Canadian PM Harper Says Okaying the Tar Sands Pipeline Is a “Complete No-Brainer.” I Could Not Agree More. more we learn about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the wiser the decision to cancel it becomes.

I agree with the statement by the Center for American Progress (where I’m a senior fellow) that Obama should reject the permit because:

It is not in the national interest, nor is it in humanity’s interest.

I agree with our top climatologist, James Hansen, that “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”  Though just to be clear, avoiding full exploitation of the tar sands is a necessary — but not anywhere near sufficient —  condition for avoiding catastrophic climate change, as Hansen himself has made clear.

X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel.

The Canadian tar sands are substantially dirtier than conventional oil as the chart above shows (longer analysis here).  They may contain enough carbon-intensive fuel to make stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at non-catastrophic levels all but impossible.  I’ll repost Real Climate’s analysis on this subject below.

I am not impressed by the argument of Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved.

That argument cleverly allows one to argue against the impact of any individual carbon-intensive action.

But both governing and morality are about choices.  Obama can’t slash oil demand by himself (though he is certainly aggressively pursuing fuel efficiency).  He can stop this pipeline.  The “everybody is doing it” argument is morally indefensible and precisely why we humanity is headed over a cliff with our foot on the accelerator of the fossil-fuel engine.

UPDATE:  Levi has replied to this post with an analogy that simply makes no sense and misses the entire point of the previous paragraph.  You can’t eliminate the moral consequences of any decision simply by saying that it would be a better idea to focus one’s efforts on (seemingly) more consequential decisions.  I’ll explain this at greater length on Monday.

By the way, Memo to all: They ain’t “oil sands. I can understand why greenwashing Canadian promoters of turning tar into oil use the phrase rather than the traditional term “tar sands” (see “Canada tries to tar-sandbag Obama on climate“), but not why the U.S. media does, and certainly not why Obama does.

No doubt the phrase makes it seem like, oh, I don’t know, maybe up through the sand came a bubblin crude, oil that is, black gold, Texas tea, Athabasca euphemism (see ClimateProgress commenter, Jim Eager, here).  I digress.

The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a decision to approve Keystone a “complete no-brainer.”  I could not agree more.  See Turns out humans are not like slowly boiling frogs … we are like slowly boiling brainless frogs, since “frogs will indeed remain in slowly heated water, but only if their brain is removed.”

The only “benefit” of  constructing a pipeline is a few thousand mostly temporary jobs, as the WashPost makes clear today.  Republicans attack Obama’s stimulus for creating only temporary jobs, but how they love it when the fossil fuel industry does it.

TP Green has a good chart from Cornell showing  the minimal job benefit in its post “Fact Check: Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Isn’t A Job Creator“:


And don’t miss the TP Green post, For Years, The State Department’s Keystone XL Review Had ‘Staff Of One Person’.  The  entire environmental impact review by State was bogus, as Climate Progress explained, “Bombshell: State Department Outsourced Tar Sands Pipeline Environmental Impact Study to ‘Major’ TransCanada Contractor.”

So finally, let’s look at a more scientific impact analysis, from RealClimate:

The impending Obama administration decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would tap into the Athabasca Oil Sands production of Canada, has given rise to a vigorous grassroots opposition movement, leading to the arrests so far of over a thousand activists. At the very least, the protests have increased awareness of the implications of developing the oil sands deposits. Statements about the pipeline abound.

Jim Hansen has said that if the Athabasca Oil Sands are tapped, it’s “essentially game over” for any hope of achieving a stable climate. The same news article quotes Bill McKibben as saying that the pipeline represents “the fuse to biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” Others say the pipeline is no big deal, and that the brouhaha is sidetracking us from thinking about bigger climate issues. David Keith, energy and climate pundit at Calgary University, expresses that sentiment here, and Andy Revkin says “it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”. There’s something to be said in favor of each point of view, but on the whole, I think Bill McKibben has the better of the argument, with some important qualifications. Let’s do the arithmetic.

There is no shortage of environmental threats associated with the Keystone XL pipeline. Notably, the route goes through the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska, a decision opposed even by some supporters of the pipeline. One could also keep in mind the vast areas of Alberta that are churned up by the oil sands mining process itself. But here I will take up only the climate impact of the pipeline and associated oil sands exploitation. For that, it is important to first get a feel for what constitutes an “important” amount of carbon.

