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Study Shows Impact of Keystone XL Pipeline More Disastrous Than Previously Thought

Unaccounted for byproduct of tar sands: dirtier, cheaper version of black gold

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

As all eyes are on President Obama and his pending decision regarding the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project, new research released Thursday indicates that the pipeline's impact is much more disastrous for the planet than previously thought, putting a "strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands."

(Photo via Tar Sands Action) Oil Change International’s new report “Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands” (.pdf) reveals that previous climate impact analyses of tar sands projects, though already appalling, are consistently underestimated because they have thus far failed to account for a devastating high-carbon byproduct of the refining process gifts the coal industry with an even dirtier, cheaper version of their black gold.

The menace, petroleum coke (known as petcoke), which is created during the tar sands refining process, emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal and is "priced to move," enabling the continuation of the carbon burning industry.

"Commonly used as a cheaper, more carbon-intensive substitute to coal" the substance has already hit the market; the largest global petcoke trader in the world is Florida based Oxbow Corporation, reportedly owned by William Koch, brother of Charles and David Koch.

Oil Change International estimates that between January 2011 to September 2012, the US exported over 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, "most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired power plants."

According to a press release by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "the petcoke produced from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year."

Despite the significant and damning emissions of this byproduct, they have been entirely excluded from all State Department estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline project; estimates show that factoring them in raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13 percent.

"What we’ve uncovered is something industry doesn’t want you to hear: exploiting the tar sands and building the Keystone XL pipeline is even more damaging to the climate than has been previously reported,” said report author Lorne Stockman, Research Director at Oil Change International. “Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.”

As the largest proposed tar sands transportation project, the Keystone XL pipeline—which would carry this thick, carbon-intensive oil from Alberta, Canada, to ports on the American Gulf Coast—is key to the success or failure of what is understood to be one of "the most environmentally destructive projects on earth."

Thus, greenlighting the pipeline is a two-fold climate diasaster, as it will dramatically accelerate the expansion of tar sands extraction and, consquently, the emission of dangerous greenhouse gas worldwide, argues Nathan Lemphers in his report "The Climate Implications of the Proposed Keystone XL Oilsands Pipeline" (.pdf) published Thursday by the environmental think tank, the Pembina Institute.

“With climate change chaos sweeping the nation, this new research shows why the Obama Administration should stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in its tracks,” said Danielle Droitsch, Canada Project Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In anticipation of the State Department's environmental review of the tar sands-carrying Keystone XL pipeline and the subsequent decision on whether it should go forward, pressure is on President Obama. On Tuesday, 18 of the nation's top climate scientists delivered an open letter to the President urging him to show his "climate convictions" and reject the pipeline.

However, recent developments with domestic tar sands excavation show evidence that the US is headed in the wrong direction. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining has greenlighted Alberta-based U.S. Oil Sands "to move forward with the first stage of its mine on 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab."