Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Ignores Pollution Concerns About Keystone XL

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.