Electric Vehicle Advocates See Threat to Progress from Keystone XL Pipeline

City and county officials think the pipeline would undermine federal policy and their local efforts to move to clean vehicles and alternate fuels.

Smart Cars in Albuquerque, N.M.
Smart Cars in Albuquerque, N.M. Credit: istockphoto.

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A new group has chimed in to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline project that would carry oil from Canada to Texas: local officials who advocate for electric vehicles and alternative fuels.

The officials say the $7 billion project would steer investment and interest away from their efforts to clean up county fleets and get residents off gasoline. And they’re speaking out now because they want their opposition heard as the Obama administration continues to deliberate the project.

“Clean vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure development really do create jobs,” Efren Carrillo, who chairs the board of supervisors in California’s Sonoma County, told InsideClimate News. “My concern is that there is a potential to put these investments at risk if this pipeline were approved.”

Carrillo is part of a national network of more than 500 local government officials, called the Climate Communities coalition, which is concerned that the pipeline’s approval would undermine their efforts to advance clean transportation initiatives at the local, state and national levels. The four-year-old organization aims to educate federal policymakers about the key role that local governments play in shaping energy and climate policies.

Earlier this month, 103 mayors from 28 states also weighed in on the pipeline in a letter to President Obama. Their concerns included the threat of pipeline leaks, environmental impacts and increased greenhouse gas emissions from the Keystone XL.

Carrillo said importing cheap and dirty oil from Canada is “counterintuitive and contradictory” to federal policies – such as billion-dollar stimulus programs and strict fuel economy standards – that aim to put 1 million electric cars on America’s roads in the next four years.

Climate-conscious Sonoma County, one of nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, has spent the past decade working to curb its greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter of 1990 emissions levels by 2015.

To help meet that goal, Sonoma has electrified nearly 30 percent of its 1,000-car light-duty fleet and plans to add about 150 more all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It is also adding about 100 public E.V. charging stations to its existing 40-charger network – a key component in easing fears that E.V. drivers will be left stranded by drained batteries.

This summer, the Bay Area Climate Collaborative, a nonprofit formed by city mayors, agencies and area businesses, deemed Sonoma the region’s “most electric vehicle ready community” in part for its work to streamline the permitting process for charging stations.

Within a year Sonoma plans to produce an assessment of how many jobs and how much private investment its E.V. initiatives could create. “Our hope is that there will be much of both,” David Head, the county’s fleet manager, wrote in an email.

Last year, some 15,700 Americans nationwide worked for electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers, as well as the firms that supply specialized parts and technologies, according to a green jobs count from the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.

Overall, about 150,000 Americans employed in the auto industry – nearly one-fifth of all autoworkers – are making fuel efficient engines, electric and hybrid car parts or deploying E.V. charging infrastructure, according to an August analysis from the United Auto Workers, the National Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation.

Alternative fuels that run in conventional gasoline engines are also spurring employment. The biodiesel industry is expected to support 31,000 jobs this year, while the ethanol industry put 400,000 people to work in 2010, according to separate industry studies.

The Keystone XL’s supporters have touted the pipeline as a much-needed jobs creator. Some claim as many as 1 million high-paying jobs would be created as the pipeline pumps up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the Alberta tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

But that estimate is far rosier than even TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline, claims. TransCanada initially estimated it would create “hundreds” of permanent jobs and 20,000 temporary jobs, including 13,000 construction positions and 7,000 jobs across the supply chain.

The U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the pipeline approval process, has offered even lower estimates. In its third and final environmental impact study published in August, the department said it expects only 5,000 to 6,000 temporary construction positions to come from the Keystone XL.

Pipeline opponents worry that betting on temporary construction jobs to stimulate the economy will jeopardize efforts to create new sectors of employment through clean transportation industries.

“If businesses can rely on us to do what we say we are going to do, then I think they’d continue to move forward” with investments in cleaner vehicles and fuels, said Kristin Jacobs, commissioner of Broward County, which includes Ft. Lauderdale in southeast Florida. “Every time we hesitate or falter, so does industry.”

With more than 100 cars and trucks that run on electricity, compressed natural gas, propane or fuel cells, Jacobs claims that Broward has the largest fleet of alternative fuel vehicles in the southeastern United States.

