Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Ignores Pollution Concerns About Keystone XL

by Daniel J. Weiss

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Washington yesterday making some misleading statements about tar sands (which are also called the oil sands) and the Keystone XL pipeline.

In a public dialogue at the Wilson Center, Harper was asked by audience members about the environmental impact of expanding Alberta’s oil sands extraction — including the global and local impacts of building the Keystone XL pipeline through America’s heartland.

Below, I provide a quick summary and response to his statements. (You can find the whole video here).

In response to a question about the politics around Keystone XL, Harper said “everything that I’ve seen in the United States indicates pretty overwhelming public opinion in favor” of the project.

However, a Center for American Progress Action Fund poll conducted by Hart Research last month found that Keystone XL was not in the top four most supported solutions to high gasoline prices.

Harper also brought up jobs figures, saying that Keystone XL “has the capacity of employing up to 30,000 people on both sides of the border.”

However, the jobs numbers on the U.S side of the border are substantially smaller. According to the State Department’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, construction of the proposed Keystone XL project, including the pipeline and pump stations, would result in hiring approximately 2,650 to 3,200 workers over the 18-month construction period. TransCanada has also confirmed those figures.

In addition, there may be as few as 26 permanent full-time jobs associated with pipeline operation. If Harper’s numbers are somewhat accurate, that puts the other 26,000 jobs in Canada, not the U.S.

Harper cautioned that “the environmental impacts should not be exaggerated.” But also explained that “oil sands oils, while they are heavy in emissions are no heavier than typical heavy crudes … no heavier than Venezuelan [crude].”

Hold on. The higher carbon dioxide pollution produced by tar sands production is due to the significant amount of energy necessary to extract the bitumen (oil sands) from the Earth and convert it into useable oil.   The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a very high CO2 content from tar sands:

Extraction and refining of Canadian oil sands crude are GHG [greenhouse gas] intensive relative to other types of crude oil.

Our calculations indicate that on an annual basis … well-to-tank emissions from the projected would be 27 million metric tons [of] carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) greater than emissions from U.S. “average” crude.  Accordingly, we estimate that GHG emissions from Canadian oil sands crude would be approximately 82% greater than the average crude refined in the U.S.

According to a report by the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, oil sands produce about 17 percent more greenhouse gas “emissions by feedstock source” compared to an estimate of pollution from Venezuela’s “upgraded bitumen.”

Moreover, a recent study found that exploiting the resource will have even higher CO2 emissions because it will destroy nearly 30,00 hectares of local peatland (bogs, moors, mires, and swamp forests), which are rich in carbon and already emerging as a major amplifying carbon-cycle feedback. This destruction will release stored carbon equivalent to 42 to 173 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, “as much as 7-years worth of mining and upgrading emissions at 2010 production levels

Harper also said that even if Keystone XL pipeline is approved, Canada intends to pursue construction of the “Northern Gateway” pipeline to transport oil sands across Alberta to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia.

But the construction of this western pipeline could be more uncertain than building the Keystone pipeline.   Rick Smith and Andrew Light’s recent assessment “Pipeline or Pipe Dream?” for the Center for American Progress found substantial roadblocks in the process:

On inspection the China-bound alternative to the Keystone XL—the Enbridge “Northern Gateway” pipeline—faces hurdles as big if not bigger than Keystone XL. Some groups in Canada call the fight over its approval the “defining environmental battle” of modern times.

In commenting on the American approval process, Harper noted, “it is my understanding that routing concerns [about Keystone] have been addressed in Nebraska itself.”

Not so fast. The U.S. State Department disapproved the Keystone pipeline permit last November because the route was over the sensitive Sandhills region, which replenishes the Ogallala Aquifer.  The aquifer — one of the world’s largest — provides drinking water for two million people, and irrigation water for one-fifth of American agriculture.  A pipeline spill that reached it could contaminate this vital water supply.  This route was strongly opposed by Nebraska’s Republican Governor, Dave Heineman.

TransCanada, the pipeline owner, has sought a new route through Nebraska that avoids the Sandhills. However, the company has not revealed the route to the public. Until it does, it will be impossible to conduct a thorough evaluation of the potential impact of pipeline construction and operation on regional public health, and air and water quality. And even if the Governor of Nebraska approves of the new route, the federal government still must evaluate it to ensure that it does not harm Nebraskans or other Americans.

Finally, Harper disagreed with a suggestion of offsetting increased carbon pollution from oil sands production: “I’m not sure I’m much of a believer in offsets; if you’re concerned about emissions, you find a way to control emissions. Offsets are a way of pretending you’ve addressed emissions when you really haven’t.”

He’s got a good point. Offsetting pollution from one source by reducing pollution from another can be phony. But it’s not inherently so. A rigorous program that ensures that the offsets are measurable, real, verifiable, additional and permanent could reduce the impact of the project’s carbon dioxide pollution.

Or, Harper could take his own advice on finding “a way to control emissions” and actually consider limiting production of tar sands.

