U.S. decision on Keystone XL pipeline took climate consequences into account

Blog - Jan. 19, 2012 - By Jennifer Grant

The Obama administration’s surprise decision to deny the proposed Keystone XL pipeline created quite the media storm yesterday, and for good reason.

In defending the decision, the president highlighted the risks the project could pose to “the health and safety of the American people and [to] the environment,” and the need to adequately review those concerns. And while a wide range of responses surfaced from the Republicans, Democrats, public opinion leaders and local interest groups, one story in particular caught our eye.

Canada argued to exclude oilsands climate impacts from decisionmaking

It turns out that while the U.S. government deliberated over the final decision for the Keystone XL pipeline, the Alberta government was unsuccessfully urging the U.S. to disregard the climate change impacts associated with expanding oilsands development to fill the pipeline.

Through Access to Information Legislation, Canadian reporter Mike de Souza obtained letters exchanged between Alberta Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Canada's U.S. Ambassador Gary Doer. The correspondence shows Canada’s explicit lobbying efforts to persuade the U.S. to exclude climate change impacts from its final decision about the Keystone XL project.

However, the U.S. EPA pushed back and argued that the U.S. government should factor the entire footprint of oilsands pollution into the decision, since it affects its own citizens as well as the rest of the world:

"Given that the possible consequences of greenhouse gas emissions are global in nature...we believe it is appropriate that the State Department consider these upstream greenhouse gas emissions in its evaluation."
— EPA administrator
“Given that the possible consequences of greenhouse gas emissions are global in nature, they include potential impacts on the United States, and we believe it is appropriate that the State Department consider these upstream greenhouse gas emissions in its evaluation," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote on Dec. 7, 2010 in response to a letter from Doer.

Even Environment Canada agrees that "the oilsands are Canada's fastest growing source” of greenhouse gas emissions, and by no means is this growth insignificant. Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands has grown by over 150 per cent. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada's number show, they're going to keep right on growing, tripling from 30 million tonnes in 2005 to 92 million tonnes in 2020.

The projected growth in greenhouse gas emissions is particularly concerning because — as the EPA recognizes — the climate is a global resource, and because countries around the world are taking significant steps to reduce their emissions while Canada is working hard to make sure emissions from this industry are allowed to continue rising.

There is a massive disconnect between Prime Minister Harper’s “profound disappointment” in Obama’s decision, the ongoing lobbying efforts by key diplomats and the climate change consequences of expanded oilsands development. This disconnect continues to put Canada’s reputation and economic competitiveness at significant risk.

Lessons for Canada

Today’s decision on the Keystone pipeline carries some important lessons for Canada:

  1. The federal government’s lobbying efforts and recent protests about “radical groups” hijacking our regulatory system in the case of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project miss a key point that the EPA and others get: the environmental impacts of the Keystone XL, the Enbridge Gateway pipeline and the oilsands themselves are a shared, global concern. Pollution doesn’t stop at the border, which is why the development and transport of the oilsands are garnering international attention.
  2. Due public process is critical to making an informed decision. A thorough and fair analysis requires consideration of alternatives and willingness to not only hear, but act upon, the concerns of citizens. The federal government should welcome the input from the 4000-plus individuals who have signed up to participate in the Gateway community hearings, rather than making advance judgments about the validity of their concerns and publicly musing about the need for regulatory reform at the start of the hearings. (The only truly “radical” act of late is this attempt by the Harper government to undermine its own regulator, the National Energy Board!)
  3. Major decisions about complex energy production and infrastructure projects should never be considered  “no brainers”. Such decisions need to be made on the basis of a broad understanding of the issues and the public interest, not the private interests of oil companies.

The response of our government to the news about Keystone XL shows that Canada is a long way off from reconciling oilsands greenhouse emissions growth and our own national climate target. Whether we’re talking about Keystone XL or the proposed Gateway project, it's premature to start building additional pipeline capacity from the oilsands until we have a credible plan in place to responsibly manage the environmental impacts of oilsands production.

Let’s hope yesterday’s decision serves as an example for Canada to take the development of the oilsands as seriously as our neighbours to the south seem to.

Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant was the Pembina Institute's associate regional director for Alberta and the North until 2013, and former director of the Institute's oilsands program.


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