Heading into a campaign season, the Obama White House announced in November 2011 that it would delay a final decision on approval of a permit to build the northern section of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700-mile project would deliver heavy tar sands oil from western Canada down to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The objections to the project were numerous—including fears about spills, groundwater pollution and land rights. State governments, particularly in Nebraska, debated the adverse effects of millions of barrels of oil passing through their territory.
At the same time, Republican presidential campaign rhetoric hammered the Obama White House for not quickly approving a project that would deliver tens of thousands of jobs (a wild exaggeration—FAIR Blog, 1/25/12), and both parties used Keystone to talk about relieving the country from its “dependence” on dreaded “foreign oil”—or at least on oil that was Venezuelan in origin, rather than Canadian.
But a much larger issue loomed—in reality, though not in media coverage: the effect of Keystone XL on the global climate.
Exploiting the tar sands is a severely carbon-intensive project, more so than conventional oil drilling. According to NASA climatologist James Hansen (Rolling Stone, 7/19/12), the tar sands could contain 240 gigatons of carbon—about half the estimated total carbon that can be added to the atmosphere before dangerously raising global temperatures.
The Washington Post (7/1/12) reported that using a barrel of tar sands oil produces “14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of U.S. imported crude oil.” The greenhouse gases emitted just to put it in your gas tank are “about twice as high as the average U.S. crude import.”
And the group Oil Change International (1/13) warned that many analysts could be underestimating Keystone’s climate impact, due to the likely use of a tar sands byproduct called “petroleum coke,” a cheaper, more carbon-intensive substitute for coal. The question, then, seems to be not whether the Keystone project will be worse for the climate than conventional oil production—but how much worse (Guardian, 8/23/11).
Right after Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin (2/13/13) called the pending Keystone decision “one of the most contentious climate issues he will face.”
But how often did media treat the Keystone debate as if climate change mattered at all?
A FAIR survey of several major outlets’ coverage of Keystone found that the debate over the pipeline’s future touched on a number of topics, but the fate of the planet was rarely among them.
FAIR looked at stories from January 2012 through January 2013 that included mention of the Keystone pipeline. The survey included news stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, and any coverage on any programs that aired on the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) and National Public Radio.
The stories were judged on the low bar of whether they referred to Keystone’s climate impact at all—counting any mention of climate change, global warming or green-house gases—and then on whether those discussions were at all substantive. But much of the coverage failed to pass even the easier test.
On the television networks, not one of the 24 reports that mentioned Keystone also touched on climate change. The closest reference came on the CBS Evening News (1/18/12), which referred to the “thick tar sands oil...which environmentalists call among the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.” But that appeared to be more about the potential for other environmental problems like oil spills.
Major newspapers had more space to cover Keystone—but climate change mentions were still scarce. USA Today’s news articles brought up Keystone 12 times; three of those stories mentioned its climate impact.
In the Washington Post, Keystone received more coverage, including a four-part series by reporter Steven Mufson (7/1–29/12). But in the 43 pieces mentioning the pipeline, over half of them (27) never brought up climate.
Of the 16 that did, half mentioned the issue only in passing. A nearly 2,000-word article by Mufson (7/6/12) focused almost entirely on opposition to Keystone had one line that noted the “unusually high level of green-house gas emissions associated with oil extraction from the tar sands.” Mufson’s series devoted close to 10,000 words to looking at Keystone from a variety of angles, but climate change was a factor in only piece (7/1/12), which posed the question as, “How pressing are climate-change concerns, and how do we balance them with economic priorities?”
And, of course, a mention of global warming doesn’t necessarily indicate a valuable discussion. The Post’s stridently pro-Keystone editorial (1/19/12), for instance, argued that “stopping the pipeline...wouldn’t do anything to reduce global warming,” since the oil would probably still wind up going somewhere. (See sidebar.)
USA Today’s pro-Keystone editorial page (1/19/12) also brought up climate change in order to argue that as long we’re driving cars, there’s not much that can be done:
Environmentalists have raised strong objections to tar-sands oil, which is dirtier than ordinary crude and exacts a greater toll on the climate. But until the nation finds a better way to power the quarter-billion cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles on its roads, it needs reliable supplies of oil. And it’s not as if the Canadian oil will stay in the ground if Keystone isn’t built; the Chinese will be glad to buy it.
