Keystone XL: Game over?

Are the oil sands really the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”? As a point of reference, let’s compare its net carbon content with the Gillette Coalfield in the Powder river basin, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. There are 150 billion metric tons left in this deposit, according to the USGS. How much of that is economically recoverable depends on price and technology. The USGS estimates that about half can be economically mined if coal fetches $60 per ton on the market, but let’s assume that all of the Gillette coal can be eventually recovered. Powder River coal is sub-bituminous, and contains only 45% carbon by weight. (Don’t take that as good news, because it has correspondingly lower energy content so you burn more of it as compared to higher carbon coal like Anthracite; Powder River coal is mined largely because of its low sulfur content). Thus, the carbon in the Powder River coal amounts to 67.5 gigatonnes, far below the carbon content of the Athabasca Oil Sands. So yes, the Keystone XL pipeline does tap into a very big carbon bomb indeed.

But comparison of the Athabaska Oil Sands to an individual coal deposit isn’t really fair, since there are only two major oil sands deposits (the other being in Venezuela) while coal deposits are widespread. Nehring (2009) estimates that world economically recoverable coal amounts to 846 gigatonnes, based on 2005 prices and technology. Using a mean carbon ratio of .75 (again from Table 6 here), that’s 634 gigatonnes of carbon, which all by itself is more than enough to bring us well past “game-over.” The accessible carbon pool in coal is sure to rise as prices increase and extraction technology advances, but the real imponderable is how much coal remains to be discovered. But any way you slice it, coal is still the 800-gigatonne gorilla at the carbon party.

Commentators who argue that the Keystone XL pipeline is no big deal tend to focus on the rate at which the pipeline delivers oil to users (and thence as CO2 to the atmosphere). To an extent, they have a point. The pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels per day, and assuming that we’re talking about lighter crude by the time it gets in the pipeline that adds up to a piddling 2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years (exercise: Work this out for yourself given the numbers I stated earlier in this post). 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.”

So the pipeline itself is really just a skirmish in the battle to protect climate, and if the pipeline gets built despite Bill McKibben’s dedicated army of protesters, that does not mean in and of itself that it’s “game over” for holding warming to 2C. Further, if we do hit a trillion tonnes, it may be “game-over” for holding warming to 2C (apart from praying for low climate sensitivity), but it’s not “game-over” for avoiding the second trillion tonnes, which would bring the likely warming up to 4C. The fight over Keystone XL may be only a skirmish, but for those (like the fellow in this arresting photo ) who seek to limit global warming, it is an important one. 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.

* Note added 4/11/2011: Prompted by Andrew Leach’s comment (#50 below), I should clarify that the working paper cited refers to recovery of bitumen-in-place on a per-project basis, and should not be taken as an estimate of the total amount that could be recovered from oil sands as a whole. I cite this only as an example of where the technology is headed.

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189 comments on this post.
  1. Andrew Leach:

    Interesting piece. I covered many of these ideas (the resource vs. reserve issue in particular) in my post here:


  2. Pete Dunkelberg:

    In short: to solve the climate problem we must stop burning carbon. Since we are unlikely to dig or pump much of it up just as a passtime, this means Leave It In The Ground.

    Big Carbon will resist will all their money.

  3. Bill mckibben:

    Thanks so much for this good arithmetical work! And thanks to all who are joining in this fight. For those who can make it at 2 pm on Sunday we will ring the white house in protesters, all bearing quotes from Barack Obama 2008. Let’s see if we can rouse that spirit again

  4. john Atkeison:

    Thanks for this– those of us here in Nebraska and everywhere else under our common sky appreciate it!

  5. Mark J. Fiore:

    I’ve been following the news on climate change since 1987.I’m familiar with the writings of Bill McKibben, Andrew Revkin, and Peter Ward, amongst many,many others.I firmly believe that extraction of the tar sands oil is a very bad idea.I also firmly believe that the planet could reach 1000 ppm by the year 2150.This figure would include the release of terrestial stored carbon from feedback mechanisms such as the thaw of methal hydrates, permafrost, and the increased severity and intensity of wildfires, plus the predicted dieback of the Amazon dues to drying effect.I am an amateur layman, and RealClimate is gracious enough to allow me to post.For me, a 1000 ppm settling point, albeit including the feedback mechanisms, is effective
    ly game over for the planet as we know it.
    Mark J. Fiore
    Harvard, 1982
    Boston College Law School, 1987

  6. Steve Easterbrook:

    The next thought on from “Leave it in the Ground” has to be what has to change in the way that governments currently support exploitation of fossil fuels. The oil sands in particular are a massive transfer of shared resources to private companies. The profits are huge, because the rights are being more or less given away, in comparison with the money to be made. I was at a talk yesterday by David Schindler, who’s been at the centre of monitoring the contamination from the oil sands in Alberta. He points out that really we should be ridiculing the people of Alberta for being such fools, because they’re getting almost nothing out of the deals. Oh, and actually it’s mostly lands that were given to first nations through treaties many years ago, which means the Provincial and Federal Canadian governments are also shredding their treaty obligations in the rush to hand over the exploitation rights in a massive firesale.

