Why The U.S.-China Climate Deal Makes Keystone XL Pipeline An Even Worse Idea

The Keystone pipeline would carry carbon-intensive tar sands oil, whose development includes slash and burn forest clearing in Alberta shown here. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
The Keystone pipeline would carry carbon-intensive tar sands oil, whose development includes slash and burn forest clearing in Alberta shown here. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

In an unusual good-news, bad-news moment, we learned of the game-changing U.S.-China climate deal on the same day Senate Democrats announced they will bring up a vote on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

Significantly, the China deal makes a global climate treaty in 2015 “very likely,” as the UK Foreign Office’s climate adviser has explained. And that makes the pipeline a much worse idea, because it would compromise U.S. emissions targets and undermine the ultimate goal of a treaty, which is to stabilize carbon pollution at non-catastrophic levels.

Even before the deal, that KXL tar sands pipeline was a bad idea. It would be a gateway to a huge pool of carbon-intensive fuel in Canada, most of which must be left in the ground — along with most of the world’s coal and unconventional oil and gas –- if humanity is to avoid multiple devastating impacts that may be beyond adaptation.

Until now, the “best” argument for KXL from a climate perspective was basically “we can’t stop tar sands oil from being exported, and, besides, we’re doomed, so it doesn’t matter.” Amazingly, that was pretty much what the State Department assumed in order to give KXL a pass in its absurd final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). As Climate Progress has reported, State’s FEIS, released in January, had concluded that Keystone XL would be “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands.”


That conclusion rested on the untenable assumption that all the oil carried by the pipeline would get out of Canada using other methods, which other analyses dispute. You also had to believe that if we approved the pipeline, it wouldn’t speed up tar sands development with Canada building KXL and then still employing all of those other methods for exporting tar sands. That also defied logic.

Finally, a 2014 Carbon Tracker Initiative study noted that in all of the scenarios in the FEIS of future U.S. CO2 emissions if KXL is approved, America fails to meet basic targets needed to stabilize global CO2 levels. The study noted, “one key takeaway of this analysis is that the scenarios modeled in the FEIS appear incompatible with a 2°C carbon-constrained world.”

Before the U.S.-China deal, a cynic could argue that China would never agree to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 or earlier, as it has now done. And therefore a global climate agreement limiting world CO2 emissions was unachievable and so it doesn’t really matter what the U.S. and Canada do.

But the landmark deal “means we are very likely to get an [international climate] agreement in Paris in December 2015,” as Sir David King, the UK foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change told the UK Guardian.

Having spent months negotiating such a breakthrough deal with China — whose ultimate goal is to enable a global agreement that can stabilize CO2 levels and keep total warming as close to 2°C (3.6°F) as possible — why would the U.S. then approve a pipeline whose operation is incompatible with 2C warming? Why would the U.S. approve a pipeline that makes it harder for the country to meet its previous 2020 target (17 percent reduction in greenhouse gases vs 2005 levels), let alone the tougher 2025 target (26–28 percent below 2005 levels) that was part of the breakthrough deal?


And then there is Canada. It is obviously up to our northern neighbor as to whether it will join the responsible nations of the world in the 2015 global agreement by adopting a GHG target compatible with avoiding catastrophic climate change. Canada’s 2011 withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol was a bad sign to say the least.

But if we approve KXL, we will be embracing and enabling rapid exploitation of the tar sands, which would all but guarantee Canada will not be able to adopt or meet a responsible CO2 target for the foreseeable future. Again, what sense would that make — given that the U.S. itself embraced tougher GHG targets to make the China deal possible?

It always bears remembering that Keystone XL is well worth stopping as an end in itself just for the multiple climate impacts from tar sands exploitation alone:

As a 2012 study makes clear, if the U.S. and Canada use only the proven reserves of the tar sands — 170 billion barrels, which we could do this century if production is merely quadrupled — we would blow out any chance of either the U.S. and Canada contributing our share to the 2°C target. Or a 3C target, for that matter.

Bottom Line: KXL was always a bad idea from a greenhouse gas perspective, but now that a global climate agreement is within reach, the danger KXL will undermine such an agreement makes it a far graver risk to a livable climate.