Keystone XL impact study: pipeline safe from global warming!

I’ve spent the weekend trying to recall those unkind jokes about Americans whose understanding of world geography is confined to a map of the 49 mainland states.

Ironically, the old myth has been rekindled by the US government department responsible for international affairs. The State Department’s Friday afternoon release of the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t represent its finest hour.

The subject is of course a domestic and international touchstone for policy response to rising anxiety about climate change. However, in pursuing its brief to assess how the daily disgorgement of hundreds of thousands of barrels of diluted bitumen into Gulf Coast refineries might affect climate change, the Impact Statement informs us:

those portions of the environment that would be affected by the proposed Project ….. are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska

Try telling that to an East African coffee farmer whose plants are already at the limit of their temperature sensitivity. Last December, the UN Secretary-General described global warming as “an existential challenge for the whole human race.”

I’ve no doubt that the team of consultants engaged to conduct the assessment has followed the appropriate regulatory guidelines under the US National Environmental Policy Act. These evidently provide cover for the questionable assertion that “neither refining nor end-use is considered part of the review of the proposed Project.”

Limiting the boundaries of the study to the footprint of the pipeline, as opposed to its contents, renders the exercise irrelevant to the most vital questions and leads directly to its apparent green light for the project. However, the text does stray into territory which may strengthen the hand of activists bent on preventing the necessary presidential permit.

There’s a bizarre section titled “climate change impacts on the proposed project” (no, I haven’t inverted that phrase). This treats us to the latest climate model projections of temperature and rainfall in the regions to be traversed by the pipeline. Thoughtfully, the writers decide that “this analysis has taken a precautionary approach by using the worst-case projections to ensure potential impacts and outcomes are not underestimated.”

Evidently the Keystone planners are up to the mark on climate risk. The State Department has been reassured that the predicted combination of tempest, flood and heat wave can be withstood “because the proposed pipeline would be buried to at least 4 feet of cover to the top of the pipe.”

This is where I feel that the study is condemned out of its own mouth as a process unfit for purpose in the context of fossil fuel installations.

Based on figures published in the report, this worst case scenario, within the 50-year lifespan of the pipeline, envisages an average temperature rise for the region of just under 4 degrees centigrade compared with pre-industrial times.

Global warming of that order, in such a short timescale, is regarded by most serious observers as having consequences that may be beyond the coping capacity of organised human society.

The impact assessment therefore delivers a perverse reassurance that the pipeline will be secure in its snug underground world whilst the recipient refineries on the Texan coastline may be forced to relocate by storm tides.

Anyone questioning the wisdom of basing the impact assessment on the worst case emissions scenario is missing the fundamental point – Keystone XL is potentially the worst case scenario – it’s the standard-bearer for business-as-usual.

Debate about this pipeline should focus squarely on the warnings about climate change flagged by the International Energy Agency, a body traditionally sympathetic to fossil fuel industries. Its World Energy Outlook 2011 observed: “without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the (2 degrees) Scenario up to 2035.”

This call for a halt in infrastructure development was reinforced in the 2012 Outlook: “without significant deployment of carbon capture and storage, more than two-thirds of current proven fossil-fuel reserves cannot be commercialised in a 2-degree world before 2050.”

These highly respected alerts will be central to negotiations leading to a new international climate change agreement in 2015. Yet they’re ignored in this inward-looking State Department assessment of the pipeline.

We’re back where we started. Evaluating the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands as an item of US interstate transport logistics doesn’t address the questions that matter.

President Obama and his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, are not bound by the pointers of an impact assessment, either in this draft or in the eventual final version. They may yet choose to put international geography back into the US national interest and into the State Department.


Climate Change Impacts on the Proposed Project from Department of State

EU climate chief calls on US to block Keystone pipeline from RTCC

Climate Justice briefings