra cars on the road each year.”

That’s a huge range — between 1.3 and 27.4 million metric tons — and the difference explains why you’re likely to read all sorts of contradictory analyses about the State Department report in the next couple of days. The State Department’s analysis relies on the assumption that we’ll continue business as usual, keep guzzling fuel for years into the future, and do whatever it takes to keep the oil flowing. Environmentalists, of course, are committed to changing business as usual and spurring Americans and their elected officials to finally get serious about addressing climate change. Environmentalists say we must dramatically reduce our oil consumption to maintain the conditions for global civilization. And if that’s the assumption you’re working with, then clearly Keystone XL is a disaster.

Here's author-activist Bill McKibben’s analysis of the State Department report: “The intrusion of reality into this process is really important. The report concluded that in a scenario where we take climate change seriously and regulate climate pollution, this pipeline will indeed have a ‘significant impact’ on climate change. So now we’ll find out if that’s the world Barack Obama and John Kerry want. This report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”

This dispute over the potential, likely, and possible impacts of Keystone XL can feel confusing because it deals in so many counterfactuals and so much crystal ball-gazing. For example, today’s report says:

“Several analysts and financial institutions have stated that denying the proposed Project would have significant impacts on oil sands production. To the extent that other assessments appear to differ from the analysis in this report, they typically do so because they have different focuses, near-term time scales, or production expectations, and/or include less detailed data and analysis about rail than this report.” 

To put that in lay terms: Any analysis of the pipeline’s impact will be informed by the time period you’re using to make your analysis, and by the assumptions you make about whether there will be future action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to environmental groups, the State Department report’s greatest weakness is its failure to even consider a scenario under which the US takes action on climate change.

"What the report fails to consider is just as significant,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said. “The market analysis assumes that over the next 20 years there will be no new efforts to curb carbon pollution and stimulate advanced batteries, fuel efficiency and clean energy – which, if true, would prevent us from meeting the challenge of climate disruption.”

Even within the report’s own narrow frame of possibilities, it seems to overstate the ability to ship tar sands oil through and to the US without a new pipeline. The report says:

“While short-term physical transportation constraints introduce uncertainty to industry outlooks over the next decade, new data and analysis in Section 1.4, Market Analysis, indicate that rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed.”

Shorter version: It doesn’t matter if Keystone XL is built, the Canadian producers will just ship the tar sands via rail. True, rail shipments of crude oil are at an all time high. But experts say it’s unlikely that rail could take the place of the pipeline. As Reuters reported last year: “Some industry officials, energy analysts and recent data raise questions about whether the industry is really eager to adopt crude-by-rail should the US government rule against the TransCanada Corp. pipeline.

They say train transport is so expensive that Canadian heavy crude, produced by processing bituminous sand, isn't likely to reach Texas and Louisiana in Keystone-like quantities by rail.”


On the tele-press conference, at least one reporter, Bloomberg’s Mark Drajem, seemed eager to frame the report as a bummer for environmentalists. Drajem asked whether the environmental campaigners were “disappointed” by the report.

No one took the bait. Instead, the enviros stayed firm in making their case that, as McKibben put it, the president has the information he needs to deny the pipeline. More importantly, environmental groups say they are committed to keep putting pressure on the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to reject the project.

Environmental activists are already mobilizing to hold anti-Keystone vigils across the US on Monday night. More than 75,000 people have pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience to communicate to the president their opposition to the pipeline. And the issue is likely to be a hot issue in the mid-term elections if the president still hasn’t made a decision on the project by later this year.

“This is not a final decision, it’s just a study, it does not recommend a course of action,” longtime Keystone opponent Kenny Bruno said on the call today. “The game is not over, we are just entering the fourth quarter. We think the wind is at our back. The decision is now in the hands of climate champions John Kerry and Barack Obama.”

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



If the Keystone XL pipeline is given the"go ahead”,I think an additional twin pipeline for fresh water should be considered since the equipment will already be in place. Isn’t available water as or even more important for national security?  ?Michael J Muchnock II author ,White Buffalo Spirit

By Mike Muchnock on Fri, February 07, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Remember my personal information?

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!