Are Environmentalists Getting It Wrong on the Keystone XL Pipeline?

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Focusing on how it would contribute to emissions overshadows the large risk of spills -- and diverts attention from more effective ways to cut down on carbon.

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Thousands of environmentalists will flock to Washington on Sunday for what's being billed as history's largest rally for climate change action. It will be their third such show of force since mid-2011, an unusually long period of unity in the time since landmark clean air and water laws passed in the 1970s. Climate activists are playing the "outside game" that twice powered President Obama to victory -- and their top target is Keystone XL, the $5.3 billion plan to pipe heavy fuel from Canada's oil sands to the Gulf Coast.

"If President Obama is serious about tackling climate change in his second term, we're calling on him to reject Keystone XL once and for all," the green group 350.org wrote in announcing the protest.

That demand has moved Democratic donors to warn of closed checkbooks and college students to blockade oil-company offices. Bill McKibben, 350.org's co-founder, led dozens of fellow anti-KXL activists in getting arrested outside the White House on Wednesday. But turning the pipeline into the nation's leading symbol of the greenhouse-gas-emissions threat leads to two significant problems.

First, the campaign diverts public attention from a more immediate, less well-understood hazard: It's not clear that federal regulators can ensure the pipeline will run safely if it is approved. Moreover, environmentalists' spotlight on Keystone XL could undermine their own goals. Within our borders, Obama can guarantee emissions savings bigger than the pipeline's denial would represent -- while still avoiding congressional gridlock -- by setting the strictest possible pollution standards for new and existing power plants.

At the heart of the case against KXL, a project of oil giant TransCanada, is a slippery-slope argument. No one disputes that the fuel it would carry is dirtier than conventional crude, but greens portray the pipeline as a momentous leap toward long-term domination for the fossil-fuel industry, a 36-inch steel glide path to bloated emissions for decades to come. The attack is bearing some fruit, as prices for western Canada's heavy crude have fallen, spooking the government and making oilmen reconsider their plans in the region.

McKibben's team can't guarantee, however, that killing the pipeline will slow the march of oil-sands development for good. Resistance already has prompted oil companies to consider alternative shipment plans, from using railcars and barges to expanding Midwestern pipe networks owned by Enbridge, a TransCanada competitor. You may remember Enbridge from the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, caused by a corroded Michigan pipe that leaked more than 800,000 gallons of Canadian oil in 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board found that 81 percent of that oil gushed after Enbridge employees misread alarms along their purportedly state-of-the-art system and twice tried to restart the pipeline.

Here's where the safety risks surrounding KXL -- the ones that play second fiddle to talk of oil-sands emissions -- come into play. TransCanada's first line of defense is the same technology that failed to stop the Enbridge spill, but even if it works perfectly, as much as 2 percent of the pipeline's daily volume could escape from tiny leaks that are hard to detect. While that number sounds small, a 1-percent leak from KXL would gush as many as 8,300 barrels of oil per day and cause a spill three times the size of the Michigan disaster within a week.

The Obama Administration acknowledged that danger in its thousand-plus-page review of the project, writing that "although the total volume of a release from a pinhole leak could be relatively large" and might continue "for days or a few weeks ... in most cases the oil would likely remain" close to the pipeline.

When anti-pipeline activists discuss spills, it's usually in the context of still-tenuous claims that heavy fuel wears down pipelines more quickly. But even if KXL is no more spill-prone than the average pipeline, leaks are inescapable: The administration projected more than one "significant" spill of at least 50 barrels somewhere along its path every year.

Even if Keystone XL is no more spill-prone than the average pipeline, leaks are inescapable: The administration projected more than one "significant" spill of at least 50 barrels somewhere along its path every year.

If environmentalists had made safety, not emissions, the centerpiece of their political charge against KXL they might have prodded the White House into promoting meaningful new regulations for all oil and gas pipeline operators. Instead, the handful of voices -- led by conservative Nebraskans who gave Obama cover to twice delay a decision -- crying out for more attention to the danger of a spill is lost amid the clamor over the pipeline's contribution to climate change.

Sizing up that contribution demonstrates the second downside of making KXL the rallying point for global-warming action. Rejecting the pipeline would save a maximum of about 180 million tons of carbon dioxide per year -- under the questionable assumption that Canadian production would be permanent and not replaced by crude from a developing world where oil demand is rising. In America, the pipeline "is unlikely to have any impact on the amount" of imported oil, according to an analysis commissioned by the Department of Energy.

In contrast, strong carbon-emissions rules for existing U.S. power plants alone would pay off with guaranteed cuts that grow every year while encouraging industry to invest in cleaner technology and further efficiency measures. By 2020 the total carbon-dioxide savings would reach 563 million tons and push power-industry omissions 26 percent below their 2005 levels, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The same green groups fighting the pipeline are pressing Obama for stricter power-plant pollution standards, and hoped (in vain) that the president might publicly commit to them during his State of the Union address. Meanwhile, this weekend's protest casts KXL as the leading climate-change litmus test for the next four years of an administration. That's a big gamble, since Obama is known to mete out victories and setbacks to fossil fuels in seemingly equal measure. In 2011, for example, the White House punted on new ozone standards -- score one for oil and gas -- weeks before the EPA released tough new mercury rules. Will environmentalists still celebrate if the White House rejects the pipeline, only to delay or weaken power-plant emissions limits?

Of course, climate activists might run the table in Obama's second term, stopping KXL and championing strong power-plant rules. Even if they only prevail on the pipeline, they appear prepared to embrace a strategy of emulating Republicans' first-term obduracy against Obama -- saying "no" to almost every fossil-fuel infrastructure plan, from oil sands shipments to coal and natural gas exports.

In that event, Sunday's protest will be just the first of many for American greens. Balancing their demands to say "no" to Keystone XL by offering the president a way to say "yes," an affirmative agenda to speed our transition to cleaner energy technology, will be a challenge.

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Elana Schor is a 2012-13 Knight Fellow in Science Journalism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She covers energy politics, focusing on Keystone XL, for Environment & Energy Publishing.

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