Does the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline have any significant energy security benefits? No.
In my recent reply to Joe Nocera, I said a line he borrowed from Michael Levi, “may be the lamest analogy in the history of energy and climate.” Levi, who blogs for the Council on Foreign Relations, has doubled down with a modification/clarification of his original line that makes it much worse.
Explaining why will, I think, get to the heart of much of the hand-waving by Keystone advocates. First, though, let me repost the central chart that can’t be ignored:
CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands — represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear.
Levi writes (emphasis added):
Nocera’s Saturday column quotes me thusly:
“The argument you hear is that because [Keystone XL] increases greenhouse gas emissions, we shouldn’t tolerate it. Well, so do the lights in my house. You have to be discriminating.”
Here’s Romm’s response:
“Seriously. That may be the lamest analogy in the history of energy and climate. Nocera is actually analogizing the GHG emissions increase from 900,000 barrels a day of dirty tar sands oil with flicking on the lights in your house!”
Yes, seriously. Upon reflection, the analogy turns out to be even better than I previously thought.
Let’s do some numbers. The GHG emissions increase from substituting 900,000 barrels a day of “dirty tar sands oil” for the typical barrel of oil consumed in the United States is, at most, about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. This estimate is based on assuming a 15% increase in per-barrel emissions, which is the upper limit given by the expert that Romm cites; I’m setting aside the fact that we’re actually talking about less than 900,000 barrels, since part of what would be carried isn’t bitumen, but rather lower-carbon dilluent.
On the other hand, residential lighting generated (PDF) 137 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for the United States in 2008. So yes, flicking on the lights in our houses is actually a lot worse for the climate than substituting “dirty tar sands oil” into the energy mix.
(Side note: If you believe that the circa 900,000 barrels would not back out any other oil – something that, to be blunt, is totally implausible – then the maximum emissions increase from adding that oil works out to about the same as the annual emissions from U.S. residential lighting.)
Seriously! Upon reflection, the analogy is considerably worse than I thought.
Note: If Levi had meant to compare Keystone to turning on “the light in (all) our houses” he should have said that first.
My critique was of the original analogy — “so do the lights in my house” — which was between the lights in Levi’s house and Keystone’s oil. Levi also cut out the second half of my response: “How bad is this analogy? Many people choose to get their electricity from renewable sources — so for them turning on the lights don’t even increase GHGs. The point is people don’t have any choice about the dirty tar sands oil — but Obama does.”
But whereas the original analogy was absurd, Levi’s modification/clarification is worse in every respect.
First, residential lighting has obvious and large benefits to us all, unlike Keystone. This kills the analogy by itself. Advocates simply have failed to identify any benefit to Keystone that deserves to be in the same sentence, paragraph, or article as the benefits of residential lighting (see below). Levi immediately asserts: