For the fifth time in as many years, the State Department has found that the Keystone XL pipeline would not have a significant impact on the environment or worsen carbon emissions, according to a new report released Friday. That’s further evidence that the environmental lobby’s vociferous moaning about the pipeline isn’t grounded in scientific fact. Shadier motives are likely.

Ever since TransCanada first proposed the pipeline in September 2008, green groups have responded with extreme claims about the environmental catastrophes we will face if Keystone XL goes forward. The Natural Resources Defense Council has written that “approval of the Keystone XL pipeline permit will trigger very large increases in carbon pollution that will significantly worsen climate change.” Friends of the Earth argues that the pipeline “could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources, and jeopardize public health.” A Sierra Club factsheet on the pipeline continues in this line: “The U.S. now faces a clear choice: Promote the oil industry’s interests by green-lighting the most carbon-intensive, destructive oil on the planet, or demonstrate a bold commitment to addressing climate disruption and promoting clean energy solutions by saying NO to Keystone XL.”


Most extreme is James Hansen, a climatologist and frequent protester, who has called Keystone XL the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” He recently and hysterically wrote that “if Canada proceeds [on extracting tar-sands oil], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” If the Canadian oil is extracted to its full potential, “sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities,” he has predicted. “Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

The State Department’s new report directly responds to these climate-alarmist allegations; in fact, 99 percent of the 1.9 million public comments it considered “were form letters sponsored by NGOs,” State reports. But, doubtless, to environmental groups’ chagrin, the State Department’s findings directly contradict the claims they have made about Keystone XL.

The new report details the impressive risk-mitigation plans proposed by TransCanada to protect the land and water that would surround the pipeline. Though it notes the Albertan oil generates about 17 percent more emissions than oil from other sources, the report also acknowledges that the oil will be extracted whether or not the United States approves the pipeline. Meanwhile, other studies have reported that although the Alberta tar sands constitute the third-largest oil reserve in the world, the energy derived contributes only 0.01 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. In other words: Approving the Keystone XL project won’t have much of an effect at all on carbon emissions.

In fact, the new State Department report suggests that the anti-Keystone effort has actually led to an increase in emissions. As of now, Albertan oil can’t be transported by pipeline, so instead it’s sent to refineries by trains and ships — and both of those modes of transit result in significantly higher emissions than Keystone XL would, the report finds.

And for those worried about the blazing train wreckage seen in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the report notes that with no pipeline approved, North Dakota and Minnesota could soon see an additional 14 oil-laden trains a day passing through on their way to the Gulf Coast.

The opposition of Keystone critics is rooted not only in bad science but also in faulty economics, as is illustrated in recent correspondence obtained by Chris Horner, counsel for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Ryan Salmon, the energy-policy adviser for the National Wildlife Federation, sent a consulting inquiry in 2011 to Jurgen Weiss, head of The Brattle Group’s climate-change practice. Salmon was trying to get an expert to help support the argument, oft repeated by Keystone opponents, that the pipeline would result in energy-price increases.

Weiss shuts Salmon down pretty quickly, concluding: “It is not clear how this is a good argument against the pipeline.” Prices could go up in the Midwest, he wrote, but only because of a “disappearing excess capacity” of oil in that region, which was keeping prices lower than the overall market rate. And as the oil was transported elsewhere, it might displace crude oil imported from countries such as Saudi Arabia, so prices could foreseeably decrease in other parts of the United States.  

Although the environmental and economic arguments against Keystone are deeply flawed, green groups have another, more cynical reason to fight against the pipeline.

As the New York Times reported recently, Keystone XL has attracted donations and a grassroots following. The Sierra Club, for instance, raised $1 million in just six weeks for an anti-pipeline protest in Washington — and “about $100,000 of that came from contributions of less than $1,000.” Similarly, the climate-change organization has seen its e-mail list grow to 530,000 since 2011, more than twice what it was before. That comes in handy when these organizations pursue other, drier environmental initiatives such as cap-and-trade that tug less on the heartstrings of uninformed Americans.

Meanwhile, the United States misses out on a golden black-gold opportunity. Approval of Keystone XL would result in more than 42,000 jobs, by the State Department’s reckoning. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the pipeline would allow Americans to enjoy an additional $6.5 billion in personal income. Over the lifetime of the pipeline, $5.2 billion in property taxes alone would be collected. The United States’ loss is the green groups’ gain.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She also writes about energy and environmental policy as a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.