With the recent release of the State Department’s report on the Keystone XL pipeline, I thought would review some of the key issues for this topic. The Keystone XL pipeline is intended to transport diluted bitumen, a low-grade, impure form of crude petroleum, from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. The essence of the State Department report is that the pipeline project would not have a negative environmental impact because, in its absence, the oils sands would be exploited anyway and transported via railcar. The report further stated, correctly, that rail transport is less safe for people and the environment than pipeline transport.

In 2012, I wrote about the science and climate change implications of the oil sands in Keystone Controversy. Last spring, I noticed a shift in focus of opponents to this project from potential climate impacts towards the possibility of pipeline leaks. I explained why I thought this was a bad idea in Advice for Opponents of the Keystone Pipeline. My main point in this second column was that focusing on the safety and environmental aspects of the transport of the dilbit distracts from what is truly important.

The underlying question on the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline is, “How high can the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere get before climate change has a dramatic, negative consequence on humankind?” During 2013, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm), a level 33% higher than at any time in the last half a billion years. We are already experiencing challenges from the global average temperature rise driven by this, and climate models suggest that impacts of allowing the concentration to reach 450 ppm will be something akin to catastrophic.

In order to avoid reaching 450 ppm, humanity must leave more than half of all known fossil fuels in the ground, forever. The oils sands are among the dirtiest, lowest quality fossil fuel sources on earth. They should be left in the ground. That is what matters. Discussions about how the oil will be transported after it is extracted are a distraction.

Unfortunately, leaving the oil sands in the ground does not make for as exciting of news stories as congressional Republicans demanding approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline in exchange of for a debt limit increase. So as we tune into Fox News or MSNBC to hear about the most recent nuances of these political squabbles, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere keeps growing, and growing, and growing.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email at commonscience@chapelboro.com.