That part is relatively easy. The kind of climate we wind up with is largely determined by the total amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere as CO2 in the time before we finally kick the fossil fuel habit (by choice or by virtue of simply running out). The link between cumulative carbon and climate was discussed at RealClimate here when the papers on the subject first came out in Nature. A good introduction to the work can be found in this National Research Council report on Climate Stabilization targets, of which I was a co-author. Here’s all you ever really need to know about CO2 emissions and climate:

  • The peak warming is linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted
  • It doesn’t matter much how rapidly the carbon is emitted
  • The warming you get when you stop emitting carbon is what you are stuck with for the next thousand years
  • The climate recovers only slightly over the next ten thousand years
  • At the mid-range of IPCC climate sensitivity, a trillion tonnes cumulative carbon gives you about 2C global mean warming above the pre-industrial temperature.

This graph gives you an idea of what the Anthropocene climate looks like as a function of how much carbon we emit before giving up the fossil fuel habit, without even taking into account the possibility of carbon cycle feedbacks leading to a release of stored terrestrial carbon The graph is from the NRC report, and is based on simulations with the U. of Victoria climate/carbon model tuned to yield the mid-range IPCC climate sensitivity. Assuming a 50-50 chance that climate sensitivity is at or below this value, we thus have a 50-50 chance of holding warming below 2C if cumulative emissions are held to a trillion tonnes. Including deforestation, we have already emitted about half that, so our whole future allowance is another 500 gigatonnes.

Proved reserves of conventional oil add up to 139 gigatonnes C (based on data here and the conversion factor in Table 6 here, assuming an average crude oil density of 850 kg per cubic meter). To be specific, that’s 1200 billion barrels times .16 cubic meters per barrel times .85 metric tonnes per cubic meter crude times .85 tonnes carbon per tonne crude. (Some other estimates, e.g. Nehring (2009), put the amount of ultimately recoverable oil in known reserves about 50% higher). To the carbon in conventional petroleum reserves you can add about 100 gigatonnes C from proved natural gas reserves, based on the same sources as I used for oil. If one assumes that these two reserves are so valuable and easily accessible that it’s inevitable they will get burned, that leaves only 261 gigatonnes from all other fossil fuel sources. How does that limit stack up against what’s in the Athabasca oil sands deposit?

The geological literature generally puts the amount of bitumen in-place at 1.7 trillion barrels (e.g. see the numbers and references quoted here). That oil in-place is heavy oil, with a density close to a metric tonne per cubic meter, so the associated carbon adds up to about 230 gigatonnes — essentially enough to close the “game over” gap. But oil-in-place is not the same as economically recoverable oil. That’s a moving target, as oil prices, production prices and technology evolve. At present, it is generally figured that only 10% of the oil-in-place is economically recoverable. However, continued development of in-situ production methods could bump up economically recoverable reserves considerably. For example this working paper (pdf) from the National Petroleum Council estimates that Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage could recover up to 70% of oil-in-place at a cost of below $20 per barrel *.

Aside from the carbon from oil in-place, one needs to figure in the additional carbon emissions from the energy used to extract the oil. For in-situ extraction this increases the carbon footprint by 23% to 41% (as reviewed here ) . Currently, most of the energy used in production comes from natural gas (hence the push for a pipeline to pump Alaskan gas to Canada). So, we need to watch out for double-counting here, because our “game-over” estimate already assumed that the natural gas would be used for one thing or another. A knock-on effect of oil sands development is that it drives up demand for natural gas, displacing its use in electricity generation and making it more likely coal will be burned for such purposes. And if high natural gas prices cause oil sands producers to turn from natural gas to coal for energy, things get even worse, because coal releases more carbon per unit of energy produced — carbon that we have not already counted in our “game-over” estimate.

Are the oil sands really the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”? As a point of reference, let’s compare its net carbon content with the Gillette Coalfield in the Powder river basin, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. There are 150 billion metric tons left in this deposit, according to the USGS. How much of that is economically recoverable depends on price and technology. The USGS estimates that about half can be economically mined if coal fetches $60 per ton on the market, but let’s assume that all of the Gillette coal can be eventually recovered. Powder River coal is sub-bituminous, and contains only 45% carbon by weight. (Don’t take that as good news, because it has correspondingly lower energy content so you burn more of it as compared to higher carbon coal like Anthracite; Powder River coal is mined largely because of its low sulfur content). Thus, the carbon in the Powder River coal amounts to 67.5 gigatonnes, far below the carbon content of the Athabasca Oil Sands. So yes, the Keystone XL pipeline does tap into a very big carbon bomb indeed.

But comparison of the Athabaska Oil Sands to an individual coal deposit isn’t really fair, since there are only two major oil sands deposits (the other being in Venezuela) while coal deposits are widespread. Nehring (2009) estimates that world economically recoverable coal amounts to 846 gigatonnes, based on 2005 prices and technology. Using a mean carbon ratio of .75 (again from Table 6 here), that’s 634 gigatonnes of carbon, which all by itself is more than enough to bring us well past “game-over.” The accessible carbon pool in coal is sure to rise as prices increase and extraction technology advances, but the real imponderable is how much coal remains to be discovered. But any way you slice it, coal is still the 800-gigatonne gorilla at the carbon party.

