Keystone XL: The Climate Impact

Sep 16, 2014

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline connecting Alberta oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries would raise future oil sands production, according to a Near Zero survey of 26 oil sands professionals and researchers. Nearly 70% of participants thought approval of the pipeline would raise oil sands production over the next 10 to 20 years, with an average increase of 220,000 barrels per day (b/d) by 2015 and over 900,000 b/d by 2035. This would raise annual greenhouse gas emissions between >1 to 40 million metric tons (Mt) CO2-equivalent by 2035 if the increase in oil sands displaced heavy crudes, and up to 183 Mt CO2-eq if the increase added to net world oil supply. The survey was evenly split by those who supported approval of the pipeline, and those who opposed it.

Oil sands production in Canada has been steadily increasing, and a pipeline connecting Alberta to US Gulf Coast oil refineries has been proposed. The pipeline, Keystone XL (KXL), has faced controversy over the climate effects of oil sands development. President Obama stated in 2013 that he will approve the pipeline “only if this project doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

To help assess the effect of KXL, Near Zero surveyed a variety of oil sands professionals and researchers. The survey was completed by 26 people: 13 supported KXL, and 13 did not. Most participants (nearly 70%) thought approval of KXL would increase oil sands production in the next 10 and 20 years. The average for all experts was an overall increase of 220,000 barrels per day (b/d) by 2015, and 908,000 b/d by 2035 — the latter a 40% increase above current oil sands production.

KXL supporters argued oil sands would primarily displace heavy crudes currently processed at the U.S. Gulf Coast with comparable life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while opponents largely see oil sands as a new source of world oil production that will supply new markets and increase GHG emissions.

Most participants thought Keystone XL would increase future oil sands production, which would likely raise GHG emissions.

If the estimated increase in oil sands production from KXL displaced heavy crude oils currently processed at the US Gulf Coast, the net increase in GHG emissions would be anywhere from >1 to 40 Mt CO2-eq annually by 2035, according to life-cycle GHG estimates from the U.S. State Department report. Yet if the increased oil sands added to rather than displaced world oil supply, its full emissions may represent a net increase, up to 183 Mt CO2-eq by 2035, or nearly 3% of current US annual GHG emissions.

The only scenario in which KXL would not lead to an increase in GHG emissions is if the same amount of oil sands were produced regardless and transported by rail, raising emissions by less than 1.2 Mt CO2-eq annually for 830,000 b/d of production, the full transport capacity of the pipeline. Yet most survey participants did not think the same amount of oil sands would be produced in the absence of KXL approval.

In short, our survey responses suggest KXL would likely raise oil sands production and GHG emissions, particularly if the oil sands added to current global oil production.

a Near Zero white paper

Christine Shearer *†, Mason Inman *, and Steven J. Davis *†

* Near Zero

† University of California, Irvine, Department of Earth System Science

Expert participants

26 experts participated in the discussion and elicitation for this report:

Alice Chapple

Impact Value

Anthony Andrews

Congressional Research Service

Bill McKibben

Bob Dunbar

Strategy West Inc.

Bruce Baizel


Cary Krosinsky

Carbon Tracker

Chris Powter

University of Alberta

Danny Harvey

University of Toronto

David Hackett

Stillwater Associates

Dinara Millington

Canadian Energy Research Institute

Greg Stringham

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

Jalal Abedi

University of Calgary

James Leaton

Carbon Tracker

Kate Colarulli

Sierra Club

Keith Stewart

Greenpeace Canada

Lorne Stockman

Oil Change International

Mark Jaccard

Simon Fraser University

Michael Moore

University of Calgary

Nathan Lemphers

Pembina Institute

Noël Perry

FTR Associates

Paul Precht

Paul Precht Energy Economics (P2)

Pierre-Olivier Pineau

HeC Montreal Business School

Robert Schulz

University of Calgary

Robyn Allan

Spencer Veale

International Forum on Globalization

Todd Crawford

Conference Board of Canada

photo credit: Luke Jones