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Keystone XL Wasn’t About Jobs Or The Climate — It Was All Politics

During Keystone XL’s seven-year review process, the pipeline’s political significance ballooned far beyond its measurable consequences. In partisan narratives, it was often framed as a fight pitting jobs against the climate and energy security against environmental concerns. In reality, the pipeline stood to make little difference in any of these arenas.

On Friday, President Obama announced that he was rejecting TransCanada’s request to build the 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline. It would have transported up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in the United States, but “the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States,” Obama said.

Obama’s rationale essentially came down to this: There’s not much in it for us. “The pipeline would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy,” Obama said. “Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security.”

Proponents of Keystone XL, who include most of the Republican Party and all of its presidential candidates, said the pipeline would create jobs — about 42,000 of them, according to a State Department report on the pipeline’s environmental impacts published in January.

But most of those jobs would have been temporary and related to the pipeline’s construction. Once the pipeline was built, according to the State Department report, the number of jobs created would fall to just 50.

The overall economic benefits of the pipeline were slim, as well. Although some counties with project facilities could have seen revenues from property taxes rise 10 percent or more, the construction itself projected to add just $3.4 billion, or 0.02 percent, to the gross domestic product. With gasoline prices near multiyear lows, in part because of the increased U.S. supplies obtained by fracking, the pipeline would have made little difference for most American consumers.

Opponents of the pipeline pointed to the crude oil’s origin as a reason to kill it. The oil sands in Alberta are some of the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally harmful sources of fossil fuel. (A report published in January rated 99 percent of Canadian oil sands as “unburnable” if the world is to meet climate targets.) To opponents, building the pipeline is akin to giving a junkie a needle: It’s hard to transition away from dirty fuels if you keep building infrastructure to enable them.

The State Department report concluded that tapping the oil sands slated for transport through Keystone XL would pour 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. (For comparison, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled 6,673 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2013.) That’s a lot of carbon, but those numbers come from the oil itself, not its method of transport. The State Department and many others who’ve studied the issue have concluded that the Canadian oil will get extracted regardless of whether the pipeline is built.

In the end, it comes down to money. The oil sands will be extracted if and when it’s economically viable to do so. Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL gives him a badge to showcase his environmental credentials going into the U.N. climate talks at the end of this month.

But treaties are only one tool to stop fossil fuel extraction — economics are another. Note the other ongoing environmental battle that Obama ended this year in a different manner. In August, the administration approved Royal Dutch Shell’s request to restart drilling off Alaska’s northwest Arctic coast. The next month, the company announced that it would “cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.” It determined that such drilling was not economically viable.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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