Energy Secretary Chu Suggests He Supports Keystone XL Pipeline, Nebraska GOP Governor Dave Heineman Opposes It

With the State Department’s final environmental assessment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline complete, major public figures are starting to weigh in before a decision is made on whether or not to approve the project.

Keystone XL is a 1,700-mile pipeline that will bring hundreds of thousands of tar sands crude from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to be refined. Producing crude from tar sands is the most energy and carbon intensive form of oil extraction – a process that environmental groups have called “the biggest global warming crime ever seen.”

Along with climate scientist James Hansen and the Center for American Progress, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Nebraska GOP governor Dave Heineman issued their opinions on the impact of the pipeline this week.

And their responses aren’t what you might think.

In an interview with EnergyNOW! at the National Clean Energy Summit, Steven Chu explained that the pipeline was a “tradeoff.” While he didn’t explicitly throw his support behind the project, he did say that companies extracting tar sands “are making great strides in improving the environmental impact of the extraction of this oil.”

However, the Canadian government expects carbon emissions from Alberta’s tar sands to double by 2020, cancelling out any emissions reductions that could come from developing renewable energy in the country by that time.

Directly after taping that interview at the summit, Chu explained in a brief conversation with Climate Progress that he believes that the fossil fuel industry has “an interest in seeing that action isn’t taken” on climate change and lamented the lack of understanding of climate science among political leaders.

“It saddens me. And I think as a scientist you have to re-double your efforts,” said Chu.

So which is it? Climate activists like Bill McKibben and James Hansen say that support of the Keystone pipeline “would be game over for the climate.” But Chu’s comments on the Keystone pipeline suggest that he would allow the pipeline to be built.

The Energy Secretary doesn’t have the final say though. That’s up to the President and Department of State (DOS), which will issue a decision on the pipeline sometime before the end of the year.

Last week, the DOS issued a third environmental review of the pipeline that found “no significant impacts” to the environment, despite the massive increase in carbon emissions and the fact that the pipeline will cross numerous major aquifers.

Now, one concerned Republican governor is criticizing DOS for glossing over the potential impact to major water sources. In a letter issued to President Obama and Secretary Clinton, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, who says he is not opposed to pipelines generally, wrote:

I am writing to you today regarding a very important issue to the State of Nebraska and to our citizens — the Keystone XL Pipeline.  I am opposed to the proposed route of this pipeline.  The Final Environmental Impact Statement compares a potential spill in the Sand Hills region to a 1979 Bemidji, Minnesota spill and concludes that “the impacts to shallow groundwater from a spill of a similar volume in the Sand Hills region would affect a limited area of the aquifer around the spill site.”   I disagree with this analysis, and I believe that the pipeline should not cross a substantial portion of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Therefore, I am asking you to disapprove TransCanada’s pending permit request.  Do not allow TransCanada to build a pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer and risk the potential damage to Nebraska’s water.

A diverse number of groups concerned about the local and global environmental impacts of the pipeline continue to weigh in during the 90-day comment period before the decision is made by the State Department.

While the last two weeks of protest in front of the White House have given the issue a higher profile, many are expecting the pipeline to be approved. Especially when public officials like Steven Chu, who have previously been outspoken on climate change, are implicitly backing the project.

32 Responses to Energy Secretary Chu Suggests He Supports Keystone XL Pipeline, Nebraska GOP Governor Dave Heineman Opposes It

  1. J Cooper says:

    First let me say I am opposed to the KXL pipeline for a number of reasons. The direct environmental impacts to sensitive ecosystems in Canada and the US(use of huge amounts of water for production, destruction of large tracts of forest, leaks and spills, etc, etc), as well as the indirect impacts of fostering the expansion and dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels at the expense of cleaner energy sources.

    However, I think the McKibben’s and Hansen’s are overstating the associated growth in emissions and the resulting impacts. Canada as a whole accounts for 2% of global CO2eq production (732 Mt in 2008). The GHG production from tar sands, including pipelines, is projected to be 40 Mt by 2020
    To compare, cement production in the US in 2008 was roughly 40 Mt.

