Woodrow Wilson Center panel: “Is the Keystone XL pipeline in the national interest?”


Climate change and the environmental impacts of the proposed pipeline merited only secondary consideration when panels dominated by industry interests and Keystone XL supporters occupied the stage at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Environmentalist speakers were forced to spend much of the debate fending off industry’s questionable claims and the inherent bias of the panel.

Post by Katherine O’Konski

In continuing our coverage of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Climate Science Watch attended a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on September 22.  The event, entitled “Is the Keystone XL pipeline in the national interest?” focused on the implications for the future of US energy and national security, as well as the economic and environmental impacts of the project.

Conflicting viewpoints of both panelists and audience members brought hot tempers and controversy to the event that was dominated by industry interests and Keystone supporters.  Discourse was largely devoted to potential benefits of the pipeline for US national security and GDP; climate change and actual environmental impacts of the proposed project merited only passing mention. Environmental interests were forced to spend much of the debate fending off industry’s questionable claims and the inherent bias of the panel.

The first panel included Paul Sullivan from the National Defense University; Lou Pugliaresi from the Energy Policy Research Foundation; Lorne Stockman from Oil Change International; and Alexander Pourbaix representing TransCanada (the company seeking a permit to build the 1,700-mile pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Guld Coast).  The second panel featured Jon Rozhon from the Canadian Energy Research Institute; Anthony Swift from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); Jim Kimball from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and Jim Burkhard, managing director of IHS CERA’s Global Oil Group.

The only representatives of environmental interests were Mr. Stockman and Mr. Swift, making up the clear minority in both panels.  Further contributing to the pro-Keystone bias were the two opening speakers, Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) and Congressman Gene Green (D-Texas).  Both focused on the wealth and jobs created by the pipeline for their states – legitimate arguments.  But considering the magnitude of the outcry relating to the pipeline’s impact on climate change, Canada’s boreal forests, North American songbird populations, and the Ogallala Aquifer (the NRDC is calling the proposed pipeline “2,000 miles of environmental devastation”), that only two of ten speakers would address these concerns led to an unbalanced discussion.

Indeed, the industry-friendly slant on the first panel seemed an indication of the certainty in many minds that the proposed project will go through – an opinion that pervaded the discussion of issues presented in both panels.

Panel 1 addressed multiple controversial issues associated with the pipeline, not the least of which was its impact on the future of U.S. national security.  According to Mr. Pourbaix, Keystone XL would be a crucial development in alleviating the transfer of wealth to unstable and unfriendly nations of the Middle East.

More than just national security, the pipeline was touted as a means of bolstering the American economy with jobs and a cheap form of energy.  Petroleum projects have a high net value and provide growth with high rates of return that generate cash, an asset that would contribute to economic growth, fund security needs, and alleviate what Mr. Sullivan termed “our massive crushing debt.”

Mr. Stockman’s (from Oil Change International) counter arguments (which were accompanied by visible eye rolling and agitation from the other panelists) focused on IEA reports that US demand for oil is actually expected to decline until 2030 due to increased fuel efficiency standards, and that the purpose of Keystone is not to supply Americans with oil, but rather to facilitate oil exports from Texas refineries.  Furthermore, he contended that Canadian imports would not be able to fill a gap in supply resulting from disruption in the Middle East.  Nor should we forget that the impacts of climate change should be an important factor in considering the future of US national security, and is recognized as such by the Pentagon and other analysts.

Mr. Stockman’s points are echoed and clearly explained in this NRDC blog post by Danielle Droitsch. Information on climate change as a threat to US national security can be found in these CSW posts.

Another hotly debated question: If the US doesn’t build the pipeline, will the tar sands continue to be developed and reach other markets?  Mr. Pourbaix of TransCanada was firm in his conviction that even if Keystone XL isn’t approved, oil sands development will continue, expanding into Asian markets rather than American ones.

