WASHINGTON — At the climate talks under way at the Mexican beach resort of Cancun, the U.S. has assured the world it's not backing away from its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, however, the State Department looks likely to approve a pipeline that would increase the use of one of the dirtiest forms of oil.
That oil would flow from Canada's oil sands in Alberta, where the northern forest is cut so that giant trucks can scrape up black sand containing bitumen, an extra-heavy crude. The Environmental Protection Agency figures that that bitumen requires so much energy to extract and refine that it produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than average U.S. crude from the time it's mined until it ends up in a car's gasoline tank.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in October that she was inclined to approve the pipeline, known as Keystone XL. The $7 billion line would be a major expansion. The Bush administration approved two other Keystone segments.
The new pipeline would bring oil sands crude from Alberta through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, where it would end up in terminals on the Gulf Coast.
Environmentalists have opposed the oil sands for many reasons — air and water pollution, health risks to people living downstream, and the loss of wetlands and forest. Another key objection is that the oil sands expansion results in an increase of heat-trapping emissions at a time when the world is trying to reduce them.
"It's really a decision that runs counter to the U.S. building any trust here," said National Wildlife Federation attorney Joe Mendelson in Cancun. The negotiations among 193 nations end Friday.
Nations agreed last year to try to keep average global temperature from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists say that beyond this amount of warming, the risk of catastrophic results is too high. The U.S. last year pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020 to get on the path of steeper cuts the world will need by 2050. Negotiator Todd Stern reaffirmed the pledge last week.
Still, the legislation that promised to get that level of reductions has died in the Senate. Attention has turned to what the executive branch can do. Environmental groups say the Obama administration shouldn't take any actions that would undermine efforts to reduce emissions.
The National Wildlife Federation, in a report last week, noted that the EPA calculated that if the Keystone XL pipeline is built and carries its maximum volume of 900,000 barrels per day, the result would be an increase of 27 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year. That increase is the extra emissions compared with U.S. average crude oil.
It's a sizeable amount — the equivalent of seven coal-fired power plants.
It's also more than the amount of emissions reductions the EPA expects it would get per year if its newly proposed rule for light and medium trucks goes into effect.
"If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, the U.S. will be moving simultaneously to reduce the direct emissions from its vehicle sector only to wipe out much of those gains by locking the country into the use of higher carbon fuels in the same vehicles," the NWF report said.
Other environmental groups said approval would send the wrong message to China and other countries about the U.S. commitment to cutting emissions.
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company is ready to start construction as soon as it gets the permit. The State Department has told the company it should make the decision before the middle of next year, he said.
Canada is America's No. 1 source of imported oil. The Department of Energy's data show that the oil sands account for about half of Canada's oil production and are expected to grow as conventional production declines.
The EPA, in a letter last summer to the State Department about Keystone XL, urged the State Department to take other possible future trends into account when it decides whether the pipeline is needed, including the use of fuel-efficient technologies, advanced biofuels and electric vehicles.
The American Petroleum Institute announced Wednesday that it would launch an ad campaign in January in support of oil sands development.
"We want people to encourage their policymakers to make the right decisions on Canadian oil sands," said Cindy Schild, the refining issues manager at the oil industry group. She said Keystone XL is "a huge, huge deal for what this country needs right now."
Schild also noted that some members of Congress raised objections to Keystone XL. Eleven senators wrote to Clinton in October, asking her to carefully examine the needs for the oil and its impact on U.S. climate and environmental goals.
Schild and many analysts predict that Americans will continue to use oil for decades, because it's cheaper than alternatives are.
"Americans will continue to consume a lot of oil, and oil sands have the potential to supply much of what we will need while also creating many new U.S. jobs," Schild said. "Renewables cannot and will not replace oil or oil imports for decades, if ever."
Environmentalists argue that electric vehicles and sustainable biofuels aren't so far off, and that greater fuel efficiency and less driving would reduce demand for oil.
Canada has so much oil in sands that it ranks second to Saudi Arabia in proven reserves. Pipelines already in place bring oil sands crude into the U.S. Some Midwest refineries run entirely on oil sands crude.
Keystone started operating the first phase of its pipeline system in June. That segment brings crude oil to the Midwest from Canada. A second segment, from Nebraska to Oklahoma, is under construction.
API also argued in a press conference that Canada would ship the oil to Asia if the U.S. doesn't buy it. So far, however, there's no pipeline to Canada's west coast ports. The U.S. is the main customer.
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