For more than a decade, climate advocates and policymakers have argued for a “keep it in the ground” approach to confront climate change—often opposing the development of major oil and gas pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline, Mountain Valley Pipeline and Keystone XL in the United States. But EPIC Scholars Ryan Kellogg and Thomas Covert find that blocking fossil fuel pipelines can lead fossil fuels to shift to other—potentially more polluting—transportation modes, rather than staying in the ground.
Kellogg, from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Covert, from the University of Chicago Energy and Environment Lab, studied what would have happened if the Dakota Access Pipeline had been blocked. Blocking pipelines does indeed reduce some carbon emissions, but not as much as one might think. They discovered that 81 percent of the oil that would have been carried by the pipeline would instead have been carried by rail. Bakken oil production would have decreased by only 4 percent—thereby reducing CO2 by a net 26 thousand metric tons per day.
At the same time, the tradeoff to the environment in towns and cities located near the railroads is substantial as rail cars emit a significant amount of pollution. The cost of local pollution from rail locomotives would have increased by $588,000 per day, while the cost of local pollution from pipeline transportation would have decreased by $144,000 per day.
An alternative, Kellogg and Covert say, would be to regulate fossil fuel production at its source such as through a production tax. This would cost only a few dollars per tonne of CO2 abated and would reduce local pollution from both pipelines and railroads.