On the potential for oilsands to add 200ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere

Over the last few days, posts by Bill McKibben in the Guardian and by NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen on his own website at Columbia have again brought forward the statistic that, “the tar sands are estimated to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2).”  That’s true but, in the context of building the Keystone XL pipeline, the statistic is laughably out of context.

The Keystone XL pipeline, if approved, will transport about 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) (although some have cited figures as high as 800,00 bpd) of mostly, but not exclusively, oilsands product to the US Gulf Coast. Let’s use NRDC figures for the impacts, so you know I am not sandbagging the numbers.  At 112.2 kg CO2/MMbtu on a wells-to-wheels basis, Canadian oilsands-sourced gasoline has life-cycle emissions of about .616t/bbl.  Figures will be lower or higher depending on the resource base, the extraction technique, etc., but I’ll use this as a benchmark.

That benchmark means that the Keystone XL pipeline will transport enough product in a year that, as it is extracted, refined, and burned in your cars, it will produce about 157 Mt/yr.  There’s no question that’s a big number for a single project.  In fact, those emissions are equivalent to those of all the cars and trucks on the road in Canada.  Coincidentally, it’s almost exactly equivalent to the emissions which will flow from all the NEW coal fired power plants currently under construction or development in the US, but just for the power they produce…not counting the full life cycle. But, that really isn’t the point.

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.

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. Then again, who knows, perhaps oilsands-sourced liquid transportation fuels will be replaced by coal-to-liquids….now wouldn’t that just be a big win in the climate fight.  Without a broad GHG policy in place, there is no reason to expect that oilsands products would not be replaced with even higher emissions sources of oil.

In the fight against climate change, every bit counts, but to make an argument that is based on a leverage ratio of somewhere between 90 and 500 times the actual damage caused by a particular project is not the right way to go about it.  Perhaps Mr McKibben’s role is to act on a project by project basis, but I would expect both he and Dr. Hansen to see the big picture – if you want deep cuts to GHG emissions, you need a broad-based policy, not a hopelessly leveraged argument against a single project. In my opinion, those are the arguments most likely to be ignored as alarmist.

 

25 responses to “On the potential for oilsands to add 200ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere”

  1. opit

    If you’ve ever been north of Ft. McMurray to Ft.McKay you’ll know breathing the unGodly stench alone is sufficient to cause headaches. Yet, despite despoilation sufficient to cause the youngsters of Ft. Chipwayan to keep a website about the deaths of their parents to cancers caused by groundwater pollution…the focus on co2 leaves me cold.

    http://api.ning.com/files/X-APctmkiwvgEI5fT6iiGjWFvKNX*cWuzeO4qmDVbgA_/Greenhouses.CarbonDioxideInGreenhouses.pdf
    http://suzukielders.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/climate-change-evidence-from-the-geological-record/

    I have more notes on the scheme to promote a global tax on the use of fire.
    The idea promotes payments to the IPCC which will defund the ability to do anything about pollution and invite fraud : for which court cases have been instituted for 6 years now.
    ‘Climate in Contention’ in my Topical Index was completely destroyed: the notes there now are a fraction of previous notes showing ‘Denierism’ to be another incidence of propaganda ‘framing’ using False Argument to ‘sell’ a position and defuse rational debate.

    Am I not alarmed by environmental pollution ?
    Different question, isn’t it ? I like to discuss what I’m discussing…not something else. Water – Wealth & Power is my main file on that, with Energy containing more material.

  2. Keep Alberta Oil in the Ground

    [...] of mine on the Keystone XL pipeline debate.  I have also run some similar numbers on this blog here and here.  In a related post by McKibben in the Guardian, you will also see that he has become [...]

  3. NY Times story on Keystone XL

    [...] NY Times story on Keystone XLBy Andrew on July 26, 2011 This article on the debate over GHG emissions and the Keystone XL pipeline in the NYTimes does a really good job at highlighting the key issues…and made my day by linking to my blog. [...]

  4. Hansen Says Obama Will Be ‘Greenwashing’ About Climate Change if He Approves … | Communication Advancement

    [...] 3316 — to release the full amount of carbon in Canada’s oil sands discussed by Hansen, blogged Andrew Leach, a University of Alberta business professor. “If you want deep cuts to [...]

  5. Hansen Says Obama Will Be ‘Greenwashing’ About Climate Change if He Approves … | Change 2010

    [...] 3316 — to release the full amount of carbon in Canada’s oil sands discussed by Hansen, blogged Andrew Leach, a University of Alberta business professor. “If you want deep cuts to [...]

  6. Michael Levi: Energy, Security, and Climate » Blog Archive » Separating Fact from Fiction on Keystone XL

    [...] cry of anti-Keystone protesters, is literally – and only literally – true. As Andrew Leach has noted, it would take until the year 3316 to extract all of that oil at a rate of five million barrels per [...]

