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Morning Feature: Compared to What, Part I – Keystone XL and Greenhouse Gases

November 10, 2011

Morning Feature

Morning Feature: Compared to What, Part I – Keystone XL and Greenhouse Gases

Last week, President Obama announced an audit of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project environmental analysis. We can hope that’s a first step toward better information. (More)

Compared to What, Part I – Keystone XL and Greenhouse Gases

This week Morning Feature looks at the Keystone XL Pipeline Project with a focus on the information that will shape the decision. Today we explore claims on the greenhouse gas emissions that would be caused by the pipeline extension. Tomorrow we’ll examine claims on the jobs that the pipeline extension would create. Saturday we’ll call for better information standards on this and other public policy decisions.

Politics and policy

The Keystone XL Pipeline Project has drawn widespread criticism from the progressive movement, and drew 10,000 protesters to the White House on Sunday. An editorial in Monday’s Washington Examiner portrayed the controversy as a fight between Big Unions and Big Green (environmentalists). The headline omits Big Oil – perhaps because the Examiner‘s owner is a board member on the American Petroleum Institute – and attempts to frame a no-win scenario: if President Obama approves the project, he gave in to union thugs; if he denies the permit, he surrendered to tree huggers. At the other extreme are claims the project poses “civilizational risks” – that approval would light the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” and it’s “game over.”

Both the Examiner editorial and the Inside Climate article focus on politics. They are or report on attempts to sway the Obama administration’s decision. These stories are not alone. Other sources have alleged “crony capitalism” because a lobbyist for TransCanada formerly worked for now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. And as noted in the introduction, President Obama has ordered an audit of the State Department’s environmental analysis of the project, which was outsourced to a company contracted by TransCanada. While the State Department subcontract assigning that analysis to TransCanada was established under the Bush years, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Democrats in Congress pressed President Obama for an independent audit.

And the president wisely agreed … because this policy decisions of this magnitude should not be based on political charges and counter-charges. They should be based on reliable information: verifiable facts and reasonable predictions. Alas, on this issue, those can be hard to find.

400 gigatons of carbon

That is the figure for total oil in the Athabasca tar sands, cited by NASA climate researcher James Hansen in his June essay Silence Is Deadly. Dr. Hansen is widely and rightly respected by environmental scientists. He earned the 2010 Blue Planet Award, and began researching the greenhouse effect on Venus for NASA in the late 1960s, before transposing that study to the Earth’s atmosphere in the mid-1970s. Dr. Hansen’s figure of 400 gigatons of carbon (GtC) existing in the Athabasca tar sands comes from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and I accept that as reliable data. My concern comes with the prediction that follows, in parentheses:

The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC AR4 WG3 report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2).

That may look like a simple calculation – a conversion from measurement to another – but it’s not. It is actually a prediction: the 400 GtC in the Athabasca reserve would be extracted, refined, and burned using current technology, adding 200ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere. But as natural resources, energy, and environmental professor Andrew Leach argues, that number conceals more than it reveals:

The point is that these posts by both Hansen and McKibben suggest that the Keystone XL pipeline should be judged against the carbon contained in almost every bitumen molecule (the original oil in place of 1.7 trillion barrels) in Northern Alberta. That’s right. To get 200 ppm, or 400 GtC of carbon, or 1468 GtCO2, you would have to extract, refine, and burn about 2.4 trillion barrels of oil using today’s technology. Now, extraction technology may improve, but those un-economic barrels will be hard to get, so let’s assume that today’s life cycle emissions per bbl remain constant over time. To get that many barrels out of the ground, at 5 million barrels per day, would take you until the year 3316. If we replaced all of today’s global oil production with oilsands product, it would take 80 years to produce 2.4 trillion barrels.

Dr. Leach’s calculations are not based on an industry study, but on a 2010 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental group that the National Journal described as “a credible and forceful advocate for stringent environmental protection.” (Disclosure: I have donated to and support the NRDC.)

