SFU professor Mark Jaccard's testimony to U.S. Congress on Keystone XL

Dr. Marc Jaccard on a panel at the Press Club in Washington, D.C. debating the validity of Keystone XL pipeline in "The Hard Question" series.

SFU sustainability professor and renowned climate expert Mark Jaccard gave a stirring written and oral testimony to the US Congress Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing in Washington on April 10. In his carefully argued, data-filled testimony, he points out Canada's utter failure to reduce carbon pollutions and speaks to the problems of building new oil sands pipelines through BC.  This piece first appeared on Mark Jaccard's Sustainability Suspicions blog.

The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the US State Department assumes that denying the Keystone XL pipeline will not appreciably slow development of the Alberta oil sands and the carbon pollution it produces.

There is considerable evidence that contradicts this finding. Notably, the lowest cost and highest volume method of transporting oil sands product is via pipelines, yet the other two major proposed pipelines from the oil sands – both of them crossing British Columbia – are unlikely to be approved.

Denial of Keystone XL and both of these two pipelines will definitely slow development of the oil sands.

This is an important step in addressing increasing carbon pollution in our atmosphere, but it must be combined with many such acts in North America and the rest of the world. Decisions about projects like Keystone XL are of little use unless they are leveraged to greater effect.

In this case, the US government should note that it cannot support oil sands expansion while the Canadian government is not making the effort necessary to achieve its 2020 emission reduction target – a target that the US is on course to achieve.

Scientists calculate the global carbon budget that would prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and from this energy analysts estimate the economic viability of fossil fuel resources, like the oil sands. In 2012, researchers at the MIT Joint Program on Science and Policy of Global Change published a paper showing the oil sands as non-viable if global emissions fall enough to prevent a 2 °C increase, the very target to which President Obama and other world leaders are committed.

Disallowing Keystone XL is an important first step in keeping our promises to ourselves and our children.

Will Keystone denial reduce oil sands development? 

The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the US State Department assumes that denying the Keystone XL pipeline will not appreciably slow development of the Alberta oil sands and the carbon pollution it produces. There is considerable evidence that contradicts this assumption, and its importance is noted by industry analysts, Canadian politicians and even the oil sands producers themselves.

Quite simply, in the absence of Keystone XL, oil sands producers will find it more difficult to profitably get their product to market. Over the next two decades, the oil sands industry is considering plans to triple its production. To move forward, these projects require a significant expansion of low cost transportation infrastructure. They have potential alternatives to Keystone XL, but these are more costly and more difficult to scale-up to the capacity of Keystone XL, and each faces significant impediments.

Because of their large capacity and low cost, pipelines are preferred. Thus far, the two major pipeline proposals that might compensate for the denial of Keystone XL would ship Alberta bitumen through British Columbia (BC) and then by oil tanker to refineries in Asia and elsewhere. One is the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal of Enbridge, which would be a new pipeline from the oil sands straight west to the north BC coast. The other is the proposal of Kinder Morgan, which would significantly expand the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver. Both of these would involve a dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic on the BC coast, in the latter case through the port of Vancouver.

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