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:
Does that mean that we should prohibit people from turning on their lights? Of course not – that was my point. Even the most anti-economist types implicitly weigh costs and benefits all the time when they think about what constitutes wise climate action. None of them advocate going to a lightless society, because the costs would clearly outweigh the benefits.
Duh. This merely underscores how dreadful the analogy is. Everyone can identify the vast benefits provided by not having a lightless society — but what precisely are the benefits to society of Keystone that could in any way, shape, or form be comparable to lighting? I’ll come back to this.
Second, and I’m quite surprised that Levi makes this mistake, if we are to avoid catastrophic warming, then the United States needs to cut its CO2 emissions more than 80% by 2050 (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“). So we are going to have to cut the emissions from residential lighting, too.
Levi is arguing that because we’re doing one good thing in a harmful way – providing residential lighting with electricity that is mostly from fossil fuels — that’s a justification for doing another harmful thing, opening the spigot to the tar sands. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We need to slash electricity emissions to near zero by 2050, and we need to leave the tar sands in the ground.
Third, again, we have a choice about whether or not to turn on the light bulb and where we get our electricity from. Not so with Keystone. That is Obama’s call. This gets to the moral culpability issue that Levi is trying to make between clicking on that light switch and Keystone. Is it wrong for you to turn on your lightbulb if you care about global warming? No. Again, you may be doing your part with energy-efficient lighting and renewables. And you may be working to pass a climate bill. Or you may know that individual action can’t possibly be expected eliminate slash all the carbon emissions from residential lighting. But Obama can stop Keystone. Again, the analogy fails.
And yes, the goal is to leave the tar sands in the ground — that’s the point of the chart on the top — so it is the full emissions from burning the 900,000 barrels of tar sands a day that we are seeking to prevent. Indeed we are seeking to prevent the much larger exploitation of tar sands.
This is a point that Levi can’t hand wave away, as he tries in his final paragraph:
So it isn’t enough to just say “there’s a ton of carbon there” in order to argue that we shouldn’t do something. You can do that with way to many things – including, yes, turning on your lights. As I told Nocera, we need to be discriminating: there are big pools of carbon that are worth burning, and there are big pools of carbon that aren’t. Well meaning people can disagree as to whether 900,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil falls in the former category or the latter one. The mere fact that the pool in question is big isn’t enough alone to place it off limits.
Again, turning on your lights ain’t the equivalent of building Keystone. That’ll be even clearer when our grid is 100% carbon free. The fact that our grid isn’t 100% carbon free is no reason to unleash even more carbon.
I’m glad Levi concedes that there are big pools of carbon that are not worth burning. Since the United States has to cut emissions over 80% in four decades to do our fair share to avert catastrophe, it’s quite safe to say that from America’s perspective, there are very few new big pools of carbon that are worth burning. It’s also safe to say that if you were drawing up a list of pools of carbon that are worth burning, that huge pool of unconventional oil vastly dirtier than conventional oil up north would definitely not be on the list.
That is the point of Hansen’s chart.
It simply makes no sense to build infrastructure that will last for decades to accelerate the extraction of incredibly dirty oil — unless you have no intention of ever trying to avert catastrophic global warming.
Finally, why do the advocates of Keystone attempt to provide such quantitative rigor to debunk the claims of a serious environmental cost to Keystone, but allow themselves such handwaving arguments about the benefits.
Here is Levi in an earlier post, “Separating Fact from Fiction on Keystone XL“:
In addition, if one thinks that sourcing oil in North America gives the United States an economic cushion against oil price volatility, that cushion remains regardless of whether the refined products are exported or not. Moreover, regardless of what happens to the refined products, more oil from Canada means less oil imports from elsewhere — that’s just basic arithmetic.
How precisely does a pipeline, which provides a fixed amount of oil, cushion us against oil price volatility? It doesn’t. Price is set on a global market and adding a little more than 1% to the total world supply over the next several years would have virtually no impact whatsoever.
Consider an analogous case, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2009 report, “Impact of Limitations on Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Federal Outer Continental Shelf.” The EIA analyzed the difference between restrictions to offshore drilling and full offshore drilling, which means about half a million barrels of oil a day more in U.S. oil production in the 2020s and beyond. In 2030, US gasoline prices would be three cents a gallon lower. Woohoo!
Even Levi admits as much in the next paragraph:
I should emphasize that, as I’ve written before, I don’t believe that the source of U.S. imports matters all that much. It may matter marginally because of how petrodollars flow, but even then, I’m not sure.
Wow. So what precisely is the energy security benefit of Keystone again?
Switching from one foreign supplier to another for several hundred thousand barrels a day of oil does not reduce our economic vulnerability to price shocks or to the inevitable increase in prices from rising demand in the developing world. If you want to reduce our vulnerability to price shocks, you need to reduce our oil intensity through fuel efficiency or by switching to a vehicle fuel that is not tied to the price of oil as I explain here.
Bottom line: Keystone provides no obvious national (or global) benefits comparable to its harm. In no way can one compare Keystone to turning on your lights or indeed turning on all residential lights.