Compared to what?

Equally important, as Dr. Leach notes, is that any greenhouse gas estimate based on the Keystone XL project be a meaningful comparison to the most likely outcomes if the project is not built:

There’s another assumption in the objections put forward by Mr. McKibben and Dr. Hansen – that the oil not produced from oilsands would not be replaced. Let’s make a conservative assumption that it gets replaced by the lowest emission barrel in the NRDC report, US domestic crude. If this were true, then the annual incremental emissions saved by cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline would be about 28 Mt CO2/yr, or .0078 GTC/yr.

Let’s be generous and assume that the Keystone XL pipeline, if built, remains in service for 100 years, and the gap between oilsands crude and US domestic production remains constant. Over the life of the pipeline, the incremental impact on global atmospheric carbon would be about .78 GtC. If you assume that the displaced production would be replaced entirely by emissions-free energy sources, then you get a lifetime impact of cancelling the project of 4.27 GtC. In short, Hansen’s argument about the 200ppm impact of oilsands on GHG emissions would hold if we were talking about building 95 Keystone XL pipelines.

Of course, Dr. Leach’s criticism is not the last word on the greenhouse gas consequences of the Keystone XL project. Other criticisms are based on the premise that the project would make further development of tar-sands-based fuels profitable. Without that pipeline, such critics argue, TransCanada and other companies may abandon the Athabasca field and tar-sands oil production entirely. While I see that as unlikely, they would at least have to develop other plans to transport, refine, and market the tar-sands crude.

Industry proponents say that’s the point – the tar-sands oil will be extracted, transported, refined, and burned somewhere – and we may as well do that here in the U.S. They argue the project will create at least 250,000 jobs and perhaps twice that, and make the U.S. more energy-independent. But as we’ll see tomorrow, those numbers are impossible to verify and are likely even more inflated than Dr. Hansen’s 400 GtC estimate. And as we’ll see on Saturday, greenhouse gases are not the only serious environmental risk of the Keystone XL project.

Energy policy should be based on reliable information. Alas, that may be the rarest energy resource of all.


Correction: The original post misidentified the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Happy Thursday!

  • winterbanyan

    This fascinated me. I’m still opposed to the pipeline, but that’s not the point here. The point is that much of the information flowing from both sides may be erroneous. I am so glad Obama agreed to order an independent audit.

    We do indeed need to know the truth, or as close as we can get to it. We need to know it because we need to make policy decisions at the upper levels of government based on facts not gut instinct, or exaggerated claims, or buckets of money.

    For me, this discussion ranges far beyond Keystone XL. I have already seen how drug companies falsify their results on drug tests and get away with it because we can no long afford (thanks to budgetary cuts) to verify their results. Thus harmful drugs get to the public only to be recalled, and maybe even result in large lawsuits.

    We need to find a way to weed opinions and agendas from facts, so that our policy makers are actually looking at facts. Good luck.

    • NCrissieB

      An independent environmental audit is essential. The original analysis was contracted out (under the Bush administration) to a firm hired by the company applying to build the pipeline. That doesn’t guarantee the analysis was faulty, but a project of this magnitude demands independent review.

      This is a key point, winterbanyan:

      For me, this discussion ranges far beyond Keystone XL. I have already seen how drug companies falsify their results on drug tests and get away with it because we can no long afford (thanks to budgetary cuts) to verify their results. Thus harmful drugs get to the public only to be recalled, and maybe even result in large lawsuits.

      While I’m using the Keystone XL project as an example, the real focus this week is the information on which government policy is based. All too often, that information consists of numbers produced by industry sources or think tank allies, the sources of which we cannot confirm, offered without any meaningful context.

      For example: “This regulation would cost our economy $11 billion over ten years.” Perhaps, but compared to what? What are the costs of not having that regulation?

      In the Information Age, reliable information should not be such a rare resource.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • DBunn

        Concerning this:

        … the real focus this week is the information on which government policy is based.

