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.

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

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Happy Thursday!