In a report on congressional debates over the Keystone XL pipeline, the Washington Post's Paul Kane (5/4/14) opines that "the pipeline's political mythology runs up against the reality of its significance in the energy universe." Both sides, its seems, are exaggerating the importance of the project:
At its core, the debate is about producing energy, and jobs, versus environmental protections. Yet Keystone’s actual impact is far less significant in those areas and instead has become much more politically symbolic for the sides engaged in this fight.
Even the rosiest estimates predict just 9,000 jobs would be created by allowing this nearly 1,200-mile pipeline to be constructed from western Canada down to Nebraska — a nice bump but not exactly a game-changer for a domestic economy that created 288,000 jobs in April.
Environmental opponents decry that the ensuing 830,000 barrels of oil coursing through the proposed pipeline each day would be carrying a dirty batch of tar sands oil — an alarming figure, yet the first three phases of Keystone pipelines have already been approved and have the capacity to deliver 1.3 million barrels a day through a longer route to the Gulf Coast.
If only politicians on both sides could be sensible like Washington Post reporters!
This convenient debunking of hotheads on each extreme breaks down, however, if you examine the math. Nine thousand jobs is indeed a small percentage of a single's month's job growth–about 3 percent, as a matter of fact. Whereas Keystone XL will increase the Keystone pipeline capacity by a considerable amount–about 64 percent per day. (That's why they call it "XL.")
Looked at another way, 830,000 barrels is about 4 percent of the US's daily consumption of oil. If Keystone XL were increasing the total number of jobs in the US by 4 percent–that is, adding some 5 million new jobs–that would indeed be something to write home about.
But the really significant number is not the capacity of the pipeline but the amount of carbon in the Canadian tar sands deposits that the pipeline is intended to drain: 240 gigatons, enough to add 120 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere if burned, as much again as the Industrial Revolution has managed to add over the past 150 years. If exploitation of the tar sands is not stopped, it will indeed, as climatologist James Hansen (New York Times, 5/9/12) wrote, be "game over for the climate."
So, actually, comparing environmentalists' concern about the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline to Republicans' worry about 9,000 jobs is not as clever as Paul Kane thinks.
He deserves credit, though, for writing yet another article about Keystone that manages to avoid mentioning either "climate change" or "global warming."
UPDATE: Date for Paul Kane's Washington Post piece corrected.