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Will the Keystone XL Pipeline Significantly Increase Carbon Emissions? The Numbers Behind the KXL Debate [UPDATED]

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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  • Feb 4, 2014

Will the Keystone XL pipeline lead to a significant increase in global carbon emissions? That’s the key question at the center of the debate over the controversial tar sands pipeline. 

The State Department released an updated final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Keystone XL Friday that buoyed the hopes of pipeline advocates and opponents alike and gave Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama considerable leeway to make their final decision on the merits of the project.

The environmental report’s headline conclusion was that approval or denial of the Keystone XL pipeline would not have a “significant impact” on the rate of Canadian tar sands extraction. That’s because, under what the report’s authors consider the most likely assumptions, oil from the tar sands will find its way to market with or without the Keystone project. 

“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed [Keystone XL pipeline], remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the U.S.,” the report says, reiterating the central findings of the an earlier draft EIS released in March 2013.

Pipeline advocates, including the American Petroleum Institute, Republican members of Congress, and TransCanada, the owners of the $5.4 billion project, all seized on that headline finding to call for immediate approval of the long-delayed pipeline. 

“The case for Keystone XL, in our view, both pre and post this report, is as strong as ever,” Russ Girling, chief executive of TransCanada told reporters Friday.

But a deeper look at the report finds that the Keystone pipeline would not be without impact: depending on assumptions, State’s final EIS concludes that, if built, the 830,000 barrel per day pipeline could cause an extra 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year. That’s the equivalent of putting an extra 250,000 to 5.5 million cars on the road, estimates the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer. That’s more than enough carbon to give climate advocates ammunition in the debate as well.

“The report concluded that in a scenario where we take climate change seriously and regulate climate pollution, this pipeline will indeed have a ‘significant impact’ on climate change,” said a statement from Bill McKibben, founder of, the environmental organization that has spearheaded opposition to the pipeline. “So now we’ll find out if that’s the world Barack Obama and John Kerry want. This report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”

President Obama declared in June that he would sign off on Keystone XL only if the pipeline “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” 

The final EIS released Friday gives the president enough ammunition to go either way on the project. According to White House spokesman Matt Lehrich, the EIS “includes a range of estimates of the project’s climate impacts, and that information will now need to be closely evaluated by Secretary Kerry and other relevant agency heads in the weeks ahead.” 

The State Department will now have 30 days to collect public comments on the EIS and 90 days for other executive agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Energy and Defense, to weigh in. 

As with so much of the debate surrounding the controversial pipeline, what you believe — and what President Obama ultimately decides — about the Keystone XL pipeline depends on what assumptions you make.

To get at the numbers behind the Keystone XL debate, we are republishing the detailed analysis below, originally published after release of State’s draft EIS in March 2013. This analysis unveils the key issues and assumptions behind the divergent views on the pipeline’s climate impact.

Which scenario do you believe is most likely? Should President Obama and Secretary Kerry reject or approve the pipeline? How do you read the conclusions of the final EIS? Weigh in with your comments…

-Updated, February 3, 2014-


keystone xl protest

Keystone XL, the proposed oil pipeline connecting Canada’s Alberta tar sands region to the refineries and markets of the American Gulf Coast, has become the front lines in the battle between climate campaigners and the fossil fuel industry.

The pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels per day of heavy tar sands oil, enough to supply more than 4 percent of U.S. oil demand. With that much oil, money, and carbon at stake, it is no surprise the pipeline has become a key political flashpoint on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

On one side of the debate, climate activists charge that the pipeline would carry some of the world’s dirtiest and environmentally destructive crude and result in up to 181 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. That’s as much carbon as the annual tailpipe emissions of 37.7 million cars, according to Oil Change International, an environmental NGO. That’s more than the total number of cars registered in California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Michigan and New York combined.

On the other side, a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) commissioned by the U.S. State Department claims that completion of the pipeline is “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands” and would result in as little as 70,000 metric tons to as much as 5.3 million tons of additional CO2, depending on whether alternative pipelines would be built to replace a foiled Keystone. Even if environmentalists managed to block all new pipelines out of Alberta, State’s EIS concluded that it would reduce tar sands production by just 2 to 4 percent by 2030. (The State Department must ultimately bless the international pipeline project as “in the national interest” before construction can commence, placing the agency in the crosshairs of environmental activists, who have blasted State’s draft EIS.)

Wait! Did you catch that?

Estimates of the climate impact of the Keystone XL project differ by up to four orders of magnitude from the State Department’s low-end assessment of as little as 70,000 tons to Oil Change International’s charge that Keystone will drive up emissions by 181 million tons annually.

So which is it? Is Keystone XL “ground zero” in the effort to stave off climate disaster, or is it a sideshow with negligible impact on future emissions?

Where you come down on that question hinges centrally on vastly different answers to the question: what happens if Keystone XL isn’t built? Will oil flow through alternative pipelines or rail lines as State’s EIS believes? Or without Keystone, will transport bottlenecks effectively “shut in” tar sands oil, as environmental activists hope?

Beyond this central question, one must also consider how global oil markets respond to new flows of tar sands oil and what types of crude Keystone’s oil will ultimately displace?

In this post, I’ll unpack the assumptions and the economics of the Keystone debate, describing several possible scenarios that cross the range of claims in this debate — and then I’ll leave it to you to decide which set of assumptions you find most believable. Please add your views to the comments below.