    So the only way to leave fossil fuels in the ground is for governments to set a very high price on expoitation rights, so that every other avenue for energy development gets developed first. At the moment the profits are way too high for anyone to resist the party. Which by the way, connects the fight over the pipeline with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because it isn’t the 99% who are going to benefit from these massive windfall profits.

  7. Andy S:

    Keystone XL is by no means the end of the story. There are two alternative transportation options on the table, the Northern Gateway pipeline through northern British Columbia and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through Vancouver. I’m pleased to say that both of these projects are opposed by the majority of people, including First Nations, in British Columbia and there’s a good chance that neither project will materialize. there’s a good chance that both will not materialize. While options remain open (the possibility of doing more upgrading in Alberta and the use of existing pipelines and rail transport to the US) nixing KXL will be a significant impediment to accelerated development of the tar sands in the medium term and an increase in the chance that the Athabasca bitumen will stay in the ground for ever.

  8. Gary Rucinski:

    In addition to supporting the outstanding work Bill McKibben and are doing to promote Tar Sands Action, James Hansen also recently said of another environmental organization: “If you want to join the fight to save the planet, to save creation for your grandchildren, there is no more effective step you could take than becoming an active member of this group.” The organization he was referring to is Citizens Climate Lobby: My experience with them is they are all Dr. Hansen says and more.

  9. Hank Roberts:

    I recall back in the days of the optical fiber boom (the one that gave us so many miles of dark fiber because everyone installed all they imagined anyone could need) — the big deal was to get rights of way across state lines and local jurisdictions. Many of the companies purchased rights of way along railroads or power transmission lines where the routes and permissions were already in place.

    I’d bet the real interest behind this pipeline might include some notion of later on tapping all that fresh water up in northern Canada for Texas, once a pipeline route is established.

    Just speculating.

  10. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    It would be nice if there could be an edict against burning carbon, or even a stiff penalty imposed, but practical thinking seems to suggest such will not come about.

    I suggest that a workable plan would be to develop ways to support the kind of life styles that people choose now without the kind of fuel gluttony that is now the norm. Alternatives that scale up to a meaningful degree are required. Then it might be sensible to ask for carbon dioxide limiting measures.

    Campaigning to cancel development of reasonable sources of energy is ludditism, and the impact of this is to cancel industrial activity and, indeed, the state of being that we call the developed world.

    I speak not for allowing CO2 to go on unabated; rather I speak for engineering solutions to problems that enable CO2 control. Such solutions could include developing the possibility of stimulating growth of plankton in the oceans; not with a sporadic and half-hearted science demonstration, but instead, a determined and continuing project to accomplish one of the largest scale real solutions. Then we should take away the placebo projects that make people feel good, but will accomplish triviality; such including electric vehicles, solar and wind renewable dreams, and things like smart grids. With a little clarity then being possible, the next things to undertake could be vehicle developments that actually enabled rapid and safe personal transportation with meagre use of fuel.

    Most notably might be the acceptance of EPA ratings of vehicles by MPGE according to a formula that is an insult to science, and essentially sets the electric vehicle up as a solution to foreign oil dependence, but ignores the ultimate impact of electric vehicles that is to draw from coal fired electric generation.

    Particularly relevant to the Canadian oil sands is the opportunity to change the way water is distributed on the North American continent. This would enable a massive new standing forest project on Federal lands in Western USA, and greatly enhanced agriculture as well.

    In the electric power world, the real way to make progress is to first realize the absurdity of centralized power plants that throw away the massive amount of energy as heat due to thermodynamic facts about heat engines. Instead of perpetuating the status quo concepts with enhancing of smart grid enhancements of the electric power infrastructure, we started looking at distributed generation that enabled utilization of discharged heat in cogeneration concepts.

    We certainly don’t need the yammering about the evil energy producing folk that maintain the backbone of our continuing (hopefully) industrial revolution. Especially we don’t need yammering that would impede the development of industrial activity that might bring jobs and bring back a sense of prosperity. Without that sense of prosperity, there is no reason to hope for any progress in reducing emissions of CO2.

    [Response: Have whatever fantasies you like, but the plain fact of the matter is that full exploitation of the Athabasca Oil Sands is flatly incompatible with having a reasonable chance of holding warming to 2C. You could argue that attacking demand is a more effective way of preventing exploitation than blocking the pipeline (though I don’t see any reason the two efforts are incompatible) but one way or another if you care about climate, you can’t consider the oil sands a ‘reasonable’ energy source. –raypierre]

    [Response: Operative word there being “fantasies”. I’ll take the lack of development of the tar sands over your proposed “solutions” any day of the millennium. And the only person tossing the word “evil” around is…you.–Jim]

  11. Carole Jordan:

    Thank you for this fine analysis. I have been called several things online when I challenge people who support the pipeline. I can’t wait to post this to facebook! I’ll be in Washington on Sunday to express to the President our shared sincerity in the disapproval of the Tar Sands mining in general and the Keystone XL Pipeline specifically. Hope to see everyone there :-)

  12. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Re #10 inline by raypierre

    I suggest a rule for problem solving discourse would advise restraint in using debater’s tricks.