    I completely agree that the pipeline will foster continued and increased reliance on refined petroleum products (for which the transportation sector is completely dependent)and slow the shift to cleaner energy sources, but the argument that the tar sands will push the climate over the edge is a little over exuberant.

  2. Ed Hummel says:

    I’ve always found it puzzling that Obama has been so week on the climate issue while have Steve Chu in his administration. I guess by questions have been answered by Chu’s very disappointing remark. He obviously isn’t as committed to changing our direction as I thought he was, and that doesn’t bode well for where we’re going. It makes me much more pessimistic than I was, if that’s possible!

  3. Ed Hummel says:

    Sorry about the typos; I should have previewed it first!

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Chu had already shown signs of being an ambitious careerist, but this is still a bummer. Whatever happened to Berkeley? When I was there, the professors as much as the students weren’t afraid to take a stand.

    It’s almost as if a horrible mutated virus has seeped into the body politic, composed of slime, the urge to attach to and gobble food (money) sources, and, especially, attacks on the heart muscle.

  5. Ed Hummel says:

    That’s the whole point of the protest against tarsands oil! If it’s encouraged now with such projects as the KXL, it’ll balloon to major proportions very quickly and then dwarf any effects from cement production and any other activities that produce carbon emmissions. That’s why Hansen and McKibben are crusading against it, especially at a time when the whole world should already have been making a concerted effort to get off all fossil fuels as soon as possible. One can’t just look at certain narrow statistics when dealing with such a huge problem. These things always have to be looked at in the context of the big picture. That’s the main reason we’re in this predicament in the first place because the narrow interests of certain enterprises were always isolated from the big picture when deciding if and how to proceed in a certain direction. That luxury has long since been lost, and the whole world is and will be paying for it for a long time to come.

  6. Theodore says:

    I fully expect that president Obama will approve the pipeline. He has some chance of being re-elected. That prospect can typically deprive any potential leader of the ability to take an unpopular stand for any cause. He does not want to do anything that can be interpreted by the opposition as tending to increase the price of gasoline. Without public support for higher gasoline prices, we are pulling in two directions at the same time. The addiction to oil is not so much a vice of the president and his advisers as it is a vice of the unmotivated and misinformed public.

  7. Susan Anderson says:

    I am horrified by Dr. Chu’s temporizing on the issue. I can see the issues raised by immediate needs for energy to keep Americans happy in their cozy entertainment and illusion dominated worlds. The alteratives are all worse. Problem is the time is so short, we don’t have time to let the consequences demonstrate the disastrousness of this short-term thinking.

  8. Susan Anderson says:

    Excellent point. Ordinary people are just worried about gas prices and don’t see the consequences. They are much more hipped on sports and spectacle. I keep thinking of Roman circuses!

  9. Rob Honeycutt says:

    Maybe I’m missing something here and possibly I’m over simplifying but…

    I constantly read here that solar is going to become cheaper than coal, without subsidies, in the next 5 years or so. Solar PV has the added benefit that it is highly scalable. Once we get to grid parity this many GW of solar energy can be manufactured and put into play.

    On the flip side we have the Keystone XL Pipeline which will take a number of years to complete and requires much more energy to produce and transport the final product.

    So, it seems that pretty much by the time tar sands oil starts flowing through the pipeline it’s going to be arriving at an economic disadvantage.

    To add to that, my sense is that when PV goes below the price of coal that market is going to explode. The competitive market dynamics of solar cells is also going to drive the price lower even faster, making tar sands oil even less competitive over time.

    So, am I missing something critical here in my thinking?

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re probably right, Rob, but the utility company wiggle room comes from finite silicon and the fact that the current low price is just a commodity fluctuation. They want an excuse to burn coal and gas anyway, since that way they don’t have to think.

  11. AlanInAz says:

    Firstly, oil is used for transportation and coal is largely used for producing electricity. So I don’t think they replace each other unless we have a huge fleet of electric cars.

