Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
The noted anti-development expert James Hansen and some other AGW supporters are out in force trying to block the proposed expansion of the existing Keystone Pipeline called the “Keystone XL”. They claim that it would be carrying “dirty oil” from the Canadian Oil Sands … and what makes oil “dirty” (other than not changing it every 3,000 miles)?
Why, CO2, of course, CO2 emissions from the Canadian oil production … as opposed to CO2 emissions from “clean oil” from Mexico, one supposes. They also claim that the oil sand production uses huge amounts of water. Finally, they say that there is a chance that at some point the new pipeline will create a spill … shocking news, I know, no pipeline has ever spilled before … and yet we continue to build them and use them. Go figure.
Knowing nothing about the project and little about the production of oil from sand, I thought I’d take a look at the situation. As is usual, I was surprised by some of the things I found out. First, where are we talking about? The oil sands are in Alberta, Canada, and the existing Keystone Pipeline starts in a town called Hardisty. Here are two existing and two proposed pipelines from the location of the oil sands.
Figure 1. Pipelines from the Alberta Oil Sands (orange sun). Existing pipelines are shown as solid lines, proposed pipelines are dashed lines. Current oil sands production is about 1.5 million barrels per day, and is projected to increase to 5 million barrels per day by 2020.
I read the AGW folks position papers, but unsurprisingly, their opposition fails to mention a few things about the situation.
First, it’s not like we’re not getting any “dirty oil” from Canada right now. The existing Keystone pipeline is currently delivering about 160,000,000 (160 million) barrels per year of the allegedly nasty stuff. So why are the AGW folks screaming as if they were “dirty oil” virgins? They’ve been burning it in their cars for the last few years, they have no plans to stop burning it in their cars, and now they’re bitching about it? Spare me.
Second, is the water use for oil sands extravagant? Survey says … no.
In addition, the oil sand operators are limited by law from using more than 2.2 percent of the Athabasca River Water. Typically they use less than 1%.
Third, what about CO2? Well for me, I could care less. But some folks think it’s important. In any case, here’s the facts, from the independent analysis firm CERA (Cambridge Energy Research Associates), in a report entitled “OIL SANDS, GREENHOUSE GASES, AND US OIL SUPPLY: GETTING THE NUMBERS RIGHT” It says:
Transportation fuels produced solely from oil sands result in well-to-wheels life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 5 to 15 percent higher than the average crude refined in the United States.
That’s all? Five to fifteen percent higher? That’s what this whole screaming match is about? And the emissions from the oil sands mining or in-situ extraction are dropping all the time. Here’s the most surprising thing I found out. We import lots and lots of oil from Mexico … and emissions from Canadian oil sand oil are only 1.5% higher than those from Mexican oil.
Fancy that … nobody is complaining about emissions from “clean” Mexican oil, but “dirty” Canadian oil emits a WHOLE PERCENT AND A HALF MORE CO2 than Mexican oil and folks start screaming … does this make sense to anyone? Do we think the opponents of the pipeline might have some other agenda than CO2?
Finally, the most telling point to me in all of this is that the Canadians are not going to sit on the oil. Either it will go to the US via the existing Keystone and perhaps the proposed Keystone XL extension pipeline … or it will go to Asia via the Kinder Morgan and perhaps the Northern Gateway pipeline. But either way, it will be extracted, it will go through a pipeline, and it will be burnt.
So the choice is not whether the extra 1.5% of CO2 from the Canadian oil sands is going to enter the atmosphere—that ship has sailed. Their whole “dirty oil” CO2 argument is meaningless, because whether the Keystone XL pipeline is built or not, the oil will be burnt.
The only choice is whether it is burnt in the US or in China … and anyone who thinks that the latter course will cause less real pollution, not CO2 but real unburnt hydrocarbon and black carbon pollution, anyone who thinks there will be less of those nasty things if the oil is burnt in China is definitely not paying attention.
We have an amazing chance right now to secure a long-term oil supply from a friendly next-door neighbor instead of a bunch of aggro folks in the Middle East. If James Hansen and his allies prevent us from doing that, I will call down curses on their heads in the name of his precious grandchildren that he’s always talking about. Here’s the pathetic size of the emissions they’re up in arms about—the total emissions from the Canadian oil sands are 0.1% (a tenth of a percent) of global GHG emissions … and the emissions will happen whether the Keystone XL pipeline is built or not. If Hansen sentences his grandkids to get their oil from the Middle East and watch China burning the Canadian oil, he’s done much, much, much more damage to his grandchildren’s prospects than anything that might come from the extra few percent of CO2, CO2 that will come from the oil sands in any case.
I say emissions “might come from” the oil because the industry folks say that within the decade, the CO2 emissions from the oil sands will be on a par with conventional oil. They have already reduced emissions by about 40% from 2000 to 2009, and the process continues apace. Given their record, I see no reason to doubt that they will get to parity.
So I can only conclude that Hansen and his charming associates are not really concerned about CO2, they have other reasons for wanting to reduce US energy use and are using the small and decreasing difference in emissions as an excuse.
Bottom line? For me, the benefits from building the XL pipeline are much, much larger than any predicted costs, so my cost-benefit analysis says build it. Build it well, of course, route it around sensitive areas as best as we know how, build it to the highest of standards, oil spills are a bad thing … but build it no matter what the AGW folks might be on about.
PS – Actually, no, I won’t curse Hansen’s sorry carcass and pathetic actions and minions, that’s literary hyperbole. He’s doing a great job of cursing himself already, karma is a bitch, so there’s no need for me to gild the lily. The worst thing is, after all his concern about his grandkids, when they’re grown they’re likely to curse him if he is successful in making them depend on the Middle East for their oil.
[UPDATE] Someone pointed out that I had not adequately addressed the argument that there is great environmental danger from the proposed Keystone XL crossing the Ogallala Aquifer. The Aquifer supplies water to many of the plains states in the central US.
That might be a reasonable argument if there weren’t a host of pipelines that cross the Ogallala right now, including carrying Canadian crude. The aquifer is the irregular area in the central USA, colored blue.
Figure 3. US pipelines carrying crude oil from Canada (red), other imports (dotted), and domestic production (blue). SOURCE
There are a couple of pipelines carrying Canadian crude that are already crossing the aquifer.
Crude pipelines are not as big a problem over aquifers as refined products, since these are much thinner and seep and are carried by rain down to the aquifer much easier than is crude oil. Here are the refined pipelines crossing the Ogallala aquifer:
Figure 4. US pipelines carrying refined oil products. SOURCE
Note that these are only the major pipelines, there are a host of smaller ones as well. As you can see, the Ogallala Aquifer is already criss-crossed by all types of pipelines, carrying all kinds of crude and refined oil. If it were a huge environmental problem, we’d have known about it long ago.