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Re-Gifting False Carbon Claims on Keystone XL

This week pipeline critics are championing “new” evidence that Keystone XL will lead to carbon Armageddon. Notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary, a handful of anti-Keystone XL organizations presented President Obama with a memo that purports to shed new light on the carbon saga. Unfortunately, the report argues the same unsupported claims – just with a little new packaging.

The report claims that without Keystone XL Canadian oil sands would not be developed, even though the same report notes that oil demand and prices will rebound and oil will be needed to fuel the economy for decades. The U.S. State Department has concluded that oil sands development will move forward with or without Keystone XL:

“[Keystone XL] is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude refined in the Gulf Coast area.” (Executive Summary, Page 15).

President Obama’s carbon criterion must then be evaluated by this and two more undeniable facts:

  1. The United States will continue to utilize crude oil for gasoline, diesel, home heating and dozens of other products.
  2. Crude oil is sold on a global market driven by supply and demand.

Furthermore, we know that the carbon emitted from operating Keystone XL would be a drop in a very large bucket of annual U.S. emissions. To be precise, Keystone XL would account for 0.022% of total U.S. annual carbon emissions, based on figures from the State Department.  What pipeline opponents overlook is what U.S. carbon emissions would really look like in the absence of Keystone XL?

To find our answer, we’re updating our scientifically supported math on the carbon emission from transporting crude oil with the Keystone XL pipeline and without.

1) Operating the Keystone XL Pipeline

Pretty straight forward. U.S. State Department estimates, when operating, the Keystone XL Pipeline will generate 1.44 million metric tons of CO2E annually or 4.75 kg CO2E per barrel shipped.

How did the State Department make this estimate? The estimate is based off the average carbon density of power generators in the region, which are heavily reliant on coal-fired power.

Under the President’s Climate Action Plan states like Nebraska and Montana will need to drastically cut carbon emissions from power plants, which experts have predicted will lead to the closure of coal-fired plants in the region.  This point should not go unnoticed. The 1.44 million metric ton average would decline in forthcoming years as coal-fired power plants, which feed the KXL pump stations, close.

2) Crude Oil Shuffle 

What happens next we like to call the crude oil shuffle.

For the foreseeable future, the United States will utilize crude oil to make gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and home heating oil.  If the U.S. cannot import crude oil from Canada via pipeline then Gulf Coast refiners would turn to other sources of heavy crude for which Gulf refineries are optimized.  Venezuela and Mexico would be an option if not for a decline in production exported to the U.S.  Shipping by train is an option, but statistically it is not as safe as shipping crude by pipeline, particularly for long distances.  Pipelines are by far the safest mode of shipping for crude oil.

Where will the U.S. turn?  Middle East oil producers provide the heavier crude oil sought by Gulf Coast refiners, in particular, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Carbon Footprint from Seaborne Imports

The carbon impact of seaborne versus pipeline transport of crude oil is dramatic. Here is the math. The Keystone XL Pipeline would produce half the greenhouse gas per barrel compared to a barrel (bbl) imported by sea from the Middle East.

kg CO2E/bbl       % Difference

Canada / Keystone XL                            4.75                             N/A

Saudi Arabia                                           15.6                              +228%

Iraq                                                        15.9                              +234%

Kuwait                                                    16.1                              +239%


3) What will Canada do? 

The U.S. State Department environmental evaluation correctly notes development of the Canadian oil sands will move ahead notwithstanding construction of a new cross-border pipeline.  (This is a view shared by President Obama’s EPA Administrator).

Remembering crude oil is sold on a global market, then what is the next viable option for Canada?  One option is Asia.  Canadian producers will transport their product to British Columbia (via rail or new pipeline projects) to be then shipped by tanker to Asia.

Our estimate is based on Barr Engineering’s carbon emission equivalent estimates for oil transport from British Columbia to China.  Something to keep in mind: Keystone XL is predicted to ship 730,000 barrels of Canadian crude and 100,000 barrels of U.S. crude. Therefore, the estimates to China only include the 730,000 diverted barrels of Canadian crude.

An oil tanker traveling the 5,673 miles between Kitimat, B.C. to Ningbo, China will generate 20.76 kg CO2e/bbl.  Compared to the 4.75 kg CO2E/bbl generated by the Keystone XL Pipeline, we are looking at 337% spike in carbon intensity.

The crude oil shuffle now has Canada exporting oil to Asia generating 20.76 average kg CO2e/bbl and the U.S. importing oil from the Middle East 15.6 Average kg CO2E/bbl.

Let’s review.


Keystone XL Pipeline                       4.75 kg CO2E/bbl

Canada to China                               20.76 average kg CO2e/bbl

Middle East to the U.S.                     15.6 Average kg CO2E/bbl


Contrary to claims of critics, evaluating the numbers in a real world scenario shows the Keystone XL Pipeline is by far the best option.