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December 04, 2013

Can Keystone XL Pass the President's Climate Test?

Spoiler alert: The answer is no.

This is the question that climate-policy analysts, scientists, and activists have been toiling over, in great detail, since President Obama unexpectedly mentioned Keystone XL in his Climate Action Plan speech this past summer -- and even before.

On that hot day at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., President Obama said, "Our national interest will be served only if this [Keystone XL] project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

"The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward," he added.

Photo courtesy of Sierra Club Live
The panel's Q & A session

Now, less than six months later, back at Georgetown University, NextGen Climate Action and the Center
for American Progress Action Fund hosted a summit to answer the question of whether Keystone can pass the president's climate test.

Scientists, politicians, investors, and more gathered not just to respond with a resounding "no" but to seal any cracks that might be left open by that burning question. To make it clear, they posed three main questions:

1. What is the carbon footprint of the proposed pipeline?

Climate wonks would recognize the charts and graphs that university professors and policy think-tank experts shared showing how our planet is being affected by carbon pollution, where the tipping point is for our climate, and how much the Keystone XL pipeline will make our climate crisis worse.

Dr. John Abraham of St. Thomas University, Dr. Danny Harvey of the University of Toronto, and Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute in Canada concluded that while Canada has made strides to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, approving the Keystone XL pipeline would negate all of that progress.


And approving the Keystone XL pipeline would only mean more tar sands production, Demerse said.

"The debate isn't over 'Keystone or,' it's over 'Keystone and,'" she said.

More tar sands production means more carbon pollution -- and it doesn't take a fancy graph to see that.

2. What would it take to offset the pipeline?

If the Keystone XL pipeline was to be built and leave this inevitable carbon footprint, could it be balanced out by anything or anyone?

As CEO of TerraPass -- a leading retailer of carbon credits and carbon offsets that companies use to make that kind of balance -- Erin Craig is the perfect person to answer this "what if" question.

Joined by Dr. Mark Trexler, an advocate for climate change risk management, and Dr. Michael Wara, providing a legal perspective as an associate professor at Stanford Law School, Craig made it clear that it was impossible to offset Keystone XL's climate consequences.

The impact is too severe. There are not sufficient rules, regulators, or markets in place for that to even be fathomable, the experts said.

3. Where do we go from here?

With it clear that Keystone XL would add significantly to carbon pollution that could not possibly be offset, Governor Jennifer Granholm asked a critical question to a circle of experts -- what do we do?

Canadian and American academics agreed -- we must put pressure on our elected leaders to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. We also need to bring this conversation to our dinner tables, if it's not already there. And, in all conversations about Keystone XL, we need to make the connection between the pipeline and our climate -- something that is so vulnerable amid a crisis so severe that we can't afford to disrupt it any more.

--Dan Byrnes, Sierra Club Media Team


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