MPR’s latest story on the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline buys into the corporate narrative that climate change is just too confusing for people to understand. It starts with the headline: Why no one agrees on Line 3 pipeline’s climate change impact, which undermines the science in the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The EIS estimates Line 3’s “social cost of carbon” pollution at $287 billion over 30 years. The social cost of carbon “is meant to be a comprehensive estimate of climate change damages. It includes changes in net agricultural productivity; human health; property damages from increased flood risk; and changes in energy system costs, such as reduced costs for heating and increased costs for air conditioning.”
I’m not saying that people can’t challenge the analysis, but let’s be clear about what is in the EIS. It’s $287 billion estimate is conservative, a likely underestimate of the costs. The social cost of carbon estimate “does not include all important damages,” because of limitations with the modeling and data. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says such “social costs of carbon” estimates are “a useful measure to assess the benefits of CO2 reductions,” it says.
The MPR story never mentions the $287 billion cost.
Corporate efforts to muddy the facts are nothing new. Recall how tobacco companies tried to undermine the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Pipeline companies don’t need to convince people that tar sands crude oil doesn’t affect climate, they just need to raise doubts, making it so hard to understand that people walk away scratching their heads.
MPR’s story reflects that narrative. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Calculating the carbon footprint of a project like Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline is complicated. Not only are there multiple steps involved in the analysis, but there’s also a need to make an educated guess about what the world would look like with and without the new pipeline.
Comment: So the story’s takeaway is not the $287 billion public pricetag, but that the analysis is “complicated,” there are “multiple steps” that include “educated guesses.” The MPR analysis does more to confuse than illuminate.
The MPR article starts with a “he-said-she said” analysis, starting with Enbridge’s point of view:
Enbridge argues that building a new Line 3 to replace the existing Line 3 crossing Minnesota would result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than if it isn’t built. The company says the new Line 3 would carry up to 760,000 barrels a day to meet demand for oil. If it isn’t built, Enbridge argues that oil from Alberta’s oil sands will still move to market and be used by us in cars, trucks, planes, etc. The existing Line 3 can only move 390,000 barrels per day, so additional oil would need to be moved by train or truck, which are both less efficient than pipelines. In addition, maintaining the old Line 3 would result in significant emissions because it’s less efficient and would also require heavy equipment and integrity digs to ensure its safety. While Enbridge officials acknowledge that climate change exists, they argue building Line 3 would not worsen climate change.
The story does not challenge key assumptions: MPR uncritically takes as fact Enbridge’s assumption that — even if Line 3 isn’t built — the tar sands crude oil would “still move to market” and still create greenhouse gases. The assumption is that rail and truck would pick up the slack. It might sound plausible, but it’s a flawed assumption. Rail and truck have higher transportation costs than pipelines and would be a less economical option. Further, its unclear if rail and truck have the capacity. Currently, they make up a fraction of the crude oil transportation system.
A 2014 article in Forbes magazine states:
In the U.S., 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline. 23% of oil shipments are on tankers and barges over water. Trucking only accounts for 4% of shipments, and rail for a mere 3%.
The MPR story does not question whether rail and truck have the added capacity, and even if they did, whether they could move the crude oil in a cost-effective way.
The article omits key information about oil demand: The article is primarily on Line 3’s climate impact. In that debate, it inserts a side comment that “Line 3 would carry up to 760,000 barrels a day to meet demand for oil.” By making that statement, the article implicitly justifies the need to build the pipeline — because there is demand. The article is missing key context. The reader is most likely left believing that Minnesota needs the oil. It does not. The United States is now a net exporter of refined petroleum. The Minnesota Department of Commerce concluded that this pipeline is not needed.
Even Canadian residents are putting pressure to stop pipelines in their own country. One example is TransCanada’s decision to pull the plug on the Energy East Pipeline that would have carried 1.1 million barrels a day from Alberta to the Atlantic Coast, according to Inside Climate News. This undermines MPR’s statement that the tar sands crude will continue to find its way to markets even if Line 3 isn’t built.
If Canadians don’t even want pipelines, why should be forced to take them?
The article gets tied in knots with statements about carbon dioxide emissions. It concludes with this statement.
Does anyone know what the true impact of the Line 3 pipeline will be?
No, because it involves predicting what will happen in the future.
If MPR had no useful information to add to the debate, one is left to wonder why it published the article in the first place. This framing helps Enbridge and hurts the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and others who oppose the pipeline.
The issue is much simpler than the MPR story makes it out to be. A new pipeline is a new pipeline is a new pipeline. It adds to carbon pollution. The decision before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is not about the “what ifs,” such as “What if the oil is moved by train instead?” The PUC has to decide about approving this specific pipeline and the climate impacts it would generate.
The answer should be no.