    [Response: Great idea! You go first.–Jim]

    It might have been possible for me to have headed this off by saying, ‘reasonable development of reasonable energy sources’ whereby your ‘full exploitation of the Athabasca Oil Sands’ might not have inspired. I would be inclined to look for something less than ‘full exploitation’ just as I would be inclined to look for moderate use of coal.

    It is, however, a fact that coal is at least on a par with the oil sands resources as far as detriment to the CO2 environment, and there is vast and growing rate of usage of this. Either is a problem that needs solution on the demand side of the supply and demand equation, as you recognized. And no, these are not incompatible efforts, but the thing missing here is that all of this is fantasy unless there is a robust economy that can take on the task of solving the whole problem.

    I think we can agree that we really do have a big problem on our hands.

    [Response: So what’s your point. Coal is bad, it mostly has to stay in the ground. Oil sands are just about as bad (though maybe not as bad as coal-to-liquid). So they have to stay also. Don’t see where the disagreement is. Developing just a little bit of the oil sands is like being a little bit pregnant. –raypierre]

  13. John Atkeison:

    RE: Water to Texas–
    TransCanada (the company building the pipeline) has mentioned that it could be switched to carry water.
    Those familiar with the aggressive competition for water, especially from Texas and Colorado, do not find this far-fetched at all.
    The company is very, very resistant to changing the route of Keystone XL. Since that would effectively split the opposition (or it would have in the past!) one must wonder why TransCanada insists on building over the Ogallala aquifer. In the Sandhills, the aquifer surfaces and in much of the rest of the area, wells can be very shallow.

  14. John Atkeison:

    Let me add a reminder that we are dealing with the Oil Guys here. The culture is ruthless, cutthroat, greed-driven … you know, like those cowboys at BP!
    To be blunt, they do not care about a damn thing but their own interests.

    As someone who was on the Gulf Coast for the BP blowout, I keep reminding people here in Nebraska about these charming folks. Luckily, they seem to have used enough bullying to make their character clear.

    “They would not only sell their mother … they would deliver!”

  15. Mike Whitfield:

    My message/question to all those conducting this increasingly emotional ‘jihad’ against Keystone XL is – where is the real-world, measurable, quantifiable evidence of the supposedly massive environmental damage and carbon footprint increase, this pipeline will create? To quote the excellent article above, “2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years…” The heavy oil industry in your own State of California pumps out vastly larger quantities of carbon than the Alberta Oilsands ever will. Why not invest your energy and rhetoric at the White House this weekend protesting about emissions where they are real and happening today?
    Fact is, the risks overall of the Keystone XL pipeline are well-mitigated. The technology and expertise that will be deployed in building the safety mechanisms around this infrastructure project is world-leading. What’s more, TransCanada Pipelines has committed an initial $100m provision to address any leaks that may occur. And there is no reason why a reasonable compromise cannot be achieved with respect to the sensitive regions the pipeline will pass through.
    Let’s face the real world of 2011 here – both the US and Canada need Keystone XL. But the US far more so because of the massive economic boost in terms of jobs and much-needed infrastructure, as well as the critical need for longer term energy supply security. Canada and Alberta needs Keystone XL too. However, there is a ready and waiting global market for Canadian energy and supply will gravitate to where demand exists and permits i.e. the Far East and Asia. This shift to the road of least resistance is happening already, at huge economic advantage to Canada and at secure-supply disadvantage to the US.
    After all is said and done, at the end of the day Economics will be the final determinant – responsible, environmentally-aware, capitalistic Economics. Therefore I see no solid reasons why Keystone XL should not go ahead. I support the project unequivocally, as should most level-headed Americans.

  16. Ben Vandergugten:

    For some background to why James Hansen believes it will be “game over” if the tar sands are exploited, read his paper: “Implications for Human-Made Climate Change”

    He argues that the 2 degree Celsius target is not safe. Bill McKibben agrees (hence, not

  17. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:


    So what’s my point? Things are a lot more complicated.

    I do not agree that moderate development of the oil sands is like being a little bit pregnant.

    Note also, developing the oil sands is geo-politically better than being dependent on Mid-Eastern oil.

    And the emergence of electric vehicles is encouraged by government with apparent acclaim from science, yet this also perpetuates energy guzzling under the pretense of efficiency of electric power. The incremental electric power to drive electric vehicles is, of course, inescapably attached to incremental increase in use of coal in the power plant heat engines.

    The apparent acclaim from science is its acceptance of the EPA rules for MPGE, which denies the fact that electricity is fundamentally derived from heat engine operations, where massive heat energy is discharged of necessity, and the formula asserts no such heat discharge.

    The usual argument is that, well, electric vehicles will not do anything to reduce CO2, but they will reduce use of oil by shifting to coal as the fundamental source of energy. So never mind that science is insulted.

    My real point is that all this accomplishes very little, but appears otherwise. In the face of this there are real things we might do, and these get little notice.

    [Response: Your real point is that you have a car you want to market, and electric vehicles and such potentially impinge on that.–Jim]

  18. Tim Jones:

    A cluster of Cedar Elm trees