Coral Davenport, one of The New York Times’ few environmental reporters, is repeating her past mistakes on Keystone XL reporting. The Keystone XL pipeline would connect Canada’s tar sands to Texan oil refineries, allowing the high-carbon product to reach the global oil market. Over its forty-year intended lifetime, the pipeline’s tar sands crude would have a greenhouse-pollution footprint of about 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of forty new coal-fired power plants. By any reasonable measure, the Keystone XL pipeline is a major piece of infrastructure for the Canadian tar-sands industry and a significant threat to a safe climate.In a recent story entitled “Experts Say That Battle on Keystone Pipeline Is Over Politics, Not Facts,” Davenport claimed that the tar-sands pipeline has little real policy significance.
But most energy and policy experts say the battle over Keystone overshadows the importance of the project as an environmental threat or an engine of the economy. The pipeline will have little effect, they say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States.
On Earth Day last year, Davenport penned a nearly identical story, writing, “when it comes to the pipeline’s true impact on global warming, energy and climate change experts — including former Obama administration officials — say Keystone’s political symbolism vastly outweighs its policy substance.”
The original version of last year’s story understated the scale of the tar-sands pipeline’s greenhouse pollution by a factor of ten.Davenport’s new story relies on experts who have done work on behalf of the oil and gas industry, leading with Robert Stavins, the influential Harvard Kennedy School economist who has studied climate policy for the last thirty years. Stavins claims:
“The political fight about Keystone is vastly greater than the economic, environmental or energy impact of the pipeline itself. It doesn’t make a big difference in energy prices, employment, or climate change either way.”
An active supporter of the boom in natural gas extraction, Stavins also opposes the climate movement’s campaign to divest universities and other institutions from the fossil fuel industry.
It does not appear that Stavins has conducted any published work on Keystone XL or the economics of Canadian tar sands. However, a Kennedy School doctoral candidate named Gabe Chan has analyzed the climate economics of Canada’s tar sands. Chan and his co-authors found that under global policy that maintains a safe climate, Canada’s tar-sands development would collapse. The study raises serious questions about whether approval of Keystone XL is consistent with the international climate commitments the State Department has made at the direction of President Barack Obama.
With climate policies implemented worldwide, the Canadian bitumen production is significantly reduced. Left (e) shows global climate policy scenario, right (f) global climate policy with carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology. (Chan et al. 2012)
The other people denoted as “experts” by Davenport are Robert McNally, a former George W. Bush official who now works as an professional advocate for the oil and natural gas industry, and Christine Tezak, a pipeline-finance analyst, who bet that Keystone XL would be approved in 2011 (as did her current boss, Kevin Book).
Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy, and the Western States Petroleum Association. Neither McNally nor Tezak publicly disclose their clients who are part of or invest in the fossil-fuel industry. None have a scientific background, and none have published work analyzing the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline.
In the words of climate scientist John Abraham, “People who think Keystone is a minor issue don’t understand science and they sure don’t understand economics.”
The pipeline is intended to ship upwards of 830,000 barrels of tar-sands crude a day for a 40-year lifespan. The pipeline will add 120-200 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent to the atmosphere annually, with a lifetime footprint of 6 to 8 billion tons CO2e. That’s as much greenhouse pollution as 40 to 50 average U.S. coal-fired power plants. Furthermore the Keystone XL pipeline is recognized by the tar-sands industry as a key spigot for the future development of the Alberta tar sands, which would emit 840 billion tons CO2e if fully exploited.
Interviewing Washington insiders who have offered various forms of support for the Keystone XL project, Davenport claims instead that “Keystone’s political symbolism vastly outweighs its policy substance.” To support the claim, Davenport then erroneously underestimates the global warming footprint of the pipeline by a factor of ten. Davenport’s crucial error is to contrast the actual carbon footprint of existing fossil-fuel projects — such as US electric power plants (2.8 billion tons) and tailpipe emissions (1.9 billion) — to the impact of the pipeline’s oil being dirtier than traditional petroleum, without explaining that she was switching measurements:
Consider the numbers: In 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive international data is available, the global economy emitted 32.6 billion metric tons of carbon [dioxide] pollution. The United States was responsible for 5.5 billion tons of that (coming in second to China, which emitted 8.7 billion tons). Within the United States, electric power plants produced 2.8 billion tons of those greenhouse gases, while vehicle tailpipe emissions from burning gasoline produced 1.9 billion tons.
