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Keystone Pipeline Approval Could Shift Dynamics of Crude Export Debate

Tom Pennington/Getty Images File Photo
Environmental concerns, such as climate change, and economic and energy security concerns are the major issues surrounding Obama’s decision whether to approve the Keystone XL project.

“The Keystone pipeline gives the United States a huge flexibility,” Piñon said. “The pipeline is going to allow us to negotiate a much better price” with heavy oil producers in Mexico and Venezuela.

“By having access to that Canadian crude, you have now a new economic incentive to export crude oil,” which would most likely be the lighter shale oil, he said.

But even if the export ban is lifted, it is not clear that there would be sufficient demand on the world market to relieve a glut of light sweet crude in the United States.

Imports of light crude from Nigeria and the North Sea have fallen in recent years as U.S. shale production has increased, and with the exception of Brazil, most countries in Central and South America are set up to refine the region’s heavy crude, Piñon said.

Nations across the Pacific might be attracted to light oil, which could pass through the expanded Panama Canal or trans-Panama pipeline, he said. But China would prefer to take tar sands from a planned Canadian pipeline to the Pacific, Piñon added, because its refineries are configured to handle heavy oil.

Given global demand and refining configurations, it is likely the United States will continue to be a leading refiner, he said.

“We’re going to be exporting refined products for quite a while,” Piñon said. “That’s where the need is.”

Arguing for crude oil exports while saying that Keystone would provide the United States with energy security is trying to have it both ways, said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.

“That makes no sense,” he said.

Given that Energy Information Agency figures suggest the oil boom will taper off in the next decade, it “makes little sense to enter long-term contracts or begin exporting this commodity,” Weiss said, arguing that the nation should stockpile its oil reserves and make better use of its abundant natural gas.

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