It is not easy to measure the carbon footprint of the tar sands crude that would move through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to refineries in the United States.
There is no question that the oil extracted from Canada's vast bitumen reserves is dirtier than most—heavy with carbon and emitting even more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when it's produced or consumed.
That surplus carbon, and its implications for the fight against climate change, is one of the reasons for widespread opposition to the 830,000-barrel-a-day Keystone XL. And it is what led President Obama to declare last June that "the national interest will be served only if this project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
But how to put a number on the word "significantly"? That's tricky, because any such estimate is built on a matrix of assumptions, modeling methods and ever-shifting data about how the fuel is produced.
The State Department completed its formal review of the environmental impacts of the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Friday, sticking to the main, highly controversial conclusion that with or without the project the relentless expansion of Canada's tar sands enterprise would proceed unabated.
But in subtle ways, it left the door open for Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama to approve or reject the pipeline's permit on the basis of the broader national interest—including the implications for greenhouse gas emissions and their own climate policy priorities.
"Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States," the report said.
Just as the State Department is on the verge of releasing its final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, 16 environmental groups have demanded that the department expand its scope to include at least one other pipeline as well.
In other words, their Jan. 29 petition said, the department should go back to the drawing board.
The green groups said the State Department could not realistically account for the effects of TransCanada's Keystone XL project on global warming without taking into account the proposed expansion of Enbridge's Alberta Clipper line—a second pipeline project that would also carry hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of high-carbon tar sands crude from Canada.
The petitioners include groups with long experience challenging federal agencies in the courts under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which governs environmental assessments of major federal actions.
Ten environmental groups fired off a warning this week to a little-known investment firm bankrolling two of the remaining proposals to export America's coal to Asia: Withdraw financing or face public protest.
The Jan. 27 warning letter to Ross Bhappu, a partner at Resources Capital Funds (RCF), is evidence of a shift in strategy for environmentalists who have long challenged big banks with protests and letter-writing campaigns to stop financing coal and other fossil fuel projects.
Now that Wall Street investors are turning their back on coal export terminals, activists are starting to apply the same scrutiny to smaller companies that are filling the financing gap.
"Our hope is that Bhappu and RCF will take a more common sense approach and withdraw their investments," said Kelly Mitchell, a coal campaigner for Greenpeace, a signatory on the letter. "If not, we're willing to bring more public scrutiny to the company and engage more of our membership on the issue."
Thanks to climate change, extreme weather disasters have hammered the United States with increasing frequency in recent years—from drought and wildfires to coastal storms and flooding.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the U.S. agency in charge of preparing for and responding to these disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), doesn't account for climate change in most of its budget planning and resource allocation or in the National Flood Insurance Program it administers.
"Climate change is affecting everything the agency does, and yet it isn't given much consideration," said Michael Crimmins, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona who is leading a project to try to improve FEMA's use of climate science data. "FEMA has to be climate literate in a way that many other agencies don't have to be."
A main problem, he and other experts say, is that FEMA doesn't use short- or long-term climate science projections to determine how worsening global warming may affect its current operations and the communities it serves.
Instead, FEMA continues to base its yearly budget and activities almost entirely on historical natural disaster records.
That practice is exacerbated by the fact that the agency is at the mercy of economic and political pressures. In addition to having to deal with years of recession that ate into its budget, FEMA has repeatedly been caught in the crosshairs of partisan politics that forced funding cuts and blocked proposed increases.
Imagine, if you will, John Kerry's internal monologue—his soliloquy as the State Department prepares to release its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline designed to funnel tar sands crude from Alberta across the U.S. midsection. After the EIS arrives, Kerry must review whether the pipeline is in the national interest—a question that Obama has said rests largely on its climate impacts. Of course, we can't know what Kerry really thinks. Here we take a guess by looking at recent reports and other materials.
If only I could get out of this Keystone decision. Not just punt it, as Obama has been accused of doing. I mean avoid it entirely.
I know that's not possible. Like I told Canadian officials the other day when they pushed me: We're on it. Effectively and rapidly, I think I said. Finish up the environmental review, then my work begins. Ninety days to say whether the Keystone XL is in the national interest.
You can't force a snap judgment. Congress tried that in 2012—and it only let Obama delay past the election, until my watch.
Back then, I was one of the most outspoken Senators ever to master the subject of climate change—right up there with Al Gore. But I always wanted to be Secretary of State, and unlike Gore I kept my thoughts on the Keystone XL to myself.
Tucked inside a far-reaching energy and climate policy statement issued by the European Union on Wednesday was a hot-button recommendation to back away in just a few years from Europe's clean fuel standard, which aims to cut the use of high-carbon transportation fuels.
The change in policy would be felt as far away as the tar sands of Canada.
Phasing out the so-called Fuel Quality Directive after 2020 would throw a bone to Canada, whose government has waged a high-powered lobbying campaign to defang it.
Canada has long objected to the FQD, adopted in 2009 and still being put into effect, because it would discourage European nations from turning to plentiful but high-carbon fuels like those from the Alberta tar sands. The policy's goal is to reduce emissions from Europe's transport sector by 6 percent by 2020.
The recommendation not to extend or strengthen it after 2020, a suggestion that faces further review starting in March, was denounced by environmental groups as a sellout to the tar sands interests.
"If the EU is really serious about climate action, they will ensure the world's most polluting fuels aren't part of their fuel mix and send yet another signal to Canada that the tar sands are a thing of the past," said Hannah McKinnon of Environmental Defence, a Canadian group.
The view from David Gallagher's porch window should have been bucolic on that January evening. In the distance, the setting sun was bouncing off fresh snow that blanketed old farmland surrounding his Ceresco, Mich. home.
But Gallagher could see only the workers from Enbridge Inc., the Canadian energy company that had been constructing a crude oil pipeline 12 feet from his house for the past seven months.
Although he had grown used to the crew and the rumblings of their bulldozers and backhoes, Gallagher's fears about the safety of laying pipe so close to his home never left him. And on Jan. 8, as he watched a crane lift a piece of 50-ton pipe longer than a football field, a shot of alarm raced through his body. The crane suddenly began to tip over, and the massive pipe that was dangling between the machine's claws plunged into a trench before the crane toppled on its side.
If the pipe had been any closer, "it would've smashed into our sunroom," Gallagher said. "It was a holy shit moment."
A rash of explosive accidents involving oil-bearing trains has led to a surprising number of headlines and high-profile comments directly linking the fiery derailments to the fate of the long-stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline, the controversial project that would carry heavy bitumen from Canada’s oil sands to Texas refineries.
"North Dakota train fire adds fuel to Keystone XL debate," said a Bloomberg News headline. The Los Angeles Times published "Canada rail crash stirs debate over Keystone XL pipeline delay." And a year-end Fox Business segment asked, "Recent train derailments renewing push for Keystone Pipeline?"
Proponents of the pipeline project have been even more explicit in using the rail accidents to drum up support for the more than $5.4 billion northern segment of the Keystone XL, which the Obama administration has delayed for years over environmental concerns.
A leading conservation group is suing the Obama administration over the status of the northern swift fox, an imperiled species whose fragile dens could be destroyed during construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
The Center for Biological Diversity says the Fish and Wildlife Service has improperly bypassed requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and, along with the State Department in its environmental review of the pipeline, failed to fully consider the harm that would be done to the species if the project goes ahead.
"The State Department has acknowledged this fox could be crushed, with its young, in dens during Keystone XL's construction, but FWS and the State Department neglected to do any of the required analysis for this species under the Endangered Species Act," said Lori Ann Burd, a lawyer working for the advocacy group, which specializes in endangered species litigation.