However, the evidence for this claim isn’t so clear-cut.  First, there is the problem of the Northern Gateway Pipeline that is proposed to bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia and from there to California and Asia via oil tankers.  The proposal faces strong opposition from First Nations groups, which have considerable power and land rights under Canadian constitutional law.  First Nations of the Central and North Pacific Coast have already issued a declaration banning tar sands crude oil tanker traffic from traveling through their territories.  The ban can be enforced through the Canadian courts and through legal action at the international level (see here).  Another declaration was issued this past December against the Northern Gateway pipeline itself, and First Nations groups have publicly rejected a 10% stake in the proposed project.

So it seems that at the very least, the fate of the infrastructure necessary to pipe oil sands crude to Asian markets is not a done deal.  In addition, available refining capacities of Asian countries indicate that sending tar sands crude across the Pacific might not be a viable option in the short term.  In a 2010 report, Nathan Lemphers of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank, found that “only refineries in North and South China are potential recipients of diluted bitumen, as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do not have the refining capacity that can handle the heavier, sour diluted bitumen.”

Still, the panel closed with the comment that the oil sands are to be the engine of Canadian economic growth for the next 50 years, and that its importance to the Canadian economy will ensure its development.

These sentiments were echoed in the panelists’ assessment of the US energy future.  “I understand that many against the pipeline are against oil,” Mr. Sullivan said.  “But 27% of our energy needs come from oil, and to move rapidly from oil to clean energies is fantastical if you think it’s going to happen any time quickly.”

Mr. Stockman contested. “It’s not about the individual emissions,” he said.  “It’s about the infrastructure we’re locking in and the attitudes we’re furthering when we should be investing in alternative energies.”

The second panel contrasted projected job growth and positive economic impacts with the projected environmental implications of the project.  Mr. Rozhon, Mr. Kimball, and Mr. Burkhard all pointed out the potential benefits to the US in terms of job creation in an economy with 14 million unemployed.  Mr. Burkhard in particular cited the potential of Keystone XL for creating a “great revival” of US oil production.

Mr. Swift from NRDC pointed to the worrying environmental impacts of the pipeline, including the danger to the Ogallala Aquifer, which supports both irrigation and drinking water for 2 million Americans.  A leak would be absolutely devastating, and considering the recent whistleblower allegations against Keystone’s precursor pipeline, not unlikely.

“But these are hard truths about our economy and our way of life,” Mr. Burkhard countered, arguing that we must consider the benefits of the project when evaluating the costs.

There was one thing all the panelists could agree on, however. The debate over Keystone XL is the outcome of the lack of clear and comprehensive policy framework for the role of fossil fuels vs. renewable resources.  As a country, the US does not have enough consensus and political will to support one type of development over another, and in its absence these types of projects emerge.

It is abundantly clear from this panel that despite the efforts by scientists and activists alike to keep climate change in the public eye as the main objection to the pipeline project, industry interests are dominating much of the debate.  Even among the environmental interests at this panel, climate change was not given sufficient attention, partly a result of needing to focus on fighting off industry claims about the benefits of the project.  Indeed, the overall sentiment from industry was that approval for the project is imminent, whether or not the claims for unemployment, the economy, and national security hold true.

Jim Hansen has argued from his scientific analysis that full development of the massive pool of carbon contained in the Canadian tar sands would make irreversible change inevitable – “game over for the climate,” as he puts it. The pipeline would be yet another major investment with long-term consequences, locking us into a carbon economy future when the need has never been greater to start stabilizing emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The last thing we need, that the planet needs, is another affirmation of our inability to get ourselves on the path to a clean energy economy.

Archived webcast and Wilson Center write-up

Earlier posts:
McKibben: With the Keystone Pipeline, Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”

Letter from scientists calling on Obama to block the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

Keystone XL pipeline decision a clear test of Obama’s character and commitment on climate change

In support of protest at the White House to call for veto of Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

“Greening of Canadian Oil Sands: A View Across the Border”

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