Commentators who argue that the Keystone XL pipeline is no big deal tend to focus on the rate at which the pipeline delivers oil to users (and thence as CO2 to the atmosphere). To an extent, they have a point. The pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels per day, and assuming that we’re talking about lighter crude by the time it gets in the pipeline that adds up to a piddling 2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years (exercise: Work this out for yourself given the numbers I stated earlier in this post). However, building Keystone XL lets the camel’s nose in the tent. It is more than a little disingenuous to say the carbon in the Athabasca Oil Sands mostly has to be left in the ground, but before we’ll do this, we’ll just use a bit of it. It’s like an alcoholic who says he’ll leave the vodka in the kitchen cupboard, but first just take “one little sip.”

So the pipeline itself is really just a skirmish in the battle to protect climate, and if the pipeline gets built despite Bill McKibben’s dedicated army of protesters, that does not mean in and of itself that it’s “game over” for holding warming to 2C. Further, if we do hit a trillion tonnes, it may be “game-over” for holding warming to 2C (apart from praying for low climate sensitivity), but it’s not “game-over” for avoiding the second trillion tonnes, which would bring the likely warming up to 4C. The fight over Keystone XL may be only a skirmish, but for those (like the fellow in this arresting photo ) who seek to limit global warming, it is an important one. It may be too late to halt existing oil sands projects, but the exploitation of this carbon pool has just barely begun. If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, it surely smooths the way for further expansions of the market for oil sands crude. Turning down XL, in contrast, draws a line in the oil sands, and affirms the principle that this carbon shall not pass into the atmosphere.

* Note added 4/11/2011: Prompted by Andrew Leach’s comment (#50 below), I should clarify that the working paper cited refers to recovery of bitumen-in-place on a per-project basis, and should not be taken as an estimate of the total amount that could be recovered from oil sands as a whole. I cite this only as an example of where the technology is headed.

Just say no, Mr. President.

Related Posts:

21 Responses to Canadian PM Harper Says Okaying the Tar Sands Pipeline Is a “Complete No-Brainer.” I Could Not Agree More.

  1. Bruce Turton says:

    I can understand our P.M. making this “brainless” comment – he still insists that Big Oil in Canada be subsidized, given enormous benefits with public financed roads, bridges, etc., and charged very, very low royalties. Calgary, Alberta is the centre of Oil, and the P.M. represents a Calgary riding! Alberta and the national government are ‘one trick pony’ entities, and Global Disruption is not a ‘trick’ in their playbooks.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Great post, thanks.

    If Obama approves the pipeline he will face a vigorous primary challenge, and if he survives it he will lose the election. The facts are obvious, and if the President again blows it, he will deserve his fate.

    The oil companies don’t care about scientific studies or editorials in high end newspaper markets. They are relentless thugs, and must be fought, with public protests, boycotts, and through a new media company.

    We’ve been congratulating the media because they seem to have accepted that it’s getting warmer. That’s not good enough.

  3. Walter Miale says:


    The weblink re “slowly boiling brainless frogs” appears to be broken.

  4. Will Koroluk says:

    Further to what Bruce Turton said @#!:
    Not only is Stephen Harper’s home constituency in Calgary, but his political power base is in Alberta. And on at least two occasions, he has said publicly that he sees Canada’s future as that of a “global energy superpower.”
    With that mindset, we can expect nothing from the Canadian government except obstruction in international climate negotiations, and domestic inaction on climate change.
    This is a single-minded, ruthless man who will do anything to achieve his objectives, and, with a majority won in the last election, he has a free hand to do as he wishes for the next four years. Barring some super-cataclysmic climate event, nothing is going to stop the further development of the tar sands. If Keystone XL is killed, Canada will simply sell its bitumen elsewhere–like China.

  5. MargotZ says:

    It’s not a foregone conclusion that Canada will just build a pipeline in Canada to export this stuff. There is some opposition in BC, plenty of Canadians think they should just refine the stuff in Canada (put Canadians to work, keep the profits in Canada).
    Harper’s attempts to intimidate and wheedle American officials are a strong testimony to his lack of appreciation for democracy, though. He looks like a dictator.

  6. Joe Romm says:

    Sorry. Fixed.

  7. This pipeline will carry 500,000 barrels per day, but they are predicting that Canadian oil sands production will increase by 200,000 barrels per day every year.

    The battle over Keystone XL is just the first step in a larger struggle to keep those oil sands in the ground, but if we lose this first one, we are much more likely to lose the larger struggle.

  8. Dorothy says:

    Thank you for this, Joe. You really expose the Canadian PM for who he is and what he stands for.

