Stopping Keystone XL Won't Stop Global Warming

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Environmentalists might be able to derail the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But that won't make a difference in the battle against global warming.

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Lois Parshley / The Atlantic

This weekend, the growing protest movement aimed at halting the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline officially entered its pageantry phase. A reported 10,000 activists converged on the White House Sunday to telegraph their message to President Barack Obama, whose administration must decide whether to approve the pipeline's construction. The were polar bear costumes. There was chanting. There was a human chain around the White House grounds and an inflatable replica of the pipeline itself.

The protest may or may not have helped persuade the president, who was apparently off playing golf for most of the afternoon. But in the meantime, it has helped obscure a sad truth: When it comes to combating global warming, the protestors' putative goal, stopping the pipeline won't mean much.

Environmentalists have characterized their battle against Keystone XL as both a critical stand in the battle against carbon emissions and as a final test of the administration's green bona fides. The pipeline would transport crude oil mined from Alberta, Canada's massive tar sand deposits directly to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. Because they require so much energy to process, tar sands are considered a particularly noxious source of greenhouse gases. So, frustrated by Obama's inability to pass climate change legislation, the green movement has turned the pipeline into a 1,600-mile-long proxy battle.

"If the US government goes ahead and makes it easier to develop that oil-sands project, then there is no credible way to insist that they're working hard on climate change," protest organizer told Bill McKibben told yesterday's crowd.

Except the administration's choice may well be irrelevant. Oil companies are investing vast resources in developing the tar sands, including firms from energy hungry China. And whether or not Keystone XL gets built, chances are those corporations will find a way to move their crude to market.

You know that line from No Country For Old Men: "You can't stop what's comin'"? It applies here.

In December 2010, Ensys Energy and Navigistics Consulting released a study, commissioned by the Department of Energy, that measured Keystone XL's potential impact on global oil markets. The report's basic conclusion: In the long term, it wasn't that important. There were several other major pipelines in the works that would pick up the slack if Keystone was derailed. Those alternative routes might not send oil to the Gulf, but they could move it to Canada's west coast, where it would be shipped to Asian markets. In the end, Keystone XL would have a minimal affect on prices, Canada's overall production, or greenhouse gas emissions.

Since that report, though, those additional pipelines have encountered hardy resistance from both environmental groups and Canada's Native American tribes. So the Energy Department commissioned a follow-up study asking another more specific question: What would happen if there were no new pipelines?

This August, the consultants delivered an answer. Their findings aren't pretty for anyone who would like to slow down mining in the tar sands. Even without any new pipelines, energy companies still have a multitude of options for moving their crude, either to the U.S. or to Asia.

According to the study, railroads alone would be able to make up the transportation capacity necessary to keep Canada's oil production growing apace. Rail is already used to move some tar sands oil, and in some circumstances, it's actually cheaper than a pipeline. Shipping by train also doesn't require any new permitting. Or in other words, there isn't much environmental groups can do to halt it.

And that's just one option. Barges and tankers are another alternative, as are adjustments to existing pipeline infrastructure. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, could even try to build a portion of its pipeline extending from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf without State Department approval, since that section doesn't cross international borders. The economics of that particular project would tricky, but it demonstrates just how much flexibility the industry enjoys.

Environmentalists aren't the only ones guilty of hyperbole. Canada's National Post ran an article titled "The Stranded Oil Sands" pondering the long-term damage the demise Keystone XL could inflict on the country's oil economy. "Everybody in the industry is thinking about this," one executive told the paper. "Keystone XL is not the only solution, but it is a very elegant solution and it really would have an impact on the industry if it doesn't proceed in a timely way."

Elegant, yes. Essential, no. As the August DOE report put it, "it is difficult to conceive" of a situation where Canada's oil producers aren't eventually able to move their product. The Obama administration could make the logistics harder by rejecting Keystone XL, but that's about all. Ultimately, the tar sands will still be mined. The crude will still get shipped to refineries. And the product will be burned as fuel.

Sometimes, you can't stop what's comin'.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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