        Back in the day, there used to be something called the Office of Technology Assessment, which was an office of the US Congress. It was created in 1972 to address the point you make in the blockquote – so that policy makers could base choices on an accurate, impartial understanding of the underlying science. In 1995 it was declared a prime example of government waste and defunded, in one of the first acts of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican majority in the “Contract with America” era.

        The most generous interpretation of the defunding of OTA is that it was a classic example of penny wise, pound foolish GOP behavior. The OTA’s annual budget was less than $22 million, while the potential cost of making bad policy decisions on a matter of such importance as the Keystone pipeline ranges from multi-trillions to “game over”.

        • NCrissieB

          That’s an excellent point, DBunn. That was one of many budget cuts that made it more difficult for the government to get good information on which to base policy. As winterbanyan noted, the FDA lacks the funds to review most new drug studies; they have to base decisions on the drug companies’ reports. With Keystone XL, State Department contracted out the initial environmental analysis to a firm selected by TransCanada, who are applying for the permit.

          I say “initial environmental analysis” because the Obama administration announced today that the permit will be delayed for 12-18 months, for further review and consider alternative routes that avoid environmentally sensitive areas. George Zornick at The Nation writes “There are some caveats and warnings to the decision, but to be clear, it is a victory.”

  • LI Mike

    Thanks for this Crissie, I can always count on you to make me think.

    Among scientists, more than Hansen and McKibben arguing against Keystone:

    Top climate scientists from around the United States have signed a letter “to add our voices to the indigenous leaders, religious leaders, and environmentalists calling on you to block the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands.” Signatories include NASA’s James Hanson, Ken Caldeira, Peter Gleick, James McCarthy, Michael Oppenheimer, Michael Mann, Steve Running, Richard Somerville, and George Woodwell, all of whom have testified before the U.S. Congress of the threat from global warming pollution. “We hope those so inclined will join protests scheduled for August and described at,” the scientists write, supporting civil disobedience in front of the White House.

    Calculations aside, to me, it could be tar sands in Canada or offshore oil fields in the Arctic ocean, or drilling ANWR in Alaska, they are all part and parcel of a mind set that says — live with it, fossil fuels are here and we’re using them.

    I might be a wooley-headed liberal, but I see the burning of fossil fuels and the attendant calamity in making as an existential threat. At some point, a stand has to be made, a Manhattan project to develop alternative fuels is needed or we’re slowly signing the death warrant for future generations.

    This is where I get impatient with President Obama and other Democrats. Someone has to grab us by the lapels and shake somse sense into us — we’re slowly killing ourselves.

    • winterbanyan

      I’m just glad we reached the point where most of us admit that global warming is real. That’s the first step. Scientists tried to grab us by our lapels and we didn’t listen. We didn’t want to listen. Now most ears are open. And frankly, we are the ones who need to do the lapel grabbing.

      Maybe the Keystone protests are a sign of changing winds. I hope so.

    • NCrissieB

      I absolutely agree with Dr. Hansen and other climate scientists that we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels, Mike. My point is that our arguments for that – both generally and especially as related to a specific project – should be based on reliable information: verifiable facts and reasonable predictions.

      Dr. Hansen’s prediction, if this project is approved, is this:

      President George W. Bush said that the U.S. was addicted to oil. So what will the U.S. response to this situation be? Will it entail phasing out fossil fuels and moving to clean energy or borrowing the dirtiest needle from a fellow addict? That is the question facing President Obama.

      If he chooses the dirty needle it is game over because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction. Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.

      While Dr. Hansen is a brilliant physicist and climatologist, this prediction is not based in physics or climatology. It’s based in psychology: a claim that if President Obama approves the Keystone XL project, he “will have decided he is a hopeless addict” and will thus approve any and every other fossil fuel project, no matter how speculative or dangerous. Even setting aside the slippery slope fallacy … Dr. Hansen is not a psychologist.

