Pipeline critics contend building the Keystone XL Pipeline will lead to a carbon Armageddon.  We disagree.  A Consumer Energy Alliance analysis conducted for Build KXL Now plays out a real world scenario based on three undeniable facts.

  1. The Canadian oil sands will be developed.
  2. The United States will continue to utilize crude oil for gasoline, diesel, home heating and dozens of other products.
  3. Crude oil is sold on a global market driven by supply and demand.

The U.S. State Department assessment examines GHG emissions from the construction and operation of Keystone XL Pipeline.  But, it does not compare those outcomes to the market driven realities which would unfold if the pipeline is not built. (See the list of facts above.)

To find our answer we break down the GHG effect from transporting crude with the Keystone XL Pipeline and without.

Operating the Keystone X Pipeline

Pretty straight forward. U.S. State Department estimates, when operating, the Keystone XL Pipeline will generate 3.19 million metric tons of CO2E annually or 10.529 kg CO2E per barrel shipped.

How did the State Department make this estimate? The estimate is based off the average carbon density of power generators in the region, which are heavily reliant on coal-fired power.

Under the President’s Climate Action Plan greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural-gas fired power plants would be capped.  This point should not go unnoticed. The 3.1 million metric ton average would decline in forthcoming years as coal-fired power plants, which feed the KXL pump stations, close.

Crude oil shuffle 

What happens next we like to call the crude oil shuffle. 

For the foreseeable future, the United States will utilize crude oil to make gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and home heating oil.  If the U.S. cannot import crude oil from Canada via pipeline then Gulf Coast refiners would turn to crude imports from the Middle East.  Venezuela and Mexico would be an option if not for a decline in production exported to the U.S.  Shipping by train is an option, but statistically it is not as safe as shipping crude by pipeline.  Pipelines are by far the safest mode of shipping for crude oil.

Where will the U.S. turn?  Middle East oil producers provide the heavier crude oil sought by Gulf Coast refiners, in particular, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.   

Carbon Footprint from Seaborne Imports

Here is the math.  The carbon impact of seaborne versus pipeline transport of crude oil is dramatic. The Keystone XL Pipeline would produce half the greenhouse gas per barrel compared to a barrel imported by sea from the Middle East.

kg CO2E/bbl % Difference
Canada 10.529
Saudi Arabia 15.6 +48%
Iraq 15.9 +51%
Kuwait 16.1 +53%


What will Canada do? 

The U.S. State Department draft environmental evaluation correctly notes development of the Canadian oil sands will move ahead notwithstanding construction of a new cross-border pipeline.  (This is a view shared by President Obama’s EPA Administrator)

Remembering crude oil is sold on a global market, then what is the next viable option for Canada?  Asia.  Canadian producers will transport their product by the just approved east to west pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia to be then shipped by tanker to Asia.  

Our estimate is based on Barr Engineering’s carbon emission equivalent estimates for oil transport from British Columbia to China.  Something to keep in mind Keystone XL is predicted to ship 730,000 barrels of Canadian crude and 100,000 barrels of U.S. crude. Therefore, the estimates to China only include the 730,000 diverted barrels of Canadian crude.

A oil tanker traveling the 5,673 miles between Kitimat, B.C. to Ningbo, China will generate 20.76 kg CO2e/bbl.  Compared to the 10.529 kg CO2E/barrel.generated by the Keystone XL Pipeline, we are looking at 97% spike in carbon intensity.

The crude oil shuffle now has Canada exporting oil to Asia generating 20.76 average kg CO2e/bbl and the U.S. importing oil from the Middle East 15.6 Average kg CO2E/barrel.

Let’s review.

Keystone XL Pipeline 10.529 kg CO2E/barrel.
Canada to China 20.76 average kg CO2e/bbl
Middle East to the U.S. 15.6 Average kg CO2E/barre


Contrary to claims of critics, evaluating the numbers in a real world scenario shows the Keystone XL Pipeline is by far the best option.