Strap in for a tour through the nest of issues behind the Keystone XL debate…

1. Background

We will begin with a little background on tar sands oil and the economics of Canadian oil. If you’re familiar with these topics, skip right ahead to the discussion of scenarios below…

How Dirty is Tar Sands Oil?

First, it’s important to understand that tar sands oil isn’t your conventional crude that flows out of the ground through a normal well. Tar sands oil is derived from “bitumen,” an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum that is actually trapped in layers of loose sand or sandstone. Raw bitumen is a sticky, nearly solid, tar-like substance at room temperature – hence the name “tar sands oil.”

To get at the bitumen, shallow bitumen deposits are strip-mined out of the ground while deeper deposits are recovered “in situ” by injecting a stream of hot gas into an underground bitumen reservoir, cooking the heavy oil and making it fluid enough to pump out of the ground. In situ production is less environmentally damaging than surface strip mining, but more energy intensive. Currently, mining accounts for just over half of Canadian tar sands production, although with 80 percent of recoverable bitumen reserves located too deep for surface mining, in situ production is expected to grow in the future.

Once out of the ground, the tar-like raw bitumen is too sticky to be transported via pipeline at all. Bitumen is therefore either upgraded into a synthetic crude oil (aka “syncrude”) or diluted with other liquid hydrocarbons into a mixture called “diluted bitumen” or “dilbit.” Since Keystone will carry dilbit, we’ll focus on that form in this post.

Once the dilbit is transported to a refinery, the heavy oil has to be “upgraded” into a lighter hydrocarbon before being refined into products like gasoline and diesel fuel. That process requires still more energy and releases more carbon.

The result of all this: in its journey from the oil fields to your gas tank and on to combustion in your vehicle’s engine, gasoline derived from tar sands produces 10 to 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average gallon of U.S. gasoline, according to a March 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) survey of the available literature.

Well-to-Wheels Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Tar Sands Oil and Other Crudes

As the graphic above illustrates, the “upstream” part of the tar sands “well-to-wheels” pathway related to production and transport of tar sands oil is about 50 to 150 percent worse than many other crudes.

That said, about 80 percent of the emissions associated with burning a gallon of gasoline are due to the combustion of the gasoline itself. And tar sands gasoline contains just as much carbon once it gets to your tank as a normal gallon of gas.

While it’s a dirty crude, as the graphic from CRS also illustrates, the full well-to-wheels emissions of tar sands gasoline actually compares more favorably to other heavy crude oils of the kind commonly imported from Nigeria, Venezuela or Mexico. These heavy imported crudes are likely to be the kind of oil displaced by increased tar sands imports.
Bottom Line: The full well-to-wheels greenhouse gasemissions associated with burning gasoline produced from Canadian tar sands can be 10 to 30 percent higher than average U.S. gasoline, but they are more comparable to the emissions associated with gasoline produced from other heavy crudes. 


Why Canada’s Oil Industry Loves Pipelines

Now for some economics…

The West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price index reflects the typical value of high quality crude oil (or in industry-speak, “light sweet crude”) delivered to the main North American trading hub at Cushing, Oklahoma. WTI represents the underlying commodity of the New York Mercantile Exchange’s oil futures contracts. Since 2011, WTI crude has hovered around $95 per barrel of oil.

Since diluted bitumen is a “heavy oil” of lower quality than WTI crude, it is typically priced based on a different index, known as Western Canada Select (WCS). From 2005 to 2012, WCS oil traded at a discount of $10 to $20 per barrel relative to WTI, reflecting both the lower quality of the oil and the cost of shipping the oil from Canada to the North American hub reflected in the WTI index.

That means that if WTI crude is worth $95 per barrel, WCS oil – aka tar sands oil – is worth only $75 to $85 per barrel.

In the first three months of 2013, however, the WTI-WCS spread jumped up to about $32 per barrel, driving down the value of tar sands oil to about $62 per barrel.

Understanding what’s going on here is key to understanding why the Canadian oil industry is so keen on building Keystone.

Alberta’s oil fields are landlocked. Getting that oil to market and on to consumers in the U.S. or overseas therefore requires somehow shipping it overland.

Pipelines are the cheapest way to ship oil overland, at about $8.00 to $9.50 per barrel, according to State Department estimates.

In recent years, with both tar sands production in Western Canada and shale oil in the Bakken formation of North Dakota and Montana on the rise, the pipelines used to move oil through the Midwestern United States and on to refineries and export terminals in the Gulf Coast are now at capacity.

Without any free space in existing pipelines, oil producers in the Bakken and Canada’s tar sands fields have turned to rail to ship their oil to market, and that raises costs.

The State Department’s evaluation of Keystone XL estimates that shipping oil by rail to the Gulf Coast costs about $15.50 per barrel, although Washington Post reporter Brad Plumer quotes oil producers who say shipping by rail costs as much as $30 per barrel.

Bottom Line: Shipping oil by rail is roughly $6 to $22 per barrel more expensive than shipping via pipeline. And that increase in transport costs is what accounts for the declining value of tar sands oil relative to the WTI crude oil price index. At a capacity of 830,000 barrels per day, even if Keystone saves just $6 per barrel in transport costs relative to rail, that’s more than $1.8 billion in increased profits for tar sands producers each year.