      As we’ll see Saturday, there are other sound environmental reasons to oppose the Keystone XL project. But arbitrarily declaring a “litmus test,” however politically attractive, is not a sound basis for policy.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    Energy policy should be based on reliable information. Alas, that may be the rarest energy resource of all.

    Amen. I so wish that we were debating the viability of greener forms of energy. The Keystone debate is all about more fossil fuels and that is the wrong topic for me.

    • NCrissieB

      I agree, addisnana. A debate on alternative energy sources that includes the amortized environmental and health costs and subsidies of fossil fuels would be a welcome discussion. Instead such comparisons are usually based solely on market prices, leaving a heavy thumb on the scale for fossil fuels.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • MKSinSA

    I don’t get it: rather than run a pipeline through the country, why not create the energy at the border and construct an energy grid to deliver the finished product? That way whether you’re talking tar sands, wind or solar, you have the infrastructure in place to deliver it and contain any potential contamination? The shorter the delivery, the less chance of trouble? (I’m no expert, of course.)

    • NCrissieB

      In discussing “energy” it’s important to distinguish portability. Fossil fuels are attractive, right now, because you can transport a lot of potential energy in a small, lightweight container (e.g.: a gas tank), and turn the potential energy into useful energy by combustion at the point-of-use (e.g.: your car’s engine). Electricity doesn’t yet offer that same portability with anywhere near the same energy-to-weight ratio, as batteries are both inefficient and very heavy.

      Electricity also has transmission loss: the farther it travels over a wire, the more energy is lost en route. So it’s better to generate electricity as near as possible to where you’ll use it. That would be and may someday be the key distinction in favor of wind or solar micro-nets. But current wind and solar technologies have both efficiency and availability issues.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    After we study global warming we need to look at Pipeline spills. From Friends of the Earth:

    TransCanada already attempted to cut corners by seeking a safety waiver to build the pipeline with thinner-than-normal steel and to pump oil at higher-than-normal pressures. Thanks to the pressure exerted by Friends of the Earth and allies, the company withdrew its safety waiver application in August 2010.

    The threat of spills remains. In summer 2010, a million gallons of tar sands oil poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a pipeline run by another Canadian company, Enbridge. The spill exposed residents to toxic chemicals, coated wildlife and has caused long-term damage to the local economy and ecosystem.

    Heightening concerns, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline has spilled a dozen times in less than a year of operation, prompting a corrective action order from the Department of Transportation. Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. makes spills more likely, and have joined the EPA in calling on the State Department to conduct a thorough study of these risks.

    The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse six U.S. states and cross major rivers, including the Missouri River, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers, as well as key sources of drinking and agricultural water, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies two million Americans.

    Here is what happens when you get an oil spill:

    On 7 April 2000, approximately 126,000 gallons of oil were spilled into the Patuxent River in the vicinity of Chalk Point. An assessment of the potential impacts from the oil spill on benthic communities was conducted in conjunction with scheduled Chesapeake Bay Program monitoring activities. Macroinfauna and sediment characteristics were analyzed in Swanson Creek in the immediate vicinity of the spill and compared to the mainstem of the Patuxent River and to Hunting Creek, a presumably undisturbed control creek. Significant differences in benthic community parameters between Swanson Creek and both Hunting Creek and the
    Patuxent mainstem were found 3-6 months after the spill. These differences were mostly restricted to the upper portion of Swanson Creek, and indicated changes in benthic community structure (e.g., reduced diversity, increased abundance of pollution-indicative species) that were
    similar to those commonly reported for anthropogenic impacts. Benthic community structure as measured by the Chesapeake Bay index of biotic integrity was also classified predominately as degraded in this region.

    • NCrissieB

      I’ll discuss the spill issue Saturday, Jim. The spills from the existing Keystone pipeline are far higher than predicted in the company’s application, and they have already bought the pipe for the XL extension …

      … from the same companies they used before. That’s the real environmental threat of the XL project, and the best reason to oppose it.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::