The Keystone XL pipeline will enable Canada to double its production of tar sands, and more than double its pollution. Offsets are simply not a permanent solution at a time when we must reduce our release of carbon dioxide and other climate altering pollutions quickly. As John Podesta, chair of the Center for American Progress board, noted in 2010:

Oil sands can’t simply be as good as conventional oil. We need to reduce fossil fuel use and accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies, in the transportation sector and elsewhere.

During his remarks at the Wilson Center event, Prime Minister Harper reiterated that Canada and the United States have a close and special relationship. It would be nice to see the countries using that relationship to address climate change and move beyond fossil fuels, not dig us deeper into carbon debt.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

13 Responses to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Ignores Pollution Concerns About Keystone XL

  1. Will Koroluk says:

    Harper has said more than once that he sees Canada’s future as being an energy superpower. Those of us who have had the misfortune of watching him during his tenure as prime minister, know him to be a control freak who brooks no dissent. From anyone. Do not underestimate this man’s steely determination, or his ability to kneecap opponents, like identifying opponents to the proposed pipeline from the tar sands to the Pacific coast as “enemies.” To him, they are, and they’ll be treated as such.

  2. Alan Davidson says:

    Prime Minister Steven Harper’s Conservative party has a stable majority government here is Canada. It’s policies on energy and climate change are quite reasonable and well supported. The global warming hoax is widely seen now in Canada as being exactly that. Anything concerned with CO2 emissions, CO2 capture and storage etc is very unlikely to figure in federal policies and will inevitably decline in provincial government policies.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    The Harper governement actively destroys one of the biggest carbon sinks on earth. The results from this will be extreme and felt world wide.

  4. PeterW says:

    Harper is a nasty piece of work. I don’t think I’ve ever despised a politician as much as him. Don’t for a second think counter arguments will hold any weight with his crowd. He’s a key member of the fossil fuel cult and most, if not all of the Canadian media are in bed with him.

  5. Chris Lock says:

    Harper has to go, he’s dangerous.

    1) Last week’s federal budget limits environmental reviews to two years, and this is retroactive to reviews already in process.
    2) A $8 million fund to restrict political activities of charities, this is an attack on environmental groups.
    3) Gutting the fisheries act by removing habitat from protection
    4) Muzzling scientists and restricting journalists access
    5) Early in government, 2006-2007 Harper’s gov’t cancelled all the small efficiency initiatives such as One Tonne Challenge and Energuide
    6) To justify the shorter time for environmental reviews in the last budget, the resources minister, Joe Oliver, instead of Environment Minister has been doing TV interviews. For a while John Baird was environment minister, an angry guy, appointed to take on those annoying environmentalists.

    Check out the Muppet Ethical Oil Rap, with Ezra Levant, who is currently spewing the filth that is Ethical Oil.

  6. Nothat Gullible says:

    Yes here in Canada our Government does believe global warming is a hoax. One of the heads of a comittee on the environment explained that global warning can’t be a problem because “God promised Noah, there wouldn’t be another flood.’

  7. Barbara Van Dyck says:

    While it is true Mr Harper has a majority his energy policies aren’t supported by a lot of Canadians who are appalled at his disregard for the environment. British Columbians will stand as a solid block to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. We have to much to lose when there is an oil spill. We will never let this happen.

  8. Karla in BC says:

    Me Davidson are you kitting the same ‘pipe’ Harper is?
    I guess that is why he has muzzled the scientists so they don’t contradict his idiocy on climate change.
    Sir, you have no right to speak for most Canadians. Further, Mr Harper’s Government is a complete sham built on a stolen election and lie upon lie upon lie. The only this certain about Mr Harper is his plans to pollute the planet and sell off all of Canada he can.
    Stephen Harper is already the most despised Prime Minister in the history of Canada.

  9. Karla in BC says:

    I apologize for my typos. hitting instead of ‘kitting’ and thing instead of ‘this’

  10. Sharon Danley says:

    Well said. Very well said. As a Canadian I am embarrassed over our Primate Minister. He lies through his teeth. You pegged him exactly.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    Among Harper’s many deceptions is his statement that Canadian tar sands oil is “no heavier than Venezuelan crude”, implying that we are already buying similar oil from somewhere else, and from a despot at that.

    Actually, Venezuelan heavy oil from the Orinoco region has not been significantly developed. It is in a pristine watershed, and expensive to boot. The Venezuelans have looked into it, and are not likely to ever develop it.

  12. Sharon Danley says:

    Oh no. Harper does NOT have a stable majority. In fact, his election fraud is up for investigation. He only garnered 39% of the votes. And most Canadians are against the tar sands to begin with, let alone supportive of pipelines. And I don’t know what Canada you are living in, but most Canadians agree that climate change is real and we all need to take responsibility.

  13. Alan Davidson says:

    Maybe you all could look at very recent postings and news items. You’ll find:-
    1. There’s been no warming for more than 15 years now.
    2. Arctic ice is now at the highest for more than a decade.
    3. Polar bear count in Nunavut shows a considerable increase, etc

    Now if there’s been no warming for such an extended period, why would anyone expect there to be warming of the climate in future. And if there’s been no warming, but the % of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing in the same period, but is still around 0.04%, why would anyone still believe that CO2 causes climate warming? Absolute nonsense!