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Keystone: The Pipeline to Disaster

The new State Department Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone Pipeline does three things. First, it signals a greater likelihood that the pipeline project will be approved later this year by the administration. Second, it vividly illustrates the depth of confusion of US climate change policy. Third, it self-portrays the US Government as a helpless bystander to climate calamity. According to the State Department report, we are trapped in the Big Oil Status Quo We Can Believe In.

The proposed pipeline will complete a pipeline network running from Alberta, Canada to the US Gulf Coast, carrying petroleum produced from Alberta’s oil sands to the Gulf refineries. The volumes will be enormous, roughly 830,000 barrels per day. The pipeline will thereby facilitate the mass extraction and use of Canada’s enormous unconventional supplies. Therein lies the problem.

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-induced climate change is occurring; that the world is experiencing a rapidly rising frequency of extreme climate-related events such as heat waves; and that there is much worse to come unless we change course on the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, with energy business as usual, the world is on a trajectory to raise the mean global temperature by at least 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) by the end of century, and possibly far more, a climate disruption that most scientists regard as catastrophic. The world’s governments have agreed to try to keep the temperature increase below 2-degrees C, yet until now they’ve done far too little to meet that target.

(Note that after decades of rapid temperature increases up to 1998, the rise in global mean temperatures slowed a bit after 1998. With the post-1998 Pacific Ocean tending towards La Nina conditions, the Pacific Ocean rather than the Earth’s land area has been absorbing much of the excess thermal energy trapped by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Yet once the Pacific Ocean swings back to the El Nino or neutral conditions that prevailed up to 1998, rapid global warming is likely to resume. Therefore the slight recent pause in the upward ascent of temperatures is only a short respite from the ongoing long-term process of rapid global warming.)

The economic implications of the climate science are clear. Either we keep some of the world’s oil, gas, and coal reserves under the ground (rather than burning them in cars, factories, power plants, and buildings), or we wreck the planet. The atmospheric CO2 concentration is determined by the cumulative combustion of fossil fuels. We’ve already burned enough fossil fuels to raise the world’s temperatures by around 1 degree C. Burning the rest of the proved reserves would cause humanity to overshoot the 2-degree target by several degrees.

The urgent planetary need is clear. The world has to wean itself from fossil fuel dependence in the coming 20-40 years. We simply can’t go on drilling, excavating, and burning every ton of coal, oil, and gas the fossil fuel industry finds. If we do so, the basic “carbon arithmetic” of CO2 buildup spells disaster.

In the current market jargon, the world needs to strand some of its fossil fuel reserves, meaning that some must be left under the ground rather than extracted and burned. We must substitute these stranded fossil fuel reserves with low-carbon alternatives, including nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power. There are ample supplies of these low-carbon alternatives, but to build up the use of these alternatives will require considerable investments for several decades to come.

The most important single step is to keep most of the coal from being burned. The next is to avoid the temptation to develop every bit of “non-conventional” oil and gas that can be found. With new technologies, unconventional oil and gas like Canada’s oil sands can now be developed at today’s market prices, but at great peril for the planet.

Using climate science, it is possible to calculate the tolerable limits on total future fossil fuel use. The basic idea is the need for the world to adhere to a “carbon budget,” meaning the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned while avoiding global warming by more than 2-degrees C. (We should note that even the 2-degree C target, which we are now overshooting by a wide mark, would cause very damaging changes to the Earth’s climate systems, and result in devastating famines, floods, heat waves, and other catastrophes.)

The Keystone pipeline is crucial to the global carbon budget. If the world deploys massive unconventional oil sources like Canada’s oil sands we will exceed the carbon budget, unless there is a simultaneous strategy to offset that excess carbon some other way. But to do so would be using Canada’s expensive, dirty, and CO2-intensive oil when cheaper, (relatively) cleaner, and lower-CO2 oil is available. Under any circumstances, to evaluate the Keystone Project properly, we need to judge it against the global carbon budget.

Herein lies the tragic, indeed fatal, flaw of the State Department review. The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn’t even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.

The core assumption of the report is that the US Government has no role to play, either alone or in conjunction with Canada and other countries, to stay within an overall global carbon budget.

[A]pproval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refiners in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios. [ES-16]

According to the State Department, in other words, the US Government is just a passive spectator to global climate change. Either the pipeline is built or the oil will be shipped by other means. Full stop. The State Department doesn’t even broach the idea that the pipeline discussion really needs to be about the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels, including the need to keep unconventional hydrocarbon reserves under the ground.

I can hear the skeptics scoffing: What would make Canada not develop these resources? And why shouldn’t Americans profit from the oil sands? The answer should be the future survival and wellbeing of humanity, an idea admittedly of little apparent interest in Washington or Ottawa, centers of greed, cynicism, and shortsightedness. There is money to be made NOW, the future be damned.

But do not lose hope. The greed and incompetence on display in Washington and Ottawa is not a permanent reality, but a passing phase. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were able to face down gilded interests for the greater good. Many oil companies, including leading companies in Europe and also some in North America, are already on side to stay within the global carbon budget. The vast majority of Americans want safety for themselves, their children, and the rest of humanity. Our generation can still turn the tide against environmental disaster.

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7 Comments on "Keystone: The Pipeline to Disaster"

  1. PapaSmurf on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 10:50 pm 

    The IPCC just massively downgraded their estimates of the costs of global warming.

    Previous reports – notably the hugely influential 2006 Stern Review – have put the costs to the global economy caused by ‘climate change’ at between 5 and 20 percent of world GDP.

    But the latest estimates, to be published by Working Group II of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, say that a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century will cost the world economy between just 0.2 and 2 percent of its GDP.

    If the lower estimate is correct, then all it would take is an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent (currently it’s around 3 percent) for the economic costs of climate change to be wiped out within a month.

  2. PapaSmurf on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 10:52 pm 

    Almost every global environmental scare of the past half century proved exaggerated including the population “bomb,” pesticides, acid rain, the ozone hole, falling sperm counts, genetically engineered crops and killer bees. In every case, institutional scientists gained a lot of funding from the scare and then quietly converged on the view that the problem was much more moderate than the extreme voices had argued. Global warming is no different.

    Full article here:


  3. Nony on Fri, 28th Mar 2014 11:07 pm 

    you forgot nuclear winter. Little Carl Sagan letting his politics influence his analysis. 🙁

  4. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 2:16 am 

    Poops, you the man, you sound so confident and aloof in your estimations. Hang around and we will see how long it takes for your ass to pucker!!!

  5. GregT on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 4:49 am 

    Great article from Matt Ridley at the WSJ.

    Some background on Ridley:

    “Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock (bank ) from 2004 to 2007, having joined the board in 1994. His father had been chairman from 1987 to 1992 and sat on the board for 30 years.
    In September 2007 Northern Rock became the first British bank since 1878 to suffer a run on its finances at the start of the credit crunch. It was forced to apply to the Bank of England for emergency liquidity funding, following problems caused by the financial crisis of 2007–08. The failure of the bank eventually led to the nationalisation of Northern Rock. Ridley went before a parliamentary committee which criticised him for not recognising the risks of the bank’s financial strategy and thereby “harming the reputation of the British banking industry.” He resigned as chairman in October 2007.”

    Ridley’s philosophy:

    Matt Ridley has argued for a “lukewarm” view of climate change and against expensive renewable energy policies that he considers damaging to the economy as well as the environment. In a report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2013 he wrote:
    I have written about climate change and energy policy for more than 25 years. I have come to the conclusion that current energy and climate policy is probably more dangerous, both economically and ecologically, than climate change itself. This is not the same as arguing that climate has not changed or that mankind is not partly responsible. That the climate has changed because of man-made carbon dioxide I fully accept. What I do not accept is that the change is or will be damaging, or that current policy would prevent it.

    “Ridley argues, more controversially, that climate change has done more good than harm so far and is likely to continue doing so for most of this century. This is clearly expressed in his article for The Spectator:
    There are many likely effects of climate change: positive and negative, economic and ecological, humanitarian and financial. And if you aggregate them all, the overall effect is positive today — and likely to stay positive until around 2080.”

    This guy is clearly going against the grain of mainstream scientific literature, and is dangerous to the wellbeing and prosperity of all mankind and the planet Earth. After his obvious incompetence as a bank chairman, I can think of no better place for him to be, than writing for the Wall Street Journal.

  6. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 11:16 am 

    Echoing Greg on this one. Look the biggest issue for us modern humans is the issue that has always been on our minds that is “FOOD”. Not only are we near or in Peak Oil we are a population in overshoot to its carrying capacity in a complex global economy in diminishing returns and dangerous debt unwind. Food is as much about economics of distribution and exchange as the act of growing it. This other part of the equation that has been so highly spoke of by the lobby of plenty and technological exeptionalism is the green revolution. Sure there is some amazing science and understanding of crop production both industrial and permaculture. It is all there if you want just google. Yet, let us face it modern man is here not because of fossil fuel, “YES”, FF’s have allowed modern growth. The real reason for modern man is pure and simple a relatively stable climate. Without this condition agriculture would never have been able to take hold in a widespread sense to allow a modern industrial man to develop. In his infancy modern man was an agrarian. “SO” you climate deniers and climate optimist it is not AGW as much as instability. Food like oil creates a systematic risk especially with a population in overshoot to its carrying capacity and a complex global system. If we have an event that disrupts our food production we will see areas collapse and this collapse can spread and coalesce into a generalized collapse. How long have we had the situation of meeting our global needs with surplus to spare? How long do you think this can last without some event that will shake this status quo lack of concern for food safty? Even without AGW we have always risked having a generalized global food system failure event. Now we are forcing a stable climate with ecosystem destruction and CO2 dumping. So you cut all the rain forest down and pump CO2 into the air and witness the Arctic ice melt and you tell me everything is OK we have seen this before. Sure PRE AG man saw it and it was climate instability. PRE AG man had to migrate to survive. He hunted and gathered with his home on his back. We don’t have that option with all human ecosystems full to the brim already. I can speak about growing food. I put my money where my mouth is. I am now in permaculture grass fed beef and before in production AG (corn & beans). Even with all the magic of science growing was tough with drought and wet periods. Then the economics were tough with prices and debt service. I can’t believe what we have today globally in the AG sector when I consider how tenuous it is to grow a crop. I didn’t lose a crop but it was close twice out of the 4 years I as in the business. Once a near flood of my bottom land and another time a drought ravaged my crop. My permaculture grass fed beef is much more stable and resilient and this is why I recommend it where possible. Yet, production AG is necessary with a population in overshoot. When I eat today I give thanks for every meal and food item. There is so much that is on our plates that will be gone in the near future.

  7. J.R. on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 3:13 pm 

    PapaSmurf – Extract head from ass and start reading some real climate news. You’re so far off the mark that you must be living on another planet. Temperature projections are expected at 6C – 8C (unlivable conditions) by 2050. The IPCC is well-known for being pretty far off on their estimates, which are constantly being revised upwards. This is not the best source for current information.

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