Keystone XL oil sands myths and half-truths

Oil sands production facility at Cenovus Energy, Alberta. The Obama administration faces a February 2011 deadline to decide whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline bringing more oil sands to the U.S.

Jeremy Hobson: What do you really know about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline? The one that would bring a certain type of oil, called oil sands or tar sands, from Canada to the United States?

One thing we know is that the pipeline has become a political hot potato in Washington. And as with everything that becomes a big political issue there, some of the facts get lost in translation.

Marketplace's Scott Tong from our Sustainability Desk has been to the oil sands and has this reality check.


Scott Tong: Let's first pick on pipeline opponents. Their starting point is that Canadian oil sands is dirty.

Yes, it takes extra energy to steam it out of the ground. But Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations looks at the whole life of a drop of oil. The extraction is not the main issue.

Michael Levi: Most of the emissions associated with oil come when you burn it in your car. So it's a distraction to some degree to focus on the emissions that come when you get it out of the ground.

Still, one climate scientist says there's so much oilsands in Canada it'll be game over for planet earth.

OK, let's say companies produce a whopping 10 million barrels of the stuff someday.

Andrew Leach: Ten million would take you to the year 3316 to extract all that oil.

University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. He says in a thousand years, other fuels like coal will have done far more damage.

Leach: To make a case where oil sands production, if we stop it then we somehow meaningful difference in the global emissions trajectory. I don't how that really makes sense.

Surely the renewable argument makes sense -- that we need a policy to promote them.

Amen, says Amy Myers Jaffe at Rice University. Thing is, weaning in energy time, takes decades.

Amy Myers Jaffe: In the immediate term, we have over 260 million automobiles on the road that use oil-based fuel. And we're going to need oil to supply all those cars.

Which is what the Keystone XL promoters want to hear. One of their big talking points is Canadian oil is ethical oil -- from your friends to the north.

Levi: To a good extent it is symbolic.

Again, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Levi: It may make people feel better to know that they bought their oil from a good guy rather than a bad guy. But so long as they're buying a lot of oil, they are propping up world prices and helping the bad guy get money.

Lately, Ottawa's made this threat: If America doesn't want our oil, we'll sell it to China.

Except that it's already on the way, says Calgary economist Peter Tertzakian.

Peter Tertzakian: There's pretty much unanimity within the Canadian oil and gas industry that we need to diversify our markets beyond one customer, that we need to participate in global growth markets, not singular, stagnant markets.

Finally, Keystone fans says it'll bring pipeline employment.

Yeah, some, says Andrew Leach.

Leach: It's thousands of construction jobs over the course of the building of a pipeline and hundreds of operation jobs. But it's not going to have a meaningful impact on the U.S. unemployment rate.

He finds many pipeline job projections:

Leach: Wildly exaggerated.

No surprise in an overheated election-year fight over one pipeline.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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