The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Keystone XL: Passing the Emissions Test

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted February 6, 2014

The folks at the Energy Collective hosted an interesting webchat discussion of the Keystone XL pipeline the other day, a good part of which focused on greenhouse gas emissions from the project and oil sands development – identified by President Obama as a key basis for his pipeline decision.

The big takeaway here: Even at the high end of estimates in the State Department’s latest Keystone XL environmental review, emissions would be a tiny fraction of global totals – hardly proving that the project would significantly exacerbate climate change.

More on the webchat below. First, let’s check what the State Department review said about KeystoneXL/oil sands emissions:

  • Total lifecycle emissions from production, refining and combustion of 830,000 barrels per day of crude – actually, crude from both Canadian oil sands and the U.S. Bakken region – transiting through the pipeline to Gulf Coast refineries is about 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
  • That compares with a range of 124-159 million tons per year in emissions from four reference crudes, selected as examples of crudes likely to be displaced by increased oil sands production.
  • The estimated range of increased emissions from oil sands over the reference crudes is 1.3-27.4 million tons per year.

State’s chart:


State’s analysis:

Section 1.4 (market analysis) notes that approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States (based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios).

The critically important point is that State does not believe approval or denial of the Keystone XL will have any significant bearing on oil sands development – hence these estimated emissions increases can’t be blamed on the pipeline.

Energy blogger Geoff Styles participated in the Energy Collective’s webchat and provided valuable perspective on the emissions question, which often is missing in arguments from pipeline opponents. Styles:

“If you take the high side of the incremental impact, 27 million tons a year of incremental greenhouse gas emissions, that’s 0.4 percent of current U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s comparable to what the U.S. emits from making glass, which is a relatively small source of emissions down the food chain. … Let’s assume that all of this crude ended up being additional to the market, 800,000 barrels a day of additional oil sands crude that would not be produced under any circumstances – they give a range of impact of 147 to 168 million metric tons a year, soup to nuts. That’s from the wellhead all the way to burning the fuel in your car, where 70-plus percent of the emissions occur. That figure is roughly 0.3 percent of global emissions of about 50 billion tons per year of greenhouse gases. So, to say that this is extraordinary, that it’s end game, that it’s game over – anything like that is a gross exaggeration.”

More from Styles:

“From my perspective, at that level for a project this size this does not meet the test that the president put up of ‘significant’ (emissions). The president said if the emissions are significant in exacerbating climate change he wouldn’t approve it. It’s hard to see how emissions at this scale are significant. Plug these into a climate model and they’re within the ‘uncertainty’ band. Twenty-seven million tons, that’s one-tenth of the uncertainty range of the U.S. greenhouse gas inventory. We’re talking about numbers here that get lost in the rounding.”   

Styles is spot-on. If the Keystone XL decision hinges on science and fact, it’s a no-brainer, a win for the United States in terms of job creation, economic stimulus and energy security – which clearly makes the Keystone XL in the national interest. These are tangible benefits, not slogans or abstract political symbols.

The decision on Keystone XL, a large infrastructure project that would broadly benefit the United States and help strengthen our partnership with Canada, our largest source of imported oil, should be based on the actual, factual merits of the project, not symbols or exaggerated claims. This means assessing the potential emissions impact attributable to the pipeline itself, which the State Department has done, over and over. The conclusion: Keystone XL’s approval or denial will have no significant impact on oil sands development – detaching the pipeline from emissions increases that in any event would be quite small.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.