    Secondly, I would be more pessimistic about unsubsidized solar. I installed an 8.5kw system on my house in Tucson 10 months ago. The unsubsidized cost was $41,000 that reduced to a net cost of about $9,000 after subsidies and tax credits. The labor and installation materials component was about $13,000. My payback is about 6 years. I think home owners will not invest if the payback is much longer than 6 years. Thus I cannot see unsubsidized solar competing unless the price of carbon increases very significantly. The economics of large central solar facilities may be different but they do have the problem of base loading.

  12. Michael Tucker says:

    What is the recharge rate for the Ogallala Aquifer? I think you stand a better chance of pumping it dry before anything from the surface can migrate into it. The greater risk is to “shallow groundwater,” local drainage channels, and wildlife.

    Oh, obviously Secretary Chu does not buy into the “game over” analysis.

    The problem is we haven’t had the real policy discussion, the discussion about the best way to limit GHG emissions. Meanwhile what about the oil?

    “It’s certainly true that having Canada as a supplier for our oil is much more comforting than to have other countries supply our oil,” Chu said in the interview, part of an energyNOW! special on Canada’s oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline debate which will air September 17 and 18 on Bloomberg Television and September 18 on WJLA ABC7 in Washington, D.C.

    “It’s not perfect, but it’s a trade off,” Chu said.

    For Secretary Chu where the oil comes from is more important than what kind of oil it is. Maybe if we stop the silly talk around global climate disruption and get to the truly important discussion of what to do about it, we can stop stupid projects and programs that will not get us to the goal of actually reducing GHG concentrations.

  13. Adrian F. says:

    Who supplied the DOS with the environmental impact studies? Who is doing the interpretation? What are said interpreters’ current and past connections with tar-sands related industry?

    When I read the impact study for GMO alfalfa last winter, I found the manufacturer had supplied much of the information and that it could be interpreted in several ways. As here, the data was interpreted in the light most favorable to the corporations and dismissed ecological reality.

    Deja vu all over again. And really sad about Chu.

  14. Solar doesn’t replace oil in the billion internal combustion engines in USA. The battle is to replace our huge and diverse oil-requiring infrastructure with electricity powered alternatives. That won’t happen while “oil will keep flowing” is marketed and ensured by our leaders.

    Plus the tar sands are aiming for salt water so they can export even more than USA will use. Their own documents show they are concerned that USA isn’t a big enough market for the size of their carbon deposits.

  15. Canada is only 2%?! This argument cuts to the core of why we have so little progress on climate mitigation. For perspective, there are:

    * 177 nations that emit less than Canada
    * 108 nations that COMBINED emit less than Canada
    * 120 nations that emit less than oil sands extraction emissions of today

    If Canada and the oil sands don’t need to cut emission then nobody does. Game over is exactly where we end up.

    The oil sands are the only industrial sector in Canada that is significantly increasing emissions. The Canadian government estimates that oil sands extraction CO2 will rise 82 MtCO2 in the next decade. By 2020 the oil sands will require 23% of Canada’s CO2 allotment if they are to meet their Copenhagen Accord pledge. In 2005 the oil sands were 4% of Canada CO2.

    There are no brakes on this beast other than access to oversaes markets via pipeline to saltwater…aka stopping KXL. It is one of the biggest carbon-pig-outs on the planet with the biggest of Big Oil chomping at the bit to burn it all.

    If oil sands and Canada don’t need to cut emissions then nobody does.

  16. JCooper, you say oil sands will be 40Mt by 2020 but your link to Government of Canada trend paper shows oil sands at 92Mt just for extraction. Add on pipelines and refining and you get way over 100Mt by 2020.

    Did you also notice that the Canadian Government paper says the oil sands expansion are the primary reason the nation as a whole is going to badly miss their Copenhagen pledge made just a couple years ago?

    Read the document: Canada has only one growing and untamed carbon beast left in its economy — the oil sands corporations desire to dramatically EXPAND extraction of the second largest carbon reserve on the planet.