2. What Happens if Keystone Isn’t Built? Three Scenarios at the Heart of the Keystone Debate

Now we’ve got our background. But as I indicated in the intro, the true climate impact of Keystone XL hinges on what you assume will happen if the pipeline is not built.

There are three main scenarios to consider… 

Scenario 1: If Not Keystone, Another Pipeline

First up: if climate campaigners succeed in blocking Keystone XL, the industry may end up constructing an alternative pipeline to get their oil to market. According to Inside Climate News, the oil industry has announced the intention to build 10,000 miles of pipelines at a cost of $40 billion over the next five years in an effort to bring Canada’s tar sands crude to global markets.

Proposed Canadian tar sands pipelines (Source:

Graphic Source:, see full article here for more.

The main alternative to Keystone XL is the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, which would bring oil west to the port of Kitimat in British Columbia. From there, it would be loaded in oil tankers for shipment to consumers in California or Asia.

With a shorter distance from Alberta to deepwater ports along the British Columbia coast, State’s EIS estimates that export costs to Asia are actually comparable in cost to transporting oil to the Gulf Coast via Keystone.  Shipping oil by tanker is remarkably cheap, costing just $2 to $3 per barrel from British Columbia to Asia, for example, and less to California. 

However, the Northern Gateway project just suffered a major setback, with the provincial government of British Columbia expressing official opposition to the proposed pipeline last week, saying the project fails to address the province’s environmental concerns. The Canadian federal government ultimately has authority over the pipeline and says the project’s review process is still “ongoing.”

Alternative routes to market via the east coast would be longer and slightly more costly. That could depress the amount of oil produced at the margins in Canada, though not by much – perhaps up to $2 per barrel.

In this scenario then, building Keystone XL would avoid sending tar sands oil to market via longer alternative routes, increasing the value of tar sands oil by up to $2 per barrel, an approximately 3 percent increase over current WCS prices.

As the graphic below illustrates, the resulting impact on tar sands production depends on how responsive producers are to this price change, or what economists call “the price elasticity of supply,” or the ratio of the percentage change in supply for any given percentage change in price.

Traditionally, most oil producers are pretty “inelastic,” meaning they do not respond much to changes in the value of oil. However, for a few producers with production costs close to the current value of oil – these producers are said to be “on the margin” – even small price changes could be material.

Thus, I present a range of three possible price elasticities of supply in each of these scenarios:

  1. A very low supply elasticity of 0.05, consistent with estimates of average global oil supply elasticity and appropriate if price changes are small enough that they are unlikely to effect whether or not tar sands extraction projects are profitable.
  2. A supply elasticity of 0.2, consistent with a case where a few tar sands producers are “on the margin” and would not invest in production unless prices are high enough, while most other producers are not responsive to price changes.
  3. A supply elasticity 1.0, indicating that tar sands producers are perfectly responsive to changes in the value of tar sands oil – every 1 percent change in price leads to a 1 percent change in production. This would be consistent with a case where many tar sands projects are on the margin, and every increase in the value of oil brings new projects into profitability.

In addition, to determine the final impact of an increase in tar sands production on CO2 emissions, we must make an estimate as to how global oil markets respond to this new increase in supply.

Traditionally, markets would respond to a supply shock like this by re-equilibrating at a new level of demand. That is, an increase in supply from tar sands producers would lower global oil prices, all else equal. That would spur both an increase in demand and a reduction in production by other oil suppliers. The new equilibrium will depend on the elasticities of both global oil supply and demand. With the elasticity of oil supply and demand both well below 1.0, the result will be that net oil consumption increases by less than the increase in supply coming from tar sands oil – some portion of the tar sands oil will be incremental to global oil consumption, while the remainder will simply displace other oil from expensive producers on the margin elsewhere in the world.

I present two such case in each of these scenarios, one where 50 percent of tar sands production causes an incremental increase in global oil consumption (corresponding to an estimated global oil supply elasticity of 0.025) and another where 80 percent of tar sands production is incremental (corresponding to a global oil supply elasticity of 0.1, more consistent with the highest price elasticities observed from OPEC producers in recent years). In both cases, the long-run elasticity of demand is assumed to be -0.1 (about the middle of this range of estimates for 10 nations). 

Alternatively, one might consider global oil markets to be supply constrained – that is, global oil consumers want to consume as much oil as producers can produce. Constraints in oil supplies are holding back consumption, in which case any new output from tar sands oil will lead to an equivalent increase in consumption. In this case, tar sands output is 100 percent incremental.

If the elasticity of tar sands supply is very inelastic, building Keystone XL may increase tar sands production by just 2,800 barrels per day (bbl/day). The ultimate climate impacts would be negligible, resulting in less than 1 million metric tons of additional CO2 emissions annually. This is probably the most likely outcome given the relatively small change in the value of tar sands oil associated with this scenario. 

If tar sands producers are somehow more responsive to this price change, the result may be an increase up to 9 million metric tons, depending on how global oil markets respond to an increase in tar sands output. That would be the equivalent of the annual CO2 emissions of up to 3 average sized coal-fired power plants.

  Scenario 1: If Not Keystone, Another Pipeline
(Click to enlarge)

Bottom line: If Keystone XL isn’t built but tar sands oil finds its way to market via other pipeline routes, the climate impacts of blocking Keystone would be fairly small. Building Keystone would increase the value of tar sands oil by only up to $2 per barrel, a 3 percent increase. This is the scenario behind the State Department’s (very) low end estimate that blocking Keystone would save just 70,000 metric tons of CO2 annually. Assuming such a small price increase has little impact on tar sands production, the climate impacts would be negligible. If that small increase in value somehow makes the difference between profitability and not for some tar sands projects, Keystone’s climate impact may be somewhat larger, on the scale of the annual CO2 emissions of one to three coal-fired power plants.

Scenario 2: Rail Saves the Tar Sands

Under this scenario, environmentalists in the U.S. and Canada are successful in blocking all (or nearly all) new pipeline proposals. In this case, building Keystone XL would relieve existing bottlenecks in pipeline capacity and allow tar sands producers to avoid shipping their diluted bitumen via more costly rail lines. The value of tar sands oil would rise relative to WTI by about $6 to $22 per barrel, an increase of 10 to 36 percent relative to current WCS prices.

That rising value could trigger an increase in tar sands production, relative to the case where Keystone XL is not built. How much of an increase depends again on the elasticity of supply for tar sands producers, and that depends on the marginal costs of producing oil from the tar sands. 

Breakeven Prices for Tar Sands OilActual production costs are a closely guarded industry secret. But State Department’s assessment of Keystone estimates that after accounting for the discount between WTI and tar sands (WCS), it takes WTI prices in the range of $51-61 per barrel for new in situ production and $66-76 per barrel for new mining projects. Mining projects that upgrade the tar sands oil to synthetic crude require a WTI price of $86-96 to break even. The graphic below displays these “break even” ranges, denominated in WTI prices.

If rail transport adds $6 to $22 per barrel to the cost of transporting tar sands to market, those break-even prices would rise by a corresponding amount.

With WTI oil now trading around $95, you can see that, as State’s EIS concludes, “particularly in the shorter term, the most expensive oil sands projects … are economically challenged” by this increase in transport costs. While most in situ projects could still progress at these prices, some mining projects would be on the margin, and synthetic crude upgrader projects would be unprofitable. 

State stresses that “in the shorter term” part however, because most industry and government forecasts project steadily rising global oil prices, with WTI prices steadily above $100 per barrel by the 2016-2018 time frame. At those prices, the marginal cost of rail shipment won’t affect the economics of too many projects.

To represent this long-term uncertainty, I’ve once again modeled the impacts of higher rail shipment costs under a range of different elasticities of supply. 

Scenario 2: Rail Can Save the Tar Sands
(Click to Enlarge)

As the graphic above illustrates, if shipping oil via the Keystone pipeline instead of rail doesn’t impact the break-even price of most projects – e.g. tar sands producers have a low elasticity of supply of 0.05 – the project’s construction may result in 8,300 to 30,500 barrels per day of increased tar sands oil production.  The result would be an increase of only 1 to 5 million metric tons of COannually, or about the an emissions of a single coal-fired power plant. This could be the case if global oil prices remain high, keeping the value of tar sands

If instead, shipping via cheaper pipeline makes the difference between profitability or not for a set of tar sands producers and the elasticity of supply is about 0.2, building the pipeline could increase bitumen production by up to 122,000 barrels per day, a 7 percent increase over current Canadian tar sands production. That in turn would result in 3 to 21 million tons of additional COannually, or the equivalent output of a handful of new coal plants.

Finally, if tar sands producers are perfectly elastic (elasticity of 1.0), they might increase output by up to 610,000 barrels per day, a more than one-third increase over current production levels. That would drive up COemissions by anywhere from 14 million tons to 103 million tons annually, equivalent to the emissions of up to 29 coal-fired power plants or about 2 percent of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions.

As you can see, even in the case of perfect elasticity, tar sands production increases in this scenario by less than the total capacity of the Keystone XL pipeline. The elasticity of tar sands supply would have to be very large, on the order of 1.4 to 4.6 before the price difference from rail versus pipeline shipment could cause tar sands production to increase by the full capacity of the Keystone pipeline, or 830,000 barrels per day.

Note that this scenario is the one most consistent with the core scenarios in the State Department’s EIS, which assumes that rail lines could expand to ship oil to market if Keystone is blocked. State assumes that tar sands production will fall by 40,000 to 170,000 barrels per day under this scenario, consistent with a supply elasticity of about 0.2 to 1.0 if rail costs just $6.00 more per barrel than pipeline, or 0.07 to 0.3 if rail costs $22 more per barrel. 

Bottom line: Under a scenario where climate campaigners blocked all proposed pipelines out of the tar sands region and rail shipments expand to carry the oil instead, building Keystone XL could increase the value of tar sands oil by $6 to $22 per barrel, or up to 36 percent relative to current WCS prices. If global oil prices are fairly low, that price increase may make the difference between profitability and not for a number of tar sands projects. In this case, blocking Keystone may prevent as much as 103 million tons of CO2 annually, or up to 2 percent of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. In contrast, if global oil prices rise, building Keystone or not may not make much of a difference to the economics of tar sands oil. In this case, blocking Keystone could prevent as little as 1 to 5 million tons of CO2 annually, about the output of a single coal-fired power plant.

Scenario 3: Tar Sands Hit a Bottleneck

The final scenario corresponds to a world in which there simply isn’t enough transport capacity to ship oil out of the tar sands region to market. All pipelines are blocked, and rail lines can’t expand fast enough to carry the tar sands oil instead.

In this case, blocking Keystone XL has the real chance to “shut in” tar sands production. In other words, if you believe there simply isn’t enough rail capacity to ship oil to market and you believe that climate campaigners can kill all proposed pipelines, then blocking Keystone is the first stage in truly constraining the growth of the Canadian tar sands. This scenario is what environmental campaigners have in mind when they target Keystone XL. 

In this case, it’s entirely fair to assume blocking Keystone means keeping at least 830,000 barrels per day of oil out of the global market. That would mean blocking Keystone XL could prevent 70 to 140 million tons of CO2 emissions annually — equivalent to the output of 20 to 40 typical coal-fired power plants, or as much as 2.6 percent of U.S. energy-related COemissions.

(As an aside, I must note that even in this scenario, I can’t quite reproduce the emissions figure in the April 2013 Oil Change International report frequently cited by and other opponents of the pipeline. That report claims the pipeline will emit “at least 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each year.” Their estimate assumes 100 percent of the oil carried in the Keystone XL pipeline is new tar sands production and 100 percent of that oil leads to incremental global consumption. Furthermore, their estimate relies on a well-to-wheels CO2 estimate for tar sands oil of 598 kg or 1,318.4 pounds per barrel. That is 29 percent greater than the middle-range estimate from CRS’s review of the available academic literature and 16 percent greater than the highest estimate CRS could find in the literature. Oil Change International claims that prior research has not fully accounted for emissions associated with petroluem coak, a coal-like by-product of upgrading tar sands oil at refineries and a substitute for coal in power plants.) [Update: Lorne Stockman, author of hte Oil Change International report on Keystone provides additional explanation of their methods in the comments below.]

Scenario 3: Transportation Bottlenecks Shut In Tar Sands Oil
(Click to Enlarge)

So can rail lines really scale up to ultimately handle a couple million barrels of new tar sands oil shipments per year?

In many ways, the Keystone debate hinges on this question.

State’s environmental and market review of the pipeline concretely answers, yes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has challenged the State Department over this assumption, as have many environmentalists.

State’s case in a nutshell is that rail shipments out of the Bakken region in North Dakota and Montana are similarly constrained by a lack of available pipeline capacity and have successfully turned to rail to ship oil to market. If Canadian producers can expand rail capacity as quickly as the Bakken region has in recent years, it would reach 800,000 barrels of capacity – aka about the same as Keystone – by the end of 2015.

But can rail freight keep pace with the Canadian oil industry’s plans to more than double current tar sands production to 3.2 million barrels per day by 2020 and further to as high as 5 million barrels by 2030?

Maybe. Maybe not. Expanding rail freight capacity at that rate may run into real bottlenecks. On the other hand, the entire coal industry ships its product to market via rail, barge and other means (for obvious reasons, it’s impossible to ship coal via pipeline!). If tar sands oil is a valuable global commodity, there’s a strong incentive for it to find a way to market. [Update: Well what do you know?! Coal can be transported by pipeline, as Robert Joshi informs me on Twitter.]

[Update: Geoff Styles adds this bit of context in the comments below]

At a conservative 600 barrels per tank car load (limited by weight for heavy crude, vs. a full 750 bbl for lighter oil) the entire volume of Keystone would equate to 500,000 tank car loads per year.  That sounds monumental until you notice that US rail car loads of coal declined by more than that volume from 2011 to 2012.  It would roughly double 2012 rail shipments of “petroleum”, which includes LPG and other products as well as crude oil.”

(For more on whether rail can save the tar sands, see these excellent articles by Brad Plumer, Elana Schor, and Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin)

Bottom line: if rail freight capacity can’t expand fast enough to make up for the loss of Keystone XL, blocking the pipeline project could keep at least 830,000 barrels per day out of the global market. That could have large climate impacts, preventing 70 to 140 million tons of CO2 emissions annually — equivalent to the output of 20 to 40 typical coal-fired power plants, or as much as 2.6 percent of U.S. energy-related COemissions.

So what do you think? Please comment below about which scenario you find most plausible, and why you either support or oppose the Keystone XL pipeline…

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 4, 2013


You’ve done a terrific job of clarifying the enormous complexity of the assumptions underlying the conflicting views on Keystone XL, without dumbing it down.  I’d like to offer a few additional factors for consideration, along with a question and suggestion to clarify the context.

The first factor to consider is the relationship between WTI, which underpins the pricing of most North American crude production, including oil sands, and global oil prices benchmarked to UK Brent.  That differential has been extraordinarily wide for most of the last two years but is currently narrowing.  Historically it was within $1-2/bbl from either direction (WTI often a premium to Brent) but lately the WTI discount has been as wide as $20/bbl.  Today it’s under $10. There are good reasons to think that as more Bakken-type crude finds its way onto rail, and as new pipelines and pipeline reversals in the US mid-continent alleviate congestion at the big Cushing, OK hub of WTI, the differential will narrow even further.  The closer WTI gets to Brent, the bigger the incentive becomes to find alternative ways for Canada’s production to reach market, and the less effective rejection of Keystone XL would be.

I’d also like to put the rail issue into perspective, having spent a fair amount of time looking at and talking about this recently.  At a conservative 600 barrels per tank car load (limited by weight for heavy crude, vs. a full 750 bbl for lighter oil) the entire volume of Keystone would equate to 500,000 tank car loads per year.  That sounds monumental until you notice that US rail car loads of coal declined by more than that volume from 2011 to 2012.  It would roughly double 2012 rail shipments of “petroleum”, which includes LPG and other products as well as crude oil. 

Finally, I think it’s worth asking who is accountable for whatever increase in emissions Keystone might facilitate, and what constitutes the proper basis for comparison.  Concerning the former, Canada, as a Kyoto signatory, would be responsible for all “upstream” emissions associated with extraction and upgrading in Alberta.  That’s more than 20% of the total.  The remaining 80% would fall on the US, China or whichever country’s refiners ultimately bought and processed the oil for sale as products.  In the case of the US, a modest % of those products would be exported, since we’re now a net exporter of refined petroleum products, thanks to the convergence of improved fuel efficiency, reduced vehicle miles traveled, and improved refining economics due to the shale or “tight oil” upsurge.  You don’t have to trace the barrels very far before it becomes clear that this is an international, rather than a US issue. So shouldn’t the comparison be on the basis of global emissions, not US emissions?  As such, on the worst-case in your analysis, we’re talking about at most 0.4% of global emissions of 36 bn tonnes. 

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2013

Jesse, very comprehensive review of the many tangible factors that will be possibly impacted by future Canadian oil sands/syncrude production.  My past personal analysis of Canadian syncrude carbon impacts agrees with the lower range of the referenced CRS evaluation of extraction/transport/refining of crudes and the full lifecycle carbon impacts.  When you review reports by those opposed to the Keystone XL most of the CRS details surrounding reasonably accurate estimates of carbon impacts are frequently discounted or confused by focusing on environmental issues that are not incremental or unique to the proposed oil sands/pipeline projects.


One issue rarely discussed by those opposed to the Keystone XL is the impacts on U.S. Energy Security.  As you state, blocking the pipeline will have relatively negligible effect on world petroleum demand or associated carbon emissions.  The U.S. currently imports about 900,000 BPD of Venezuelan syncrude (almost equal to the Keystone XL capacity), which has physical properties and a carbon footprint essentially equal to Canadian syncrudes.  Which country do you believe is the most important ally and trade partner to the U.S.?  Reducing the U.S. reliance on OPEC imports can have a very positive impact on not only our Energy Security, but also in supporting our allies-countries of similar values; across the entire spectrum of economic-political-social-environmental issues.  By the way, which countries have the highest level of concern and focus on the environment, countries like Venezuela or other OPEC members, or Canada & the U.S.?

Michael Noble's picture
Michael Noble on Jun 4, 2013

I so appreciate the effort to struggle with a complex topic that has been generally on both climate campaigners’ and industry analysts’ radar for years and no one has made any effort lay it all out in plain English. A good read.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2013

Geoffrey, I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of the recent narrowing of WTI-Brent spreads.  It may have to do with recent world depressed crude oil prices.  OPEC is considering cutting back on production to adjust Brent prices back up in the near future.  WTI prices appear to be more a function of recent increased ND/MT Bakken crude oil flooding the market (via rail), than historic WTI-Brent market relationships.


As you state, rail transport of crude is rapidly increasing.  This applies to not only increasing ND/MT Bakken crude production, but also Canadian syncrude transport (the existing alternative to the Keystone XL).  It’s curious that a recent proposed Texas-to-California ‘Freedom’ crude oil pipeline project was recently rejected by most major California Refiners.  They apparently prefer the economics of crude oil transport via rail vs. committing to the use-cost of transport by a new proposed pipeline project.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Jun 4, 2013

Thanks Geoff. Great points as always. I didn’t get into the complexities of WTI vs Brent (although I thought about it; thought the post was long enough already!), but I did try to note that if WTI prices rise enough, it’s likely that the price difference between the value of WCS (Canadian tar sands oil) with or without Keystone is less likely to have a substantive difference on production of tar sands (and that’s the largest driver of the emissions impact).

Thanks also for the context on rail shipments. That’s really helpful. I’m adding it as an update to the post (crediting you as the source).



John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2013

Aldyen, what you appear to be proposing is some international system to monitor the ‘carbon leakage’ that routinely exists today.  While such a system could more accurately track probable future carbon emissions (assuming all nations were to accurately report the data; an uncertainty much greater than the CRS reported level), the problem statement becomes the fact than non-Annex (Kyoto) developing countries have no commitments to reduce their carbon emissions.  Today, most of world carbon emissions originate from and are increasing at growingly alarming levels from developing countries.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 4, 2013


I’m with you that what we’re seeing on WTI/Brent at the moment is probably more weakness of the latter than strength of the former.  However, I also know there are numerous projects that could eventually unburden Cushing from both directions and restore something more like normality.  These are by definition fully equivalent crude streams, and if the bottlenecks can be opened up sufficiently, they should price close to parity.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2013


John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 5, 2013

Your suggestion is complex, but doable from an extremely comprehensive accounting basis.  It however gets more difficult and complex to include ‘carbon equivalent’ emissions when you bring biomass and the production-emissions from different types of hydrocarbons (with varying global warming potentials) into the accounting balances.  Issues such as deforesting, land-use changes, re-vegetating, consumption-digestion of food by people and livestock, aerobic/anaerobic bio-digestion of wastes, etc. also add to the complexity of measuring and tracking the ultimate disposition of carbon equivalent emissions into the environment.  Although these factors may be somewhat smaller then primary fossil fuels consumption, they are nonetheless still quite significant.

Jonathan Michaels's picture
Jonathan Michaels on Jun 6, 2013

Is there a fourth scenario, could Alberta refine its own oil?  This would increase the value of each barrel and the profit and then the increase in price from rail transport would be reduced.

Canada would see higher tax returns (one hopes) which could increase support and, perhaps, even allow some pipelines to be built – refined products being so much cleaner than dilbit.

Indeed new refineries with the latest technologies may even have significantly less CO2 emissions than plant in the Gulf.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Jun 6, 2013

Hi Lorne,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It appears that some of the studies surveyed in the CRS report do deal with petroleum coke in various ways, but many do so inconsistently, and to your point, they may not fully account for emissions associated with any coke exported outside of the refinery for use in power plants or steel production. Here is what CRS says about the studies they survey:

Treatment of Petroleum Coke. Petroleum coke (a source of excess carbon) is a co-product of bitumen production at both the upgrader and the refinery. Roughly 5%-10% of a barrel of crude ends up as coke; and the heavier the crude, the greater the percentage of coke. Bitumen refining can produce about 50% more coke than the average conventional crude. The treatment of coke is a primary driver behind the results of any WTW GHG oil sands crudes assessment. If coke is combusted (i.e., for process heat, electricity, or hydrogen production at the upgrader in lieu of natural gas combustion), WTW GHG emissions may increase anywhere from 14% (TIAX 2009) to 50% (McCulloch 2006) over lighter crudes. If it is stored, sold, and/or combusted elsewhere, its potential emissions may not be factored into the LCA. The main concern for modeling is ensuring that coke produced at the upgrader (for SCO) is treated consistently with coke produced at the refinery (for dilbit or other imported crudes). Based on the studies analyzed in this report, petroleum coke at the upgrader is either (1) consumed (for process heat, electricity, or hydrogen production); (2) stored; or (3) sold as a fuel for combustion. In contrast, the studies assume that petroleum coke produced at the refinery that is not consumed by the refinery itself is either (1) used to back out coal combustion for electricity generation; or (2) allocated outside of the LCA. These inconsistent methodologies make comparisons problematic. Coke produced at U.S. refineries has a low domestic demand, and is therefore often shipped to overseas markets for use as a replacement fuel for coal combustion or steel production (most studies include neither the overseas transportation nor the combustion emissions of coke in WTW GHG emissions assessments).

As I understand it, your study assumes that all petcoke produced as a byproduct of upgrading bitumen is exported from the refinery and used to fuel coal-fired power plants. Additionally, you assume that all petcoke consumed in this manner is in addition to any coal normally consumed in power plants, that is, you do not assume that the petcoke displaces any existing coal use but rather increases combustion at coal-fired power plants ton-for-ton.

That scenario depends on an assumption that there is no supply/demand rebalancing as a result of additional supplies of petcoke. That is consistent as well with your methods for treating tar sands bitumen as well — e.g. you assume 100% of the carbon content in the bitumen is additional, that is, it does not displace any other crude oils and increases global oil consumption barrel for barrel. 

Those are consistent assumptions, but as I indicated in my column, there are a range of alternative assumptions that are also plausible. Indeed, the whole debate hinges on what assumptions you make.

In effect, your report appears to offer a useful estimate of the extreme high-end of the possible range of emissions impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline: if 100% of the capacity of the pipeline carries new tar sands production that would not have been produced absent the construction of the pipeline, if that new tar sands crude increases global oil consumption barrel for barrel (e.g. it is 100% incremental to global consumption) and doesnt displace any other crude oil consumption, and if all petcoke produced as a byproduct is similarly 100% incremental to global coal combustion, then you arrive at the emissions estimate in your report (or somewhere close). 

As you admit though, “we did not attempt to calculate incremental emissions, as calculating those depends on multiple assumptions regarding oil supply and demand.” Indeed, that was the whole point of this column, to make those assumptions transparent and allow readers to decide which they think are most plausible. I have a hard time however seeing how you can then arrive at the conclusion that “what we have is an estimation of the actual emissions associated with the project.”

In fact, the “actual emissions” associated with the project depend on which of the range of assumptions above (or another alternative scenario) prove to be the real-world outcome of building the project. Your report provides just one plausible outcome, at the highest end of emissions scenarios. Unfortunately, your report doesn’t really acknowledge that, nor did the subsequent communications by anti-Keystone campaigners (including who used your study to communicate the alleged climate impacts of the Keystone pipeline. In fact, it was one such communication that prompted me to dig into this question and write this column.

Anyway, thanks for commenting. 


donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 3, 2014


Just as an off topic FYI as an additional comment on coal, iron ore is also transported via pipelines. The Samarco development in Brazil for example has over 800km of pipe transporting iron ore. What you will find in these scenarios (coal, ore etc), the material is typically fine and wet which is quite often the case from many mines at least for ore so making a slurry is not a huge issue as the material is already wet. In drying, getting the last 5% moisture out tends to cost disproportionately more than the first 5%. Larger lumps >5mm (don’t quote that figure) are hard to transport without more conventional means.

This may change as there are several coal fired stations looking at drying their pulverised coal before combustion. The RWE-WTA process is once such example. This was one thought behind the log transport system.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Feb 3, 2014

Jesse, we can probably debate the annual carbon emissions impacts endlessly due to the complexity of full lifecycle carbon emission calculations (my personal analysis finds your stated 70-140 high by up to a factor of 10) and the numerous assumptions involved in calculating various scenario’s impacts (impacts on Venezuelan syncrude displacement, development/alternative logistics, most feasible impacts on oil sands development/production, etc.).  If one assumes the oil sands will find their way to North America or World markets the carbon impacts are relatively insignificant and directionally higher if the cross-border Keystone XL is not built; due to marine fuels consumption and the relatively higher efficiency of U.S. Refining vs. less efficient Asia Refining.  This assumption makes the final Obama Administration (most likely the President’s) decision on approving or not approving the Keystone XL ‘presidential permit’ primarily based on U.S. ‘national interests’.  If the U.S.’s ‘national interests’ are based on the real impacts on the economy & jobs, energy security, trade relations with Canada, etc., the decision to approve the Keystone XL should be obviously, yes.  However, if the Obama Administration interprets ‘national security’ to be based largely on the U.S.’s supposed leadership position in the World for addressing actions in the name of climate change, this permit decision will be far more complex.  This climate change leadership scenario combined with political influence of many environmental/special interest groups that oppose the Keystone XL (period) will possibly lead to deferring any presidential permit decision to sometime after the November elections.

In the meantime Canadian oil sands will continue to develop & expand (Re. my recent TEC Post on this subject), and once existing pipeline capacities are fully debottlenecked (expanded pumping capacities, optimizing pipeline scheduling, etc.), you know very well that transport by rail will continue to expand.  As we speak, Companies are in the process of expanding existing/new rail loading terminals in Canada and existing/new rail unloading terminals within the U.S., and safer crude oil tank car fleets are also expanding.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 3, 2014

Jesse, pipeline bottlenecks are already increasing the cost of tar sands production. Of course, it’s much harder to shut a pipeline down than to not build it in the first place – that’s why Transcanada is in a full-court press to get it approved ASAP. The Chinese have invested $30 billion in tar sands development, and the State Dept. has revealed their hand in support of KXL after getting caught red-handed changing resumes of contractors assigned to the draft EIS. So the above-ground analysis is likely overshadowed by backstage wrangling, and whether we’re really getting a fair evaluation is doubtful.

All of the technical assumptions, this way or that, indicate the direct impact of tar sands oil will increase global carbon emissions by a mere .1%. What they ignore is America’s failure to take a stand on this issue will have incalculable ramifications for America’s leadership on global warming, as John notes below. The bottom line: we already have too much oil; that its price should be higher, there are other ways to add jobs to the economy (hardly in a fragile state right now) without giving the world a bright green light to continued fossil extraction.

Our chances to take control of carbon emissions are running out. Once KXL is approved, avoiding climate oblivion will be about as easy as turning around an oil tanker.


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Feb 8, 2014

Of course the addition of a new pipeline will significantly increase carbon emmissions.  Firstly it increases the market for the product by making it easier to get to market which will result in increased production.  Secondly it creates precedent for the development of yet more pipelines.  Thirdly it is amoung the dirtiest sources of oil known which increases the arbon output yet more.  Forthly, there WILL be spills that taxpayers will be expected to pick up the tab for.  The arguements that such oil will simply find another way to market are specious and smack of fatalism, we cannot influence this at all.  Bull crap!  Say no then we can work on stopping the next BS pipeline.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Feb 8, 2014

Comments by Miller and Styles are on target.

The gist of the matter as I see it:

There is no reason to think KXL will have any significant effect on carbon emissions. Oil delivered via KXL will be delivered by other means if need be, as it is now. The portion built within the US is already proceeding. The only remaining question is whether it will be connected to Canada. Not doing so would have an extremely negative effect on US-Canada relations, trade, and the economy as a whole, with no or even negative environmental benefit. Shipping by rail and ship entails a higher risk of accidents and spills, and is less energy efficient.

Moreover, the time is past due to bury the canard of US symbolic leadership re carbon emissions as invoked by Strand, Donnelly, et al. Where is the evidence that US symbolic leadership has altered the trajectory of geopolitics in other domains?

How has US strong support of Israel won other countries over to that cause, or stemmed the rising tide of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere? The US role was presumed essential to the initiative to overthrow Gaddaffi and supposedly bring peace and freedom to Libya. How has that worked out? Indeed, more broadly, how has either the assertion or caution of US leadership had any effect on the cultural/political turmoil in the middle east and central Asia more broadly? Having expended some multiple of a trillion dollars and thousands of military casualties over more than a decade of aggressive efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, what signficant transformation has the US and its partners accomplished?

The Obama administration aimed to ‘reset’ relations with Russia — how is that going? To what extent has US leadership in the effort to curtail N. Korea’s nuclear threat and its general trouble-making achieved its objective? And to what extent have the global wars on Terror and Drugs been won?

There seems no reason to believe that the US imposing economic sanctions on itself to combat carbon emissions — in conflict with the overwhelming majority of the domestic public’s preferences — would in any way deter China, India, and other developing countries to continue to exploit fossil fuels to feed the growth of their economies as much as they deem necessary.

Instead, the needed focus of policy needs to be on accelerating technology innovation to make “clean energy cheap.” Only when alternatives to fossil fuels are economically competitive — without subsidies or mandates — will the arc of carbon emissions be meaningfully altered. Any solution which curtails economic recovery and development, especially in the poorer countries, will continue to be unacceptable.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Thank Jesse for the Post!
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