Keystone Pipeline Choices

  • Some of the facts about the Keystone XL pipeline project that President Obama cited in an interview last month turned out to be wrong. That's significant, if he is the ultimate decision-maker on this question.
  • Whatever his assessment of the pros and cons of the project, the politics of Keystone are trumping the facts, indicating the decision is likely to be deferred as long as possible. 

When President Obama commented on the merits of the Keystone XL pipeline project in an interview in the New York Times last month, the Washington Post suggested that his remarks “give opponents reason for hope.” Although he confirmed that the White House’s main objective criterion for making this decision was still the pipeline’s greenhouse gas impact, the President also speculated about the project’s job-creation potential and the ultimate destination of the crude oil it would carry. This appeared to endorse arguments raised by opponents of the project. These issues deserve more than the dismissive treatment they received in the interview.

With regard to the number of direct construction jobs that the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) might create, I don’t know whether the right number is the 2,000 the President cited or the tens of thousands estimated in an earlier State Department study. However, fact checking by both PolitiFact and AP concluded he was wrong.

In any case, this administration lacks credibility on counting such jobs. Consider the White House's metric of “jobs created or saved” for assessing the impact of the 2009 stimulus, or the routine touting of projects with “green jobs” potential, not just in terms of their direct employment gains, but also their indirect job creation estimated via generous multiplier effects. Either indirect jobs are always relevant, in which case KXL would create far more jobs across the economy than the President seems willing to admit, or they also aren’t relevant to justifying clean energy and other, more favored infrastructure projects.

The more interesting issue Mr. Obama brought up relates to the disposition of the oil-sands crude that the KXL would ultimately carry from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. For starters, this isn’t relevant for whatever volume of North Dakota production the pipeline might also carry, since current rules prohibit its export to anywhere except Canada. Of the pipeline’s planned capacity of 830,000 barrels per day, some would be used to ship US crude to US destinations, some would carry Canadian  oil destined for US refineries in the mid-continent, while an unspecified remainder would arrive at the Gulf Coast.  However large the latter figure might be, it’s doubtful that much of it would ever leave these shores. To understand why, you need to consider the quantity of US oil imports of similar quality currently coming into the Gulf.

Overall, Gulf Coast crude oil imports have fallen by around a third since 2007, but they still amount to around 4 million barrels per day – 5x the total capacity of the KXL. Unsurprisingly, much of the crude imported into the Gulf is either sour or heavy, since the refineries in the region have invested billions of dollars in the hardware required to process such crudes, which are typically cheaper than lighter, sweeter grades. A quick glance at the countries of origin of the import mix confirms this, with suppliers such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq dominating recent imports. Imports from Algeria, Angola, and Nigeria have been slashed by surging production of light, sweet crude in Texas and other states.

In the interview, President Obama said, “So what we also know is, is that that oil is going to be piped down to the Gulf to be sold on the world oil markets, so it does not bring down gas prices here in the United States.” For him to be right about that, we must believe that the current importers of around 2.7 million barrels per day of generally similar crude from South America and the Middle East would ignore the arrival in their market of new supplies from Canada and continue to buy from existing suppliers, and that those other suppliers would be able to continue to charge the same prices as before, despite significant new competition. Although I wouldn’t argue that oil sands crude would never be exported from the Gulf, imagining that most of it would simply sail right by the closest and largest global refining center equipped to handle this type of crude oil reflects a remarkably superficial view of how oil markets actually work.

The Keystone XL decision process clearly encompasses both factual and political considerations.  On the facts alone and the criteria set by the administration, the pipeline would eventually have to be approved, since even in the worst realistic case its impact on global greenhouse gases would be minimal--on the order of 0.4% of global emissions--while it offers clear benefits including reliability of supply. The protracted delays in approving this project provide all the evidence needed to confirm that political considerations outweigh the facts. Deciding now in favor of either side offers limited political benefits but carries huge risks; continuing to leave the issue in suspense has paid dividends at little apparent political cost.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider. 

Photo Credit: Pipeline Choices/shutterstock