  17. Chu is a scientist by temperament. Stopping climate destabilization in the face of big money requires someone who is not afraid to lead and has the skills to deliver the message clearly and consistently. It was never going to be Chu and it is looking like it won’t be Obama either.

  18. For those who think oil sands are just another oil deposit, I suggest you read what Hansen has said about oil for years now. He has always said we need to focus on coal much more than oil. Part of his reasons were that we didn’t control the sources of oil and oil doesn’t have an easy replacement in renewables without changing our infrastructure.

    But then the gigantic unconventional tarry sands of Alberta and Venezuela emerged into picture. These new carbon deposits are just massive in scale and technology evolved to allow them to be turned into “oil”. When Hansen did the math on the carbon involved in this he realized we can’t burn all the conventional oil AND all the unconventional carbon deposits that can be turned into oil…without cooking the climate we evolved in.

    Game over.

  19. Chu said that companies extracting tar sands “are making great strides in improving the environmental impact of the extraction of this oil.”

    Might be true for other “environmental” impacts but not when it comes to climate pollution. The industry’s own figures show that the carbon intensity per barrel has risen about 20% in the last five years.

    Add to that the fact that “in situ” extraction methods are growing in share and these methods are even carbon-dirtier than the strip mining method. So the trend line is for dirtier barrels.

  20. Anyone interested in the climate data on Alberta oil sands might find my nine-part article series very interesting:

    I spent a month researching government and industry data on the oil sands and what it means for Canada and global climate.

  21. Rob Honeycutt says:

    I think a broad EV fleet is going to come pretty fast. They’re saying the cost of batteries is going to fall by a factor of 10 and that’s most of the cost of an EV. If gas is more expensive and the cost of EVs falls to below the price of ICEVs then the market will make a relatively rapid shift to electric.

  22. Andy says:

    Reminds me of the “little ol’ me” type of retort I often got from family. They assumed their carbon footprints are meaningless in the scheme of things. But of course, they’re part of a scheme of hundreds of millions of people all assuming the same thing. And that’s a big part of the problem – that the sources are various and numerous.

    Addressing demand is the most important issue, but developing the tar sands as a new supply (and a source of hundreds of gigatons of fossil carbon) doesn’t help. It could actually encourage similar projects elsewhere aimed at maintaining (or worsening) a global addiction to oil. Keystone is also supposed to be a 50+ year operation, and they don’t seem to have a good handle on how much extra CO2 will result. Even the EPA’s estimate, apparently based on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact statement, ranges widely from 600 megatons to over a gigaton above conventional oil. But all that aside, we should be using surplus natural gas as a supplement to the transit fuel supply, not pumping it (and lots of water) into cooking bitumen.

  23. Joan Savage says:

    Bingo! Thank you!!
    “Plus the tar sands are aiming for salt water so they can export even more than USA will use. Their own documents show they are concerned that USA isn’t a big enough market for the size of their carbon deposits.”

    The State Department’s impact statement had to include in their appendices received comments about export, but the US environmental law does not speak clearly about impacts in foreign locales, either for production or final sale.

    Chu’s term “tradeoff” has huge implications once the international market is understood.

  24. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks again.
    I wish NPR had read it before yesterday’s coverage of the Keystone XL protest.
    NPR seemed to make a very dubious assertion to the effect that the oil from the tar sands was not a significant amount. I’ve been frustrated in trying to track down a transcript of the exact text.

  25. Rob Honeycutt says:

    I would assume that added carbon intensity for extracting oil from tar sands also comes at additional cost.

  26. Joan Savage says:

    NPR’s “symbolism” twist:
    “Elevating the Keystone XL pipeline to a symbol carries some risks. Many Americans believe we should be promoting oil development to help keep the price of oil in check.”

    NPR’s downright error:
    “The pipeline oil is too small a fraction of global oil supply to make a significant difference one way or the other..”

