Surprise! Keystone XL will make climate change worse

Hal Hodson | New Scientists | August 10, 2014

Try not to faint from shock. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil through the US, will make climate change worse. It will boost global emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 110 million tonnes per year. The finding will step up the pressure on US president Barack Obama to stop the pipeline being built.

That extra CO2 is not a huge amount on a global scale. "But it is a step in the wrong direction," says Jerry Schnoor of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who was not involved in the new analysis. "It is an investment that will lock us into an untenable environmental situation. It's a pipeline to nowhere, economically speaking."

Keystone XL, proposed by the Canadian energy company TransCanada, is intended to run from Alberta, Canada, to Steel City, Nebraska. There it would link to existing pipes, to carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries on the US's Gulf of Mexico coast.

It has proved to be enormously controversial. Its supporters argue it will boost the economy, while environmentalists say the toxic oil could be spilled and that it encourages the use of tar sands, which produce more greenhouse gases than normal oil.

Extra carbon dioxide

Barack Obama must decide whether to allow its construction. On 25 June 2013, he mentioned Keystone XL in a speech about climate change. Obama said that the pipeline could be built only if it " does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution". Now it seems it will.

The new study comes from Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle, Washington. They estimated how much building Keystone XL would affect oil prices. For every barrel of extra oil obtained from tar sands as a result of the pipeline, global oil consumption would increase by 0.6 barrels, because the extra oil would lower oil prices and encourage people to use more.

"The maths works out. The model is simple and straightforward," says Nico Bauer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

It makes sense, says Schnoor. "Common sense holds that the Keystone XL pipeline will increase supply from the Alberta oil sands region," he says. That's because the bottleneck in the whole system is getting the oil to the refineries. "Canada has much more oil sands that could be brought into production if they had infrastructure to get it refined and to market."