Two news items surrounding greenhouse gas emissions moved over the past week. One on the trajectory of said emissions from government number-crunching. The other on what the proposed Keystone pipeline might mean for emissions.

We start with Keystone. On Monday the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in [pdf] on the Keystone XL pipeline project. Its conclusion? ”Insufficient information.”

A Hole in Proponents’ Arguments for the Proposed Pipeline

Remember the draft supplemental environmental impact statement* on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would allow crude from Canadian tar sands to flow to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries? Prepared for the State Department, which must OK the project because it crosses an international border, the draft statement concluded with music to the ears of the pipeline’s proponents: “The proposed project … would [pose] no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project route.” (See my post for more on the draft statement.)

After it was released on March 1, interested parties and agencies had 45 days to submit comments on the draft and the pipeline, which has become one of the most contentious environmental issues in Obama’s presidency. That public comment period ended at midnight on Monday, and among the reported tens of thousands of comments (some say over a million) that poured in during the comment period was a seven-page reaction from the Environmental Protection Agency submitted just under the wire.

The agency’s assessment in short: “Based on our review, we have rated the [draft supplemental environmental impact statement] DSEIS as E0-2 (‘Environmental Objections – Insufficient Information’).”

Need help on the government-speak? E0-2 or Environmental Objection #2 refers, as indicated, to an objection on environmental grounds because of “insufficient information” or because, as not indicated, the EPA has “identified new reasonably available alternatives that are within the spectrum of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS, which could reduce the environmental impacts of the action.” Did you get all that? If not, basically EPA is saying that it doesn’t buy the State Department’s assessment because it failed to consider all the options.

One Sticking Point: Estimated Emissions from Tar Sands Oil

A major EPA objection to the impact statement concerned the State Department’s assessment that the pipeline itself, as a conduit for transporting bitumen from Canadian tar sands, would have little impact on greenhouse gases. The stated reasoning for such a conclusion: Even if the pipeline were not built, the tar sands oil production would be largely unaffected as other means of transport (e.g., rail, other pipelines) would be used to bring the heavy crude to market.

EPA was not convinced:

“We note that the discussion in the DSEIS regarding energy markets, while informative, is not based on an updated energy-economic modeling effort. The DSEIS includes a discussion of rail logistics and the potential growth of rail as a transport option, however we recommend that the Final EIS provide a more careful review of the market analysis and rail transport options. … recognizing the potential for much higher per barrel rail shipment costs than presented in the DSEIS. This analysis should consider how the level and pace of oil sands crude production might be affected by higher transportation costs and the potential for congestion impacts to slow rail transport of crude.”

EPA also noted that the State Department’s evaluation of pipeline alternatives is not “sufficient to enable a meaningful comparison to the proposed route and other alternatives.” In addition, the agency reported that it would like to see a more rigorous analysis of the existing pipeline corridor, as it avoids not only the Sands Hills aquifer (which was one of the sticking points of the first proposed route) but the Ogallala aquifer as well. (See related interactive map of the route: “Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.”)

What’s Comes Next?

So what happens now is more hurry up and wait. The release of the draft environmental impact statement and the conclusion of the public comment period following that release means that the preparation of a final impact statement can now officially begin. That “Final Supplemental EIS,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, would include “additional analysis and incorporate public comments received on the Draft SEIS.” As for all those many public comments, State has promised to publish each and every one. ($ub req’ed) There’s no word yet on when.

And remember all this is for just the environmental assessment. In all, eight federal agencies [pdf] will need to weigh in on the project before State renders its decision.

Whither U.S. CO2 Emissions?

While we’re on the subject of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. it is relevant to note that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has begun releasing its Annual Energy Outlook for 2013. One item published last week was the forecast for U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions through 2040. This projection along with EIA’s past projections between 2004 and 2012 is illustrated below.

CO2 Forecasts Plus Copenhagen Commitment

AEO: Annual Energy Outlook, from EIA’s archived forecasts issued in a given year and its latest, AEO 2013 (Additional info here.) U.S. commitment in the Copenhagen Accord [pdf]

There is certainly good news here. Since 2004, the EIA’s estimate for future U.S. emissions has consistently fallen for each projection. As discussed previously (see here, here and here), this decrease can be attributed to a number of factors including the global recession, fuel-switching away from coal and petroleum and toward natural gas, decreasing energy intensity, milder winters, and so on.

But lest we get carried away congratulating ourselves, the news from the EIA’s 2013 projection is not all roses. While U.S. emissions have been falling since the economic downturn of 2008, EIA projects they will begin a modest upturn in 2017 that will continue through 2040.

And even given the sizable (some might say remarkable) decrease in our projected emissions over the next few decades, as compared to earlier projections, the current forecast falls quite short of the emissions reductions President Obama committed to as part of the Copenhagen Accord [pdf], as illustrated in the above graphic. (See also here.)

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons EPA is concerned about the potential emissions from tar sands. Of course the State Department’s answer could be that if EIA just keeps ratcheting down its emissions projections, maybe we’ll meet our emissions commitment without even trying. So why worry about a little bit of extra greenhouse gas emissions (on the order of about 19 million metric tons annually, according to EPA estimates) from tar sands? Why indeed.

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End Note

* Because of a previously proposed route for the pipeline, which had its own environmental impact statement (which was ultimately rejected), the statement issued in March is a “supplemental” environmental impact statement [pdf]. A final supplemental statement will be issued after more analysis and review.