White House Keystone Cops, Continued

I can’t add much to John’s indignation about the economic illiteracy of Obama’s craven decision to block the Keystone pipeline, but I can note how it is also environmentally stupid.  First, even if you’ve drunk double-shots of the climate change Kool Aid, blocking the Keystone pipeline not only won’t have any effect on greenhouse gas emissions, it will actually increase them, along with environmental risks generally.

Why?  Simple: Canada will now ship their oil to China by tanker, which will involve higher greenhouse gas emissions from shipping that you’d wouldn’t have by sending it to us by pipeline.  Second, instead of importing 1 million barrels of day of oil by pipeline from Canada, we’ll substitute that million barrels by importing it by tanker from the Middle East and Africa, thereby doubling the shipping-related greenhouse gas emission over the pipeline option.*

Second, Canada is going to ship out their oil from a northern latitude port in British Columbia.  Shipping oil by tanker has a spill rate about six times higher than spills from offshore oil rigs or pipelines.  You’d think after the ExxonValdez environmentalists would be able to calculate the simple risk tradeoff here involving a northern cold water port, except that environmentalists believe in a sentimental world without tradeoffs.  (I like the Wall Street Journal’s turn of phrase this morning about environmentalists making Keystone “a station of the green cross.”  Yup, that about nails it.)

Third, anyone think China will refine the oil the same way as the U.S.?  That is, do you think China will use their Canadian-sourced oil with the same emission reduction requirements for conventional air pollutants as we do?  Yeah, me neither.

Finally, let’s have a look at the data on oils spills from pipelines in the U.S. and all sources.  As with air travel, automobile fatalities, and other mass risks, the long-term trend of oil spills from tankers and pipelines alike has experienced a long-term declining trend.  According to research by Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, the leading researcher on oil spill statistics, between the decade of the 1970s and today, average annual oil spill amounts from all sources (oil well blowouts, tanker accidents, refinery spills, rail transit accidents, etc.) fell 77 percent, and spills from pipeline accidents fell 70 percent (see Figure 1).  (See Analysis of U.S. Oil Spillage, API Publication 356, August 2009.)

Figure 1: Average Annual Petroleum Industry Oil Spillage by Decade

The environmental risk of pipeline spills is also overblown.  A break in an ExxonMobil oil pipeline on July 1 of last year near Billings, Montana, released about 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River and deepened the controversy over Keystone.  The EPA reported that its water pollution sampling of the affected area of the river found “no petroleum hydrocarbons above drinking water standards in that region,” while its air pollution tests finds that “there continues to be no public health concerns resulting from the release of oil into the river.”

That sure doesn’t fit the disaster narrative.

* I note even the Washington Post editorial board sees it our way:

Without the pipeline, Canada would still export its bitumen — with long-term trends in the global market, it’s far too valuable to keep in the ground — but it would go to China. And, as a State Department report found, U.S. refineries would still import low-quality crude — just from the Middle East. Stopping the pipeline, then, wouldn’t do anything to reduce global warming, but it would almost certainly require more oil to be transported across oceans in tankers.

One last footnote: Since this was formally a State Department recommendation to President Obama, I suppose we should revive the old line about needing to install an “American Desk” at the State Department to stick up for the interests of the American people.

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