By comparison, the oil that would move through the Keystone pipeline would add 18.7 million metric tons of carbon [dioxide] to the atmosphere annually, the E.P.A. estimated.
[There are two side errors in the passage: Davenport uses “tons of carbon” where she means “tons of carbon dioxide equivalent”. One ton of carbon is the equivalent of 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide. All of her numbers refer to tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Secondly, the estimate was not made by the E.P.A. but by a State Department contractor hired by TransCanada; the E.P.A. cited that analysis but did not make the calculations.]
What the oil-industry contractor for the State Department actually calculated is that the oil that would move through the Keystone pipeline would add 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually, 1.3 to 27.4 million of which (central estimate 18.7 million from the draft assessment) are because tar-sands crude is dirtier than other petroleum sources. Those 18.7 million tons are the “incremental” or “additional” footprint of the pipeline, not the full 160 million-ton footprint.
Based on this order-of-magnitude measurement-switching error, Davenport incorrectly concludes that “the carbon emissions produced by oil that would be moved in the Keystone pipeline would amount to less than 1 percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions, and an infinitesimal slice of the global total.”
In fact, the carbon dioxide emissions produced by oil that would be moved in this single pipeline would amount to 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and half a percent of the global carbon footprint. Only thirty-two countries have larger annual footprints than this single tar-sands project.
Climate scientist John Abraham made this point in The Guardian last week. “People who think Keystone is a minor issue don’t understand science and they sure don’t understand economics,” he wrote.
Putting aside any possible political and economic motivations to support the intentions of the global petroleum industry, the intellectual failure rests on an obvious error made subtle through convolution.
Whether one is looking at actual or incremental footprints of carbon-infrastructure projects, the results should be equivalent from a policy standpoint, although the numbers would be different. Why, then, does the incremental analysis used by the EPA and the State Department’s oil-industry contractors appear to give the absurd result that the Keystone XL impact is “infinitesimal”?
The methodology of incremental footprint analysis assumes a baseline of future projected carbon pollution, and then looks whether a given project would increase or decrease the baseline. The validity of incremental-footprint analysis thus depends on the baseline.
In line with scientific warnings, President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department have committed to limiting global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the International Energy Agency’s 2°C scenario, global oil consumption would fall by 50 percent from current levels by 2050, within the intended operating lifetime of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Keystone XL final environmental impact statement instead assumes that global oil demand will increase over that time period. The baseline used is the Energy Information Administration’s 2013 Annual Energy Outlook, which projects that global oil consumption will increase by 30 to 40 percent by 2040. In that scenario, the world would be on a pathway for rapid and catastrophic global warming of 4 to 6°C (or greater) by 2100.
No matter the analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline is incompatible with climate security. The global-warming impact of constructing Keystone XL is only “infinitesimal” if you assume catastrophic global warming is inevitable and that the signed climate pledges of the United States government are worthless.
Perhaps Ms. Davenport should ask Levi, Book, Bordoff, Morris, and Goldwyn if that is their assumption.
Update May 2: The Times has posted a correction:
Correction: May 2, 2014
An article and an accompanying chart on April 22 comparing the projected Keystone XL pipeline with other sources of carbon emissions referred imprecisely to projected emissions from tar-sands oil moving through the pipeline. Producing and burning that oil would emit 18.7 million more metric tons annually than would conventional oil, or far less than 1 percent of United States emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The tar-sands oil would not emit 18.7 million tons total, but about 150 million tons, or less than 3 percent of United States emissions.
The correction itself is in error; the estimate of 18.7 million metric tons is not from the E.P.A., but is from the draft assessment prepared by TransCanada contractor Environmental Resources Management for the State Department.