Keystone XL Oil Pipeline: A Symbolic Struggle Steeped In Fuzzy Math
This is the second of two articles about the controversy surrounding the development of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The first installment can be found here.
At the end of September, the mayor of tiny Atkinson, Neb., sat calmly waiting for an invasion. David Frederick's rural outpost of about 1,000 residents, set along the northeastern edge of Nebraska's Sandhills, was about to see its population briefly swelled by a phalanx of U.S. State Department officials, itinerant union laborers, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and reporters.
The crowds were headed Frederick's way for a final public airing of opinions along the proposed route of the Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile stretch of pipe and pumps that would link a mammoth oil patch in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Nebraska would account for 257 of those miles, and maps show the proposed pipeline slicing clear through the state's midsection, passing a few miles west of Atkinson.
But there are also lots of other towns near the proposed oil route, and it wasn't clear even to Frederick how Atkinson's high school gymnasium had been chosen for the national spotlight. "I've never been directly contacted," the mayor said in his tidy Main Street office just hours before the throngs arrived. "This was very much presented as, 'The State Department is having a party, you're going to host it and you're in charge of cleaning up afterward.' "
Oil pipelines can have a similar way of just showing up, and as environmental groups or local residents dispute such landgrabs, acrimony tends to follow. Even for a pipeline, though, the debate surrounding the Keystone XL project has been rancorous. Charges of high-level malfeasance and corporate bullying mingle with accusations of environmental alarmism and energy ignorance in what arguably has become the most hotly debated stretch of oil pipeline in the nation's history.
For more than three years, the State Department, which must grant a permit for the project to cross the U.S. border, has deliberated over the pipeline's potential impacts and whether it is in the national interest. The rhetorical skirmishing has become increasingly heated during that time, with pipeline opponents accusing State of pandering to industry while supporters charge anti-oil activists with hijacking the issue to further their cause.
Much of the attention thus far has focused on the potential environmental impacts of the pipeline, as well as the State Department's handling of the review. But a close examination of other aspects of the project suggests that the struggle is in many ways a symbolic one, pitting supporters of clean energy against those who say fossil fuels aren't going away anytime soon. At the same time, the contributions of Keystone XL to employment and energy security in the United States often don't match the claims of its proponents -- and TransCanada, the company behind the project, is often guilty of fudging the numbers to make its case for the pipeline.
For his part, Mayor Frederick said he doesn't mind the pipeline. He just wishes it went around, rather than through, the massive aquifer that feeds his community and hundreds of others across that part of the American breadbasket. He also said he wasn't sure what his town stood to gain by having the line pass through the area. "I'm not sure how it would affect our local economy," Frederick said. "But that's how I'm going to be as a businessman and a local taxpayer. I want to know, what's our benefit?"
More than anything else, the raging debate over Keystone XL demonstrates the difficulty of generating answers universally accepted as "correct." Oil interests, for example, concede that harvesting oil from the tar sands for eventual end-use in vehicles weighs more heavily on the environment than the conventional oil-to-gasoline life cycle, but experts differ on the extent of the damage. Estimates of the increase in carbon footprint have ranged from 5 percent, a figure favored by industry, to more than 30 percent, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Given the varying figures, analysts can either reject or confirm the oft-repeated claim, first made by former Vice President Al Gore, that "gasoline made from the tar sands gives a Toyota Prius the same impact on climate as a Hummer using gasoline made from oil."
Alberta's tar sands have a big
carbon footprint, though they differ
over how big. (Getty)
Call Michael Levi a skeptic on that point. The director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, Levi used 15 percent as his benchmark and, after applying a little arithmetic to the Hummer aphorism, declared it untrue. Using the 15 percent figure, a Hummer running on conventional oil is still 4.3 times more carbon intensive than a Prius using gas derived from tar sands oil.
"It's just dead wrong," Levi said. "I can't believe that in over two years Gore hasn't bothered to correct this."
When asked about the critique, Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider passed on an explanation from the former vice president's 2009 book "Our Choice," which first presented the Hummer analogy. Using extraction and processing data from a 2008 National Energy Technology Laboratory report, Gore determined that the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions for tar sands compared to conventional oil was "roughly five-to-one."
The Department of Energy, meanwhile, gives the Prius only a three-to-one advantage over the Hummer in fuel efficiency. "The greater CO2 emissions resulting from the extraction and processing of oil from tar sands," Gore wrote, "overwhelm the fuel economy benefits of a Prius."
Levi argued, however, that the fuel-efficiency benefits of a Prius apply not just to the emissions that arise during "extraction and processing" of oil, but to discharges from the tailpipe. "Compare two worlds," he said. "In the first, we all drive Hummers and use normal oil; in the second, we all drive Priuses and use oil-sands crude. Which is worse for the climate? There is zero question as to the correct answer."