Is the Keystone XL Pipeline Protest About Tar Sands or Politics?

oil sands wheel to pump image
Source: IHS CERA Oil Sands, Greenhouse Gases, and US Oil Supply PDF

Hundreds have been arrested at the White House in the protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. James Hansen has said "it's essentially game over" if it is built. But today Energy Secretary Steven Chu implied that it's a done deal, saying "It's not perfect, but it's a trade off." He suggests that the problem is not supply, but demand. According to Energy Now, "Chu said he's focused on cutting long-term U.S. demand for oil by promoting greater use of electric vehicles, biofuels and energy efficiency."

He has a point; let's have a look at the numbers.

In Jaymi's post What You Need To Know About The Canadian Tar Sands, she writes "15. Tar sands oil production emits 3 times more carbon dioxide per barrel than conventional oil consumed in the United States." My first reaction was that this couldn't be true, but after digging around all kinds of life cycle analyses, I found that while 3 times is a bit of a stretch, it is still a lot more. (it is 3 times Intermediate Texas crude, but not the American average) But promoters of tar sands oil say it is only six or seven percent more. How can there be such a big difference?

oil sands wheel to wheel image

In fact, when it comes right down to what matters, the CO2 emissions, the promoters have a point in stressing the well to wheel emissions, rather than the well-to-pump; the majority of the CO2 comes out of the tailpipe, not out of the refining and transport. Burning Saudi gas doesn't produce significantly less CO2 than burning Canadian tar sands oil; the real problem with the tar sands (not to mention Jaymi's 31 other points)- it enables people to drive cars for a lot longer than they might otherwise have been able to, pumping out more CO2 while avoiding the real problem, that we have to find alternatives to the gasoline powered car.

Jeff Rubin made much the same point today on his blog;

Considering the vast majority of emissions from gasoline come not with its extraction and processing but when you turn on your car's ignition and start burning the oil in your engine, maybe we should be more concerned about the number of cars are on the road as opposed to the source of their fuel.

So why does James Hansen say that "the phase out of emissions from coal is, itself, an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it's essentially game over"? He told TreeHugger in an interview:

The tar sands are the deposits, primarily in Canada, where there's oil mixed with sand. And you can extract the oil but it's a very energy-intensive process. So you end up emitting a lot more carbon dioxide than you would in a pure oil deposit. So it's not a very efficient way to get energy. But the basic point is that we know there's enough CO2 in the easily available oil and gas to take us up to the dangerous level of atmospheric CO2.

And what that means is that we can't afford to develop these unconventional fossil fuels. It just will push us far into the dangerous zone, and we will end up having to try to figure out how to get that CO2 back out of the atmosphere. So it just doesn't make sense to develop them to begin with.

Rubin, who famously said "You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you are schlepping a tonne of sand to get a barrel of oil" also pointed out that stopping the Keystone doesn't stop the tar sands. Because there is nowhere for the Alberta oil to go, it is significantly cheaper than Texas crude, and that discount is enough to send it elsewhere.

If the over $25 per barrel spread between U.S. domestic oil prices and world oil prices persists, new pipelines will be built in Canada to provide a more direct connection to global oil markets. One way or another, it is oil price differentials, not James Hansen's concerns, which will ultimately determine the flow and direction of oil from Canada's tar sands.

That's why we have to worry less about supply and work on demand; to provide alternatives to the gas powered automobile, to promote rail and transit and yes, bikes. If we don't work on demand, then supply will come from the Everglades, the Arctic, three miles under the gulf and from Iran, even from the tar sands via China.

More on the Oil Sands and the Keystone Pipeline
What You Need To Know About The Canadian Tar Sands
Nation's Top Climate Scientist, 140 Others Arrested at White House

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Tags: Tar Sands


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