Of course, if you assume that there is no way to keep fossil fuels in the ground that could be extracted, then you are assuring that much of Florida will one day be underwater. Preventing catastrophic alteration of the climate will require international agreement to forgo the extraction of a large fraction of available resources. In the meantime, making it more difficult and thus expensive to exploit new sources of carbon will encourage the necessary transition to alternative energy.
The New York Times mentioned Keystone less frequently than the Post, with only 23 articles; only 10 of these mentioned climate change impacts at all, and half of those were in passing.
NPR led all other outlets in FAIR’s study; of its 14 stories on Keystone, eight mentioned climate. Four of these were brief, passing mentions.
Coverage shifted in the month of February 2013, one month after the end of FAIR’s study period, thanks to tens of thousands of climate activists marching on Washington, D.C., on February 17.
The Forward on Climate protest made all three evening newscasts that day. Though each gave the event only a brief glance—and on CBS, the report was nevertheless long enough to make the misleading claim that “the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs”—it still represented a notable improvement when it comes to broadcast news.
USA Today covered the protests, and gave Keystone critic Bill McKibben (2/18/13) space on the op-ed page (albeit alongside the editorial board’s own pro-Keystone piece). The Washington Post had five Keystone-related news articles in the month of February, four of which discussed its climate implications. Two of those pieces were generated by the protests.
While visible citizen activism expanded media discussion, whether that can be sustained is another matter. The night after its brief, misleading report on the Keystone rally, CBS Evening News (2/18/13) was back to a more typical take: The segment opened by talking about rising gas prices, with host Scott Pelley reminding viewers that “oil supplies are supposed to be helped by the controversial Keystone pipeline.” The piece alluded to “concern for the environment,” but then shifted to its real focus: a Texas landowner who opposes the pipeline’s proximity to her ranch. CBS noted that “most ranchers here...welcome the pipeline.”
During some of CNN’s live coverage of the protests (2/17/13), anchor Deborah Feyerick remarked: “History being made in Washington. Thousands marching for more action on climate change.” It’s not a stretch to say that the movement against Keystone is historic, for many reasons. And it’s just as revealing that the activists face opposition not only from political and energy giants, but from media that do not consider climate change a consistent part of the discussion about tapping a vast new source of fossil fuel.
Research assistance: Sean Cox
SIDEBAR: If They Don't Build It.... They'll Build It Anyway
A major argument in the media for moving forward with the Keystone XL pipeline is that if Obama blocks it, Canada will just build its own pipeline to the coast.
“If Keystone doesn’t get approved,” TransCanada CEO Russ Girling warned in an article in Bloomberg (2/7/13), “the oil will still get to the Gulf Coast.” Keystone is “exploring other routes to get the Canadian oil to world markets,” the Washington Post reported on February 8.
Although this inevitability argument is useful for discrediting Keystone critics, it has become increasingly unlikely that tar-sand oil will find a comparably large outlet via any pipeline in the near future. “Canada now finds that its Plan B—to build a pipeline to its west coast for shipping to Asia—has become mired in domestic politics thick enough to rival the tarlike oil it hopes to sell,” the New York Times (10/24/12) pointed out.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil per day. The existing Keystone pipeline carries less than 500,000 barrels of oil into the United States—but, crucially, not all the way to the coast.
The all-Canadian route proposed by Enbridge Northern would carry around 500,000 barrels of oil per day. But environmental groups and First Nation tribes have shown strong opposition to the pipeline, and the British Columbian government has refused to endorse the plan without revenue sharing—“a way for [the] govern-ment to oppose the pipeline without directly objecting to energy projects,” according to the Times (10/24/12).
The pipeline mentioned in the Post that crosses eastern Canada wouldn’t be completed until 2017 at the earliest (Reuters, 2/12/13), and would carry less than half the oil of Keystone XL.
These alternatives are not nearly as attractive for the oil companies, and have thus made Keystone an extremely important pipeline for the industry. As Michael Klare wrote for TomDispatch.com (2/10/13), without Keystone XL, “Albertan production will have to be sold at a deep discount—at, that is, a per-barrel price that could fall below production costs, making further investment in tar sands unattractive.”
And so, what George Will called “environmentalists’ stupendously weird theory”—that opposing Keystone XL could very well doom the project altogether (Washington Post, 1/27/13)—might not be quite so weird: Without the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada’s tar sands face a much more uncertain future.