Will Blocking Keystone XL Increase GHG Emissions?

by Marlo Lewis on November 16, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Last week, after three years of environmental review, public meetings, and public comment, President Obama postponed until first quarter 2013 a decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline — the $7 billion, shovel-ready project to deliver up to 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Obama’s punt, which Keystone opponents hope effectively kills the pipeline, is topic-of-the-week on National Journal’s Energy Experts Blog. So far, a dozen “experts” have posted, including yours truly.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention at all over the past 40 years, you may suspect that most Keystone opponents want to kill the pipeline just because they hate oil and oil companies — even as they fill up their tanks to drive to the next demonstration. Bill McKibben, lead organizer of the anti-Keystone protest rallies outside the White House, lives in Vermont. On the Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert asked McKibben: “You’re from Vermont? Did you ride your bicycle down here? Or did you ride ox cart? How did you get down here? Or do you have a vehicle that runs on hypocrisy?”

If we take them at their word, McKibben and his climate guru, NASA scientist James Hansen, oppose Keystone because they believe it will contribute to global warming. How? The cutting-edge method for extracting oil from tar sands is a process called steam assisted gravity drainage. SAGD uses natural gas to heat and liquefy bitumen, a tar-like form of petroleum too viscous to be pumped by conventional wells, and burning natural gas emits carbon dioxide (CO2). So their gripe is that replacing conventional oil with tar sands oil will increase CO2 emissions from the U.S. transport sector. Maybe by only 1% annually,* but to hard-core warmists, any increase is intolerable.

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences. If McKibben and Hansen succeed in killing the pipeline, petroleum-related CO2 emissions might actually increase!

Charles Drevna of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) made this point on the aforementioned National Journal energy blog:

A study last year by Barr Engineering found that shipping more Canadian oil to Asia and shipping more oil from other parts of the world to the United States would increase greenhouse gas emissions, because of the long sea voyages. Barr Engineering called this the crude oil shuffle. So using more Canadian oil in the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Barr Engineering study analyzes the impacts on CO2 emissions of a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) that effectively bars U.S. imports of Canadian tar sands oil. Because global petroleum demand is growing, Canada would continue to produce tar sands oil even if the USA adopts an LCFS. However, instead of shipping the oil to the USA, Canada would ship the oil to China. At the same time, to meet U.S. demand that the LCFS does not allow Canada to fill, Middle East countries would ship oil to the USA that would otherwise go to China. The Canadian oil re-routed to China and Mideastern oil re-routed to the USA would travel by tankers, which burn fuel and emit CO2. Longer transport routes mean higher CO2 emissions. From the report:

Under the base case, crude is transported approximately 8,500 to 9,000 miles from Edmonton [Canada] to Chicago and from Basrah [Iraq] to Ningbo [China]. Under the crude shuffle case, total transport distance nearly triples, with crude transported approximately 22,300 to 22,700 miles from Basrah to Chicago and from Edmongton to Ningbo. Resulting GHG emissions are approximately twice as high on a total basis (for any of the crude displacement scenarios considered). . . .Under all scenarios considered, the crude shuffle results in emissions that are approximately twice as great as the emissions associatd with current base-case crude transport patterns.

The figure above shows U.S. petroleum-related greenhouse gas emissions in a “base case” and a “crude shuffle case.” PADD II refers to the Midwest petroleum market.

Although killing Keystone would not ban imports of Canadian tar sands oil, as would an LCFS, it would effectively block much of the forecast 830,000 daily barrels of tar sands from reaching U.S. refineries. That, in turn, would induce similar re-routing of international oil flows. Each barrel “shuffled” to more distant markets would have a bigger carbon footprint than a barrel of Canadian crude shipped via Keystone to the USA.

* The State Department estimates that full operation of the Keystone pipeline would produce incremental greenhouse gas emissions of 3 million to 21 million metric tons of CO2 annually (ES-15). For perspective, the U.S. transport sector in 2009 generated 1,854.5 million metric tons of CO2.