    As for exposures, you all might like to read the post by Mike Kaulbars at yesterday – Ethical Oil: A truth that’s told with bad intent. In his article, he opens up the can of worms of the Ethical Oil organization, the brainchild of former tobacco lobbyist Ezra Levant. This group purports champion human rights by encouraging the US and Canada to use Tar Sands oil rather than that of “criminal states.”

    But “by promoting the Tar Sands, and hence catastrophic climate change, they are working to make the lives of everyone involved much worse.”

  9. paul magnus says:

    That’s because he has no brains when it comes to the long term management of the economy.

    Tragic, under the circumstances.

  10. paul magnus says:

    and to think that a lot of that gas will be sold abroad.

    One of the best appeals…

    Rejecting ‘Brutally Stupid’ Pipeline ‘Is A No-Brainer, Right Mr. President?’

  11. Once the pipeline and right of way exist they can twin it to double the flow. Or more.

    This is what Kinder Morgan is trying to do with the one pipeline that does make westcoast waters ending in Burnaby next to Vancouver BC.

    The tar sands industry desperately needs lots of pipelines to explode as they want to. Each one that is blocked slows the beast.

    More importantly, blocking one major pipeline shows that building them isn’t a given. It makes investment more risky. It slows the beast even more.

    I read a report that TransCanada has already purchased half the pipe for Keystone XL. That is going to hurt the bottom line if it has to sit unused for longer than planned. That is big dollars.

    But bottom line is that Keystone XL isn’t a single pipeline. It is a right of way and green light. Total volume isn’t limited to first pipe.

  12. Bob Geiger says:

    It’s time for a post about the protest itself at the White House today. There’s been a lot of talk about building a climate movement, but not a great many people in the streets in one place. Until now. This event, in contrast to every other climate event I have ever attended, had the look and feel of a real movement. I estimate 10,000 to 15,000 people, enough to make a circle two to three people deep all the way around the White House grounds. From young children to senior citizens holding home-made signs that read: “Old Farts against Big Oil.” People of every race in this wide land. I personally ran into folks who had come from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, and Florida. To my memory, this was the single largest climate-related political action in our country’s history. It may well be a tipping point. Furthermore, I believe it is the largest rally of Obama’s base asking for a specific action from him on any issue since his election. He dare not say no.

  13. just a note to say many thanks to joe, and to all the folks who turned out today. john adams, nrdc founder, said it was the largest environmental demonstration at the white house in 30 years and called it a rebirth of the environmental movement; everyone from van jones to naomi klein provided amazing remarks; and the ring around the white house was 3 deep with inspired and inspiring people. oh, and the weather was great!

  14. Chris Lock says:

    I’ve said it before here, and I’ll say it again. I think, you Americans have more ability to limit the tar sands than we Canadians. Harper and his cronies were elected last May to a 4-5 year majority term in Parliament.

    Harper has been quoted in the past as saying “You won’t recognize Canada when I get through with it”

    I think he meant “You won’t recognize the planet when I get through with it.”

  15. Roger Shamel says:

    And thank you, Bill, for spearheading this groundbreaking event. It was a great day for the American climate movement, and hence a fantastic day for Eaarth’s seven billion passengers. Now, let’s get Obama talkin’ about climate to misinformed Americans!

  16. RelayeR says:

    Hansen thinks tar sands means game over…

    It’s ok. When Harper got elected, I thought it was game over.

    You guys are closer to an election than we are. We all know how politicians work. My new slogan is “yes you can”.

    PS. I’m also sorry to report that the keystone story was hardly covered in the media. Even in the “green” provinces. At this point, it’s probable that most Canadians never heard of it. Me alerting everyone I know apparently wasn’t enough.

    As it is right now, I saw two reports about Keystone, for a total airtime of maybe 2-3 minutes. The flood in Thailand got more airtime than that (crocodiles in the water is newsworthy after all). Thankfully, we’ve been made aware that Daryl Hannah was arrested. No mention of that Hansen guy.

    So yeah… go ahead and “blame Canada”, we deserve it.

  17. Raul M. says:

    congratulations, to those who were able to make for a polite protest. Amazing that there were enough people to surround the white house so!
    Ladies and Gentlemen- let your voices be heard and your actions be seen around the world.

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    There’s a report that Obama will stall a decision past the election, and order a bunch of reports to justify it. We saw that one coming.

    Better that he takes a stand once and for all.

    LA Times coverage was terrible- as a postscript, they said “some say that the tar sands will produce greenhouse gases connected to global warming”, etc.

  19. Sachin says:

    When you mention oil sands, are you referring just to oil sands mining or are you including in-situ production as well? Thanks

  20. dbmetzger says:

    RAW VIDEO: Thousands Protest Canada-US Pipeline
    Thousands of protesters march outside the White House, urging US President Barack Obama to stop the planned pipeline between Canada and the US