The county is also installing E.V. charging infrastructure with the help of a half-million-dollar grant awarded last month to the Gold Coast Clean Cities Coalition, a five-county chapter of the U.S. Department of Energy’s alternative transportation initiative.

“We have to make sure that the President knows that we’ve got his back … and that we say this is the right direction to go. These other technologies,” Jacobs said about conventional fuels, “are not the way.”

The Obama administration has poured plenty of stimulus funding into advancing low-carbon vehicle technologies over the past three years, including $9.5 billion in DOE loan guarantees to six U.S. automakers. The department also awarded $2.4 billion in grants to nearly 50 advanced battery and electric drive projects.

“If we want to reduce our dependence on oil, put Americans back to work and reassert our manufacturing sector as one of the greatest in the world, we must produce the advanced, efficient vehicles of the future,” President Obama said in an August 2009 statement announcing the battery grants.

The United States now has approximately 700,000 alternative fuel vehicles on the roads and more than 11,000 alternative fueling stations in place, including some 4,400 public E.V. chargers, according to the DOE.

Jay Fisette, a county board member in Arlington, Va., said the Keystone XL could potentially slow progress on these clean energy ambitions.

For the past five years, Arlington has deployed an all-encompassing sustainability plan for its buildings, transportation networks, electricity supplies and fleets. More than half of the county’s 1,150 trucks, buses and cars are gas-electric hybrids or run on biodiesel or compressed natural gas.

Fisette said such long-term planning efforts generate long-term benefits, unlike the “short-term fix” that the pipeline offers in job creation and private investment. He credits Arlington’s sustainability strategies with helping to boost real estate development and keep unemployment rates at nearly half the 9/1 percent national rate.

Keystone XL is “both a contradiction and a distraction from what should be the major focus: a cleaner and more sustainable energy future,” he said.

The local officials point out that if bolstering America’s oil supplies with cheaper Canadian crude eases drivers’ pain at the pump, as the oil industry says it would do, people would have less incentive to move away from conventional fuels. They contend that the new oil imports would only fuel the country’s addiction to the status quo.

But not all clean vehicle advocates are convinced that the pipeline would stand in the E.V. industry’s way.

Willet Kempton, a professor in the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, argued that even if gas prices do drop as a result of Canadian imports, charging batteries with electricity would still cost far less than filling up a gas tank.

“The fuel price is very competitive” for electric vehicles, said Kempton, who also directs the Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration and pioneered technology that enables E.V. batteries to pump stored energy onto the electrical grid.

Kempton said electricity today costs $1 for the equivalent driving range of one gallon of gas, which ranges from $3.50 to $4 across the country. “Lowering the cost of gasoline incrementally will have little or no effect on the uptake of electric vehicles,” he wrote in an email.

Judi Greenwald, vice president of technology and innovation at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said that pipeline or no pipeline, the country would still import millions of barrels of oil per day. (The center hasn’t taken a position on the pipeline.)

“I don’t think it’s an either or,” she said about choosing the pipeline over a clean fuel economy. “While it’s true that Keystone would bring in more North American [oil] supply into this country, it would only displace other supplies.”

For Greenwald, the key to curbing America’s appetite for oil and boosting demand for cleaner transportation isn’t so much scrapping the pipeline as it is slashing the amount of gas and diesel needed to run conventional cars, and maintaining or ramping up federal and local incentives for electric cars and alternative fuels. Transportation consumes almost 70 percent of the oil used daily in the United States, and oil accounts for 94 percent of all fuels used in transportation, according to the D.C.-based Electrification Coalition.

The U.S. EPA and Department of Transportation last week jointly proposed a set of rules for passenger cars and light trucks, which Obama had first announced in July. Under the rules, 2017 to 2025 model year cars and light trucks would be required to get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon – nearly double the fuel efficiency average of today’s cars.

By 2025, these fuel standards could save drivers more than $1.7 trillion at the pump and reduce U.S. oil consumption by almost a quarter of the country’s current level of oil imports, according to the agencies.

“Broadly speaking, wherever we get our oil from is less important than figuring out how to reduce our overall dependence,” Greenwald said.