Jimmy C Goode November 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

The main thrust of your article is that it will be “BETTER” for the environment to process this “unconventional” tar oil using the XL Keystone Pipeline, besause of the “smaller carbon footprint”. This Alberta Tar Oil will “only” contribute 1% to carbon emissions is another point you present.
Well, the message of 350.org is we can NOT develop “unconventional” oil resources for the sake of our present climate. By approving this project it sets the pace to “invest” in these energy sources and ignore alternate energy. By building this infrastructure it will like have a capital life of 25 plus years and encourage more projects like this to take hold.
I’m not sure if you deniers “get it” perhaps listening to Dr. Richard Muller will do it:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/-ex-skeptic-richard-muller-congress-global-warming_n_1094966.html

Alzeyyazzasfjklaj November 21, 2011 at 10:15 am


PeterB in Indianapolis November 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Jimmy C. Goode,

I don’t know if you “true believers” get it either. Canada is going to develop tar sands oil. It ALREADY has developed it, and will continue to do so. Canada is also going to sell this oil to SOMEONE. It is better economically AND environmentally, that that SOMEONE be the United States as opposed to China.

Until you figure that out, you will continue to favor stupid policies which actually increase the amount of CO2 emitted by humans on a global scale, just as you do in this case. Your position on this issue contradicts your stated goals, which is unsurprising.

Perhaps you should listen to Fred Singer (and other people like Roger Pielke) instead of Muller who has already admitted that the BEST study did not even study the purported human impact on the global temperature record?


PeterB in Indianapolis November 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I find it hilarious that wind farms have killed more endangered birds than have ever been killed by all recorded oil spills combined. I also find it hilarious that solar panels and wind turbines use so much energy and rare earth (toxic) metals in their manufacture, that they have an absolutely HUGE carbon footprint. I also find it ridiculously funny that people like 350.org here never seem to mention that all wind farms and solar facilities REQUIRE backup generators powered by either coal or natural gas, and that a LARGE percentage of the time, power is actually supplied by the backup generators and not the “alternate” energy source at all! Last winter in England, when it was the absolute coldest and people needed abundant, cheap energy the most, British Government studies showed that the wind farms were operating at a whopping 5% of capacity….

wilbert merel robichaud November 19, 2011 at 8:54 am

As long as we use oil our society will keep on evolving forward and that alone does not jive to well with these anti freedom & science challenged groups. How can they return us to the Stone Age if we keep rejecting their inefficient tax payer funded wind mills, Solar panels or overprice electric cars?” We must make this an insecure and inhospitable place for capitalists and their projects…. We must reclaim the roads and plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers and return to wilderness millions of tens of millions of acres of presently settled land. David Foreman, Earth First!”
They Claim the Sand Hills are too environmentally sensitive to have a pipe line disturb the land. Yet! not a peep against the wind mills farms peppering the landscape of these once beautiful sand hills.

Alzeyyazzasfjklaj November 21, 2011 at 10:15 am


Jim Guirard November 21, 2011 at 7:59 pm

The illogic and self-contradictions of the anti-XL Pipeline activists are in fact a cultic disorder of major proportions — many of whose roots and lock-step Left influences can be found in Walter Martin’s and Ravi Zacharias’ definitive, award-winning 2003 book, “Kingdom of the Cults:”

1. Leadership by a self-glorifying, manipulative New Age Prophet — in this case, former Vice-President Al Gore, though he has now been virtually supplanted by President Barack Obama.

2. Assertion of an apocalyptic threat to all mankind, in this case CO2.

3. An absolutist definition of both the threat and the proposed solution(s).

4. Promise of a salvation from this pending apocalypse.

5. Devotion to an inspired text which (arguendo) embodies all the answers — in this case, Prophet Gore’s pseudo-scientific book “Earth in the Balance” and his more recent “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary.

6. A specific list of “truths” or de facto “commandments” which must be embraced and proselytized by all Cult members..

7. An absolute intolerance of any deviation from any of these truths by any Cult member.

8. A strident intolerance of any outside criticism of the Cult’s definition of the problem or of its proposed solutions.

9. A “Heaven-on-Earth” vision of the results of the mission’s success and/or a “Hell-on-Earth” result if the cultic mission should fail.

10. An inordinate fear (and an outright rejection of the possibility) of being proven wrong in either the apocalyptic vision or the proposed salvation.

Is it any wonder that it is quite impossible to “talk logic” to such pseudo-religious zealots — whether it be about the XL Pipeline or any other environmental issue, and where any challenge to their beliefs is quite literally regarded as a heresy?

JIM GUIRARD — Truespeak.org Justcauses@aol.com

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