How big is the carbon footprint of the Keystone XL pipeline?

august 2011 keystone xl protest

Members of my grad school cohort and I at the August 2011 Keystone XL protest.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is set to pass through two countries, but it’s environmental impact would surpass that of many, many more.

In its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the State Department estimated that Keystone will produce somewhere from 1.3 to 27.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) annually. Given that I strongly question the document’s underlying assumption that the pipeline will have little, if any, impact on the overall rate of Canadian tar sands extraction, let’s assume that the actual number will be on the high side of this range. Accordingly, let’s consider two scenarios, one in which Keystone generates 14.35MMTCO2e annually (median value) and one in which it generates 27.4 MMTCO2e annually (maximum value).

The Sierra Club has already produced some useful graphics comparing Keystone’s carbon footprint to other greenhouse gas (GHG) generators. For instance, they calculate that releasing 27.4 MMTCO2e is equivalent to putting another 37.7 million cars on the road or building 51 new coal-fired power plants.

keystone xl 51 coal power plants

Courtesy of the Sierra Club

But let’s put Keystone XL into a more global perspective, shall we? Using 2009 data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (the last year for which a full, global dataset was available), I compared the median and maximum annual carbon emissions from the pipeline to the rest of the world.*

In the chart below, I have highlighted the bars for the two Keystone XL values in red. As you can see, both the median and maximum CO2 emissions values for Keystone XL far exceed those from the majority of countries on Earth. Using its median and maximum values, Keystone XL would generate more annual CO2 emissions than 112 and 123 countries, respectively.

co2 emissions per country with keystone

Data are from the World Development Indicators. The median and maximum values for Keystone XL are highlighted in red. I removed the values for the top 10 emitting countries from the chart, as they severely skewed the scale.

Using 2009 population data from the same source, I calculate that Keystone XL – a project which the State Department says will create 35 permanent jobs – would account for more annual carbon emissions than those from 86.3 million people (median value) or 136.1 million people (maximum value) combined, respectively. If we were to treat Keystone as its own country – let’s call it Keystonia – with a population of 35, it would account for 782.86 tons of CO2 per capita (using the maximum value), more than 18.5 times higher than current world leader Qatar.

Keystone XL may only account for 0.518% of the US’s total CO2 emissions (using 2012 numbers), but denying that it would exacerbate the climate crisis is a fool’s errand. Approving this pipeline would be an environmental injustice of epic proportions.


*The dataset included both countries and territories, bringing the population size to 216. I removed all countries/territories for which data were missing, bringing the sample size to 200.
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