Study: Keystone XL Could Lead to Enormous Emissions Increas

Study: Keystone XL Could Lead to Enormous Emissions Increase

Study: Keystone XL Could Lead to Enormous Emissions Increase

Researchers reporting in Nature Climate Change say building the controversial pipeline could lead to the price of oil dropping and the rate of consumption increasing, pouring more emissions into the atmosphere.

By Rebecca Boyle


The Cowboy and Indian Alliance protests in Washington, D.C., in April as part of a weeklong series of actions by farmers, ranchers, and tribes against the Keystone XL pipeline.

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August 10, 2014 1:04 PM Text Size: A . A . A

President Obama has said he wouldn’t allow the controversial Keystone XL pipeline’s construction unless it does not significantly worsen carbon dioxide emissions. But now a new study in Nature Climate Change says it will, and by a lot: Keystone XL could cause greenhouse gas emissions four times worse than the U.S. government’s projections.

Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle calculated the project’s potential economic impact and its resulting impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In their model, extra oil flowing through Keystone XL could lower global oil prices, prompting people to buy more and use more. The pipeline would provide oil that would otherwise not be consumed, resulting in carbon dioxide that otherwise would not be belched into the atmosphere.

Erickson says no other researchers have previously done this type of analysis yet for Keystone XL, and that most energy and climate analyses focus on consumer demand and attempts to reduce energy consumption, not necessarily on the supply side.

“There’s been very little attention or analysis, even in policymaking, to ‘What about bringing new fossil fuels into the marketplace?’” he says. “It does perhaps seem obvious, but there is not necessarily a toolkit ready and waiting to do that kind of analysis.”

Erickson and Lazarus used a standard economic model to study the impact of increased oil supply on the market. In their analysis, they assume an increased supply causes competition among producers, which drives down the price. Using oil supply curves from market research firm Rystad Energy, they devised what’s known as an elasticity of supply. Basically, this tool calculates a percent change in oil price given a percent change in supply, Erickson says.

For each barrel of increased production, he says, 0.6 barrels would be new to global markets. That’s oil that wouldn’t have been burned otherwise. The net annual impact could range from adding virtually no extra CO2 to adding 110 million metric tons a year. That spread is four times wider than the U.S. State Department found in its own environmental analysis.

“Just considering these market impacts quadruples the emissions,” he says.

The paper is agnostic on whether Keystone XL would actually lead to expanded development in Canada’s oil sands; that’s a much more complex argument. But Erickson says that his and Lazarus’ key finding—that consumers, given a lower price, would buy more oil and cause additional emissions—has not been done before. Apparently, the U.S. State Department used different models to predict potential emissions, he says.

“It appears as if they didn’t look at the case in which global oil consumption would increase as a result of Keystone helping more oil be extracted,” he says, “so we’re as surprised as you are.”

Donovan Power, a geologist and consultant who has studied the impact of increased coal production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (but who was not involved in this study) says that it makes sense people would use more energy if given the opportunity to do so at a lower cost. But, he says, it’s more difficult to predict the real impact of a possible price change, he says. The State Department’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL allows for some growth in production without much of a price increase, Power notes—only about a $10 price change for an increase of 4.5 million barrels per day.

“If you give someone something cheaper, they’re going to use more of it; that’s certainly true on the global scale,” he says. “But it’s such a small change in the amount of oil you’re allowing to go into the system, and the global supply system is so large, I think it’s hard to forecast what the change would be.” He agrees the analysis is important, though, and that it should be part of the conversation.

Erickson says he and Lazarus aren’t making policy recommendations; they want to offer a new method for analyzing proposed projects like Keystone XL. With a few tweaks, their equations could also be applied to new coal mines, drilling platforms, or other fossil fuel project.

“Looking at fossil fuels from the supply side is a very interesting and important new area of research. There’s a need for analytics and for policy development,” he says. “We’re approaching this from a research perspective, but we want to work to have a policy impact as well.”

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