  7. Phil Henshaw

    I think you’re analysis is complex and elegant, but misses the simple certain number that no one can get around. The steady trend carbon intensity of GDP is now .46kg/$, and clearly not easily changed as the economy has been vigorously replacing inefficient with efficient technology as fast as it could be found, throughout its growth.

    We need to invest in something entirely different, not more of the same.

  8. Separating Fact from Fiction on Keystone XL | Wildrose Edmonton-Whitemud CA

    [...] cry of anti-Keystone protesters, is literally – and only literally – true. As Andrew Leach has noted, it would take until the year 3316 to extract all of that oil at a rate of five million barrels per [...]

  9. Can Obama Escape the Alberta Tar Pit? - NYTimes.com

    [...] realized (as if no new energy options, or methods for sopping up CO2, will arise in the future), as pointed out by Andrew Leach last June:In the fight against climate change, every bit counts, but to make an argument that is based on a [...]

  10. If you’re talking jobs or GHGs, alternative scenarios matter

    [...] pipeline, the claims with respect to job creation or lack thereof are all over the map. I’ve written at length about the right way to assess the GHG emissions implications of Keystone XL and the logic used there should also be applied to employment numbers tied to the [...]

  11. Keystone XL – Pipeline to the end of the world? | Good Business International

    [...] realize that Keystone XL, by many estimates, is poised to add around 200ppm atmospheric carbon within its [...]

  12. Canada: U.S. Delaying Keystone Pipelines Means We'll Go Elsewhere

    [...] tar sands emits more greenhouse gases (GHGs)—although the incremental impact of increased GHGs is not as large as environmentalists purport it to be. The Administration said it would make a decision by the end of the year and was weighing the push [...]

  13. Canada: U.S. Delaying Pipelines Means We’ll Go Elsewhere | PERSUASION IN INK

    [...] tar sands emits more greenhouse gases (GHGs)—although the incremental impact of increased GHGs is not as large as environmentalists purport it to be. The Administration said it would make a decision by the end of the year and was weighing the push [...]

  14. Keystone as a Political Barometer | Wildrose Meadowlark Constituency Association

    [...] it. Hansen’s overblown analysis assumes that the pipeline would lead to the exploitation of every molecule of tar sands, something that we could potentially do at full production by about the year [...]

  15. The Three Logics of Climate Politics | GreenPolicyProf

    [...] Revkin’s piece refers to the affirming work of two other leading climate policy analysts, Andrew Leach at the University of Alberta and Michael Levi at the Council of Foreign Relations. The analysts’ [...]

  16. Pipeline Politics: Keystone, Advocates and Analysts | Create a Strong Alberta

    [...] do little for energy security because much of the oil will be refined and then exported. He echoed Andrew Leach at the University of Alberta’s point that while the climatologist James Hansen has said that burning all the crude in the oil sands [...]

  17. Pipeline Politics: Keystone, Advocates and Analysts | Wildrose Edmonton-Whitemud CA

    [...] do little for energy security because much of the oil will be refined and then exported. He echoed Andrew Leach at the University of Alberta’s point that while the climatologist James Hansen has said that burning all the crude in the oil sands [...]

  18. How Severe an Impact Would the Keystone XL Pipeline have on the Environment? | Reference & Information Directory

    [...] for energy, and they generally arrive at a number somewhere around 0.62 tons of CO2 per barrel (see here for a derivation of that [...]

  19. How Severe an Impact Would the Keystone XL Pipeline have on the Environment? | RefineryNews.com

    [...] for energy, and they generally arrive at a number somewhere around 0.62 tons of CO2 per barrel (see here for a derivation of that [...]

  20. Hansen’s Oil Sands Facts are Lost in Space | CommonOil.com

    [...] after Hansen published his letter) that to get the carbon content Hansen claimed, you’d have to burn 2.4 trillion barrels of oil – or about 40 percent more oil than the total in-place resources found in the Canadian oil [...]

  21. It’s Blockade Time in Texas « Riding the Pipelines

    [...] assertion that oil sands development amounts to a climate “game over.” The logical flaws in that argument, like those in any hot-button debate, tend to slip through the cracks. Share [...]

  22. Oil Sands’ Climate Math Problem « Riding the Pipelines

    [...] oil-sands product emits 0.69 tons of CO2 per barrel. Leach yielded a somewhat smaller number in his similar calculation, without elaborating on [...]

  23. Climate Advocates and Climate Activists Are Butting Heads Over the Keystone XL Pipeline | TIME.com

    [...] do little for energy security because much of the oil will be refined and then exported. He echoed Andrew Leach at the University of Alberta’s point that while the climatologist James Hansen has said that burning all the crude in the oil sands [...]

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