  27. Rob, it might be true that EV cars will come quickly, though I doubt it. But that doesn’t mean they will run on renewable electricity. At this point the competitor for solar is natural gas….aka another carbon bomb. MIT did a study of pricing trends and solar doesn’t out compete natural gas for electricity gen for a long long time. Bottom line is that solar economics are good but not good enough to save us without either a price on carbon or a renewable energy mandate.

  28. It certainly means more energy. However part of the oil sands economics is that they basically convert natural gas to “oil” and the price of natural gas is falling while the price of “oil” is rising fast. They are also considering nukes to provide steam for in situ extraction. The oil sands are an energy conversion project that is converting cheap carbon to expensive carbon. Peak conventional oil is providing the price rise for “oil” that allows full economic extraction of oil sands carbon bomb.

  29. Another way to think about tar sands is to imagine converting coal to “oil”. Because that is effectively what we are doing by turning tarry bitumen deposits into liquid synthetic “oil”.

    If it is OK to burn the carbon in the Canadian tar sands deposits for “oil” then it will be OK to burn the even bigger Venezuelan deposits. And then it will OK to burn the even bigger global coal deposits. Hey lets burn the methane hydrates too! There is basically no source of carbon on the planet that is off limits apparently as along as we can turn it into “oil”.

    Hey if Americans don’t burn ever last crumb of carbon as “oil” then someone else will. Greenlight it all Mr. President. Go for it. Give the big stamp of approval on burning it all.

  30. MarkfromLexington says:

    Homeowners are now able to secure immediate positive cash flow by installing solar with no money down using a Solar Lease or Power Purchase Agreement.

    So if you could buy clean, renewable electricity for less than the cost of dirty conventional electricity with no money down – why wouldn’t you do it?

  31. David Lewis says:

    Hansen has described his position on the use of coal, and unconventional oil sources such as tar sand and oil shale, many times over many years.

    The position accepts that all remaining “conventional” oil, which he sometimes decribes as being mainly located in Saudi Arabia and Russia, will be burned. What he says is that no one is going to be able to stop Saudi Arabia or Russia from selling this oil. Hansen then points out that if you look at the carbon still in the ground in the form of coal, shale oil and tar sand, and compare it to the conventional oil, there is far more coal, shale oil, and tar sand. He said at the AGU during his Bjerknes Lecture that if all the carbon in the conventional oil, coal, shale oil, and tar sand is converted to CO2 and allowed to enter the atmosphere, it is a “dead certainty” that Earth’s oceans will boil away and all life on Earth will end.

    Therefore, he says, because he gives the oil barons in the Middle East and Russia a free pass with their oil, we’ve got to stop using coal and not start using the shale oil and tar sand. Hence, the position that if the US starts using tar sand oil by employing this pipeline it is “game over”.

    I find Chu’s position far more logical and credible. Chu wants to see a global price on carbon at whatever level it takes to limit climate change – he has mentioned figures in excess of $100 a tonne. He doesn’t advocate giving Saudi Arabia and Russia a free pass, i.e. giving some countries preferential treatment allowing them to do anything they want in the way of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere or enabling others to do by selling this “free pass” oil to them while branding us here in the US or Canada as evil beyond compare for using oil from tar sand. Chu advocates letting the economic system work under the imposed constraint of a high carbon price to phase out CO2 emissions over time.

    The part of Chu’s thought you appear to miss when condemning his position as contradictory is that he believes carbon capture is not only possible but that it is economical.

    “The reason we’re saying it has to be part of the solution is that it’s part of the lowest-cost solution. Energy efficiency is the lowest-cost solution, but CCS is not far behind.

    Chu is pouring TARP money under DOE ARPA-E into carbon capture, which when deployed would allow the continued use of some fossil fuel resoures.

    Hansen is inconsistent in his position on carbon capture – sometimes he says we have to stop using coal, and sometimes he says we have to stop using coal UNLESS its CO2 is stopped from entering the atmosphere.

  32. Bob Geiger says:

    This is very useful information. The article above did not do enough to explain Chu’s position. Whether Climate Progress agrees with his position or not, whoever is posting the articles should take care to spell out others’ positions clearly. Thanks for posting this, David.