August 30th, 2011


Consul General of Canada in San Francisco

Editor, Sierra Magazine; Author, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man

Former Executive Director, Sierra Club

President of Energy and Oil Pipelines, TransCanada


Since August 20, some 600 people have been arrested at White House protests organized to highlight opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700-mile project would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta to America’s Gulf Coast refineries. On Friday, August 26, the U.S. State Department released its final environmental review of the pipeline; the Obama administration will issue its final decision by the end of the year. On August 30, Climate One hosted a debate between two experts for and two against the Keystone XL.

For Alex Pourbaix, President of Energy and Oil Pipelines, TransCanada, the pipeline builder, and Cassie Doyle, Canada’s Consul General in San Francisco, the merits of the project are clear: America would bank a stable, secure supply of crude from a friendly neighbor.

Why would the United States opt to buy crude from anyone other than Canada if given a choice? asked Pourbaix. “To suggest that those other countries are more responsible environmental citizens than Canada begs comprehension. Canada has proven itself to be a very good steward of the environment. We have excellent, transparent environmental rules for the development of our resources.”

“It is far more compelling to be getting your oil needs from Canada, rather than getting it from other countries such as Libya, Nigeria, or Venezuela,” he said.

Cassie Doyle, a former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, downplayed the environmental impact of processing the Alberta oil sands’ heavy crude. “We assume that the oil sands production is static when it comes to environmental performance. When, since 1990, we’ve seen a 30% improvement in the carbon intensity per barrel. And we’re going to see a continued improvement on that front given the amount of investment that’s going into technological studies to improve the energy inputs into producing that barrel of oil.”

Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope and Jason Mark, Editor of the Earth Island Journal, dismissed both claims – that Keystone XL crude will stay in the United States and can be extracted without exacerbating climate change – as implausible.

“This is really an export pipeline. It’s not really an import pipeline,” said Pope. “The United States is going to be used as a transit zone and a refining zone. We’re going to take the environmental risks.”

“What’s going to happen with this oil is it will be shipped to refineries in Texas. It will be refined into diesel, some gasoline, some jet fuel, and a large part – perhaps all – will be exported to Europe and Latin America.”

The pipeline would also, he said, result in higher oil prices in the United States. “The official EIS – which Alex is otherwise going to defend – says that America’s export bill goes up 1.5%, $6 billion per year, if we build this pipeline.”

Jason Mark faulted the State Department environmental review for not acknowledging the pipeline’s contribution to climate change. “The U.S. State Department said that this pipeline would have ‘no significant environmental impact.’ As a journalist, that felt to me like the classic example of the headline writer not actually reading the story.”

According to U.S. Department of Energy, he said, oil from the tar sands would be 17% more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional crude. “That’s a significant environmental impact, to spill this oil into the atmosphere. I don’t think we can afford it.”

Mark then highlighted what was, to him, the even larger issue. “Is the United States going to be complicit in burning megatons more carbon dioxide that’s going to fuel run-away climate change?”

We have a choice, he said, “Do we continue to make investments that leave us on the path of a carbon-intensive economy? Or, when do we make the hard decision that says we’re going to stop using oil?”

“This is one of those litmus tests. This is one of those places where we draw the line in the sand and say, ‘We have to start someplace.’ The place to start is by saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Otherwise, we keep postponing the future.”


– Justin Gerdes
August 30, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California