Economics, Energy and the Environment

Opposition to Keystone XL: Global warming as the all-purpose excuse

Image Credit: Rena Schild /

Image Credit: Rena Schild /

The environmental left simply as a matter of general principle opposes oil production from Canadian tar sands, and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in particular. This opposition fundamentally is ideological (or religious); the environmental facts and the engineering realities and the market dynamics and the utter futility of preventing the exploitation of that enormous wealth are irrelevant.

And that futility is blazingly obvious. Railroads currently transport roughly 150,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil to the US; that is likely to increase to about 400,000 b/d in 2014, and to 700,000 b/d or more over the ensuing two or so years. (The planned capacity of Keystone XL is 830,000 b/d.) Accordingly, efforts to hamper the development and transport of the Canadian tar sands by blocking Keystone XL are doomed to failure, and so current projections of tar sands output are an increase from 1.8 million b/d in 2012 to 2.3 million b/d in 2015 and 4.5 million b/d in 2025-2030.

So what is the point of the opposition to Keystone XL? Again, we must return to the ideological/theological underpinning of that stance: the eternal effort of the environmental and political left to increase their political power generally and their ability to direct the use of others’ resources in particular. The mother of all tools with which to effect that outcome is global warming/climate change: it is the all-purpose excuse, the great silencer of opposing views, the Kim Il Sung-like idol before which all true believers must bow so as to demonstrate their bona fides.

Accordingly, what we will hear endlessly over the next year or two is that tar sands oil production—essentially because of the heat needed to produce and transport it, as it is heavy—results in carbon dioxide emissions about 17% higher than that of the average barrel used in the US. Seventeen percent! Note that this datum essentially is irrelevant because tar sands oil will be a very small part of world oil output—perhaps 4-5%—even by 2030.  And there remains the issue summarized above: the tar sands oil will come to the US, or to the world market one way or another, regardless of whether Keystone XL is constructed.

But let us assume, as does the Environmental Protection Agency, that without the pipeline, the oil will not be produced, thus avoiding that 17% increase in CO2 emissions, or about 18.7 million metric tons per year. By how much would prospective global warming be reduced? Answer: by less than one ten-thousandth of a degree C per year, using the EPA climate model simulator, under the assumption that the tar sands oil displaces no other oil in the world market. If it does displace other oil, the effect would be even smaller. Would someone please ask one of the prominent opponents of the pipeline about this?

One thought on “Opposition to Keystone XL: Global warming as the all-purpose excuse

  1. what would keep Keystone from having a US subsidiary that would negotiate with existing owners of pipeline right-of-way for adding a new pipeline or for that matter negotiating willing-selling/willing-buyer purchases instead of relying of government eminent domain?

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