Keystone XL is a fuse to a large carbon bomb

Andrea Harden-Donahue
10 years ago
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1670","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-medium wp-image-11725","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"450","height":"300","alt":""}}]]That is how Bill McKibben has described the Keystone XL pipeline. Dr James Hansen, well known climate scientist, has said that if the tar sands are tapped, it is “essentially game over” for any hope of achieving a stable climate. These are powerful statements from two knowledgeable people. And, despite what Prime Minister Harper, and Ministers Kent and Oliver would have you believe, they are based on fact. A new entry, Keystone XL: Game over? on the well respected RealClimate, Climate science from climate scientists blog, brings forward useful information supporting these statements. The author reviews how much carbon we can put in the atmosphere before dire results, and then compares this to known quantities of conventional energy sources and the tar sands. His conclusion? Tapping the tar sands does mean game over.  I’ve heard some criticisms of this argument, suggesting that this accounts for all of the bitumen in the tar sands, most of which is not currently accessible. The author addresses this well: "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 [if you read the entry, numbers are given to how much atmospheric space we have left and how much conventional sources will use, this is the gap being referred to]. 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. " He makes the additional point; "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..." The author also compares the net carbon content of the tar sands with the Gillette Coalfield in the Powder river basin, one of the largest coal deposits in the world.  Here again, he concludes that the tar sands are indeed, a large carbon bomb. On Keystone XL, he concedes, like most would, that the pipeline itself won’t dramatically increase ghg’s, but recognizes, "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.... 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." The carbon emissions that Keystone XL will help unleash are one of several important reasons people are opposing this pipeline project. For more information on how Keystone XL threatens water, see this blog by Brent Patterson and these first hand accounts recorded by Friends of the Earth U.S. For more information on how the promises of jobs with the Keystone XL jobs are being over stated by proponents, see this Cornell Labour Institute report.