January 18, 2013 2:38PM

Battling over Keystone XL

The Washington Post has an article today on the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline.  There is a sense of urgency on both sides as the decision on the project is expected to be fast approaching.

The Post features arguments from pipeline proponents that the project will provide an economic boost to the state of Nebraska, and from pipeline opponents that the oil carried though it will lead to more carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought, thus upping the impact on global warming and climate change.

But the numbers being tossed about don’t tell the whole story.

First, a look at the new economic claims. An analysis from the Consumer Energy Alliance concludes that during the two year construction phase of the pipeline, the economic activity in Nebraska will increase by a bit more than $400 million per year—generating directly or indirectly, about 5,500 new jobs. Sounds impressive, but this boost is short-lived. After that, for the next 15 years, the economic input drops down to about $67 million/yr, supporting about 300 jobs.  A net positive, but not as much as many proponents claim.

The climate claims are even less significant. In its new report, Oil Change International asserts that the current estimates of the well-to-wheel (WTW) carbon dioxide emissions from oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands have been underestimated. They claim that the State Department failed to fully include carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of the petroleum coke that is produced as a side product of producing oil from the tar sands. This “petcoke” can be burned like coal, and in fact, is cheaper and more energy dense than coal, so it is often preferable.  According to Oil Change International, including the petcoke in the calculation would increase the WTW carbon dioxide emissions by about 13 percent.

There are several things wrong with the Oil Change International analysis. First is that the State Department actually did include a considerable discussion of the influence of the treatment of petcoke in its assessment.  It concluded, just like Oil Change International, that if the petcoke is burned, it increases the total wells-to-wheels carbon dioxide emissions of Canadian tar sands oil by the same 13 percent.  But what the State Department points out, and which Oil Change International plays down, is that the burning of petcoke to produce energy by and large displaces the use of coal for the same purpose.  So instead of the total emissions, what is important is the incremental carbon dioxide emissions produced from using petcoke instead of coal. And when that number is used, the WTW emissions increase by less than 1 percent—which is why the State Department concluded that the fate of the petcoke really wasn’t all that significant in the overall WTW emissions calculation.

But whether consideration of petcoke increases the WTW carbon dioxide emissions of the tar sands oil by 1%, 13%, or any number in between, really doesn’t matter anyway in terms of its impact of global warming.  For as I have shown previously, the global warming potential of the Keystone XL pipeline oil is only about 0.00001°C/yr.  Increase that by 13% and you basically get the same environmentally insignificant number.  In fact, you’d have to increase it by several orders of magnitude before it is even worth paying attention to.

The war over the pipeline will probably rage on until (and even after) a decision is reached in a couple of months. Hopefully, emotion will play a role secondary to facts.