The President’s plan for Keystone XL and GHG emissions

No pipeline if there is a net increase in emissions

Barack Obama’s climate plan is here. The major news was leaked just before the President began speaking in Washington.

President Barack Obama will ask the State Department not to approve the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline unless it can first determine that it will not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a senior administration official told The Huffington Post…

“As the executive order on Keystone contemplates, the environmental impacts will be important criteria used in the determination of whether the Keystone pipeline application will ultimately be approved at the completion of the State Department decision process,” said the senior administration official. “In today’s speech, the president will make clear that the State Department should approve the pipeline only if it will not lead to a net increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions.”

Paul and Luiza parse the president.

The precise parameters of a net increase will probably be important here. Earlier this year, the State Department tallied the GHG emissions ramifications thusly.

“The approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including this proposed project, really remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of development of the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil in the U.S.,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs … 

Government analysts found that Keystone XL would each year produce the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of 620,000 passenger cars operating for a year. But they concluded that whether or not the pipeline is approved, those emissions would still  likely occur because of fuels produced and obtained from other sources.

The EPA later raised concerns about the State Department’s analysis and environmental groups quibbled.

The environmental groups include some of the environmental movement’s most seasoned national litigators—the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth and nine others. Their 200-page comment said that by assuming that Canadian tar sands crude would be delivered to market by rail or some other means if the pipeline were blocked, the State Department had allowed itself “to avoid a full assessment of the project’s direct, indirect and cumulative impacts including its climate impacts,” as required under the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA.

“Perhaps the most glaring error,” they said, “is the State Department’s assertion that the tar sands will be developed at the same rate regardless of whether Keystone XL is built … This assumption is flawed and unsupported, is directly contradicted by nearly all sectors including the oil industry itself, and it violates the State Department’s NEPA obligations.”

And so how now, if at all, will the Harper government’s regulations for the oil and gas sector impact the debate Mr. Obama has pinpointed today?

The President’s actual plan includes new regulations on existing power plants. Matthew Yglesias argues that there’s a better alternative, if only American conservatives are willing to pursue it.

The right solution here is still what it was when Obama was first elected. Republicans ought to suck it up and recognize that a real legislative framework for tackling climate change is better than an ad hoc, executive-branch response. All the interests, regions, and industries harmed by a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system are going to be harmed even more by an all-regulation effort—you get the costs of reduced fossil-fuel use without the revenue that can mitigate those costs. The upside to sticking with the Clean Air Act framework is that it gives Republicans an issue: People will feel pain if electricity becomes more expensive, and they can point the finger at Obama and the Democrats. But while this sort of partisan war may have made some sense in the president’s first term, by now it’s surely time to give up the ghost. The kind of electoral total victory it would require to partially repeal the Clean Air Act is extraordinarily unlikely. There are serious problems with the path of unleashing the EPA on existing power plants, and if the GOP actually cares about making the situation better, they’ll do what they should have done years ago and come to the table with a serious alternative proposal.

You’ll note that this—regulations versus a price on carbon—is precisely the argument that the Harper government has set up in its desire to accuse the NDP of wanting to impose a tax on carbon. In our case, Conservatives are apparently willing to argue for government regulation over a market-based approach.

Our full archive of coverage of the debate is here.

Update 4:09pm. A statement from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

Today President Obama made clear that Keystone XL would be approved if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

We agree with President Obama’s State Department Report in 2013 which found that, “approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area”.

Our Government knows that the Keystone XL will create jobs and economic growth on both sides of the border while increasing North American energy security. This project is in both of our countries’ national interest.

And, Canada and the United States are aligned in our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Thanks to our leadership, Canada is already halfway towards that goal. In fact, our Government is the first government in Canadian history to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As noted above, that State Department report is the subject of some disagreement.

Update 5:25pm. The Pembina Institute offers the Harper government some advice.

“Obama’s statement that climate concerns are ‘absolutely critical’ to assessing whether the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved is a measured and cautious approach. Our analysis shows that filling the proposed pipeline with oilsands bitumen would require a 36 per cent increase in production from today’s levels. In terms of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, that’s the equivalent of adding more than 4 million cars to the road…

“The best way Ottawa could respond to Obama’s announcement would be to make an equally serious commitment to hit Canada’s 2020 climate target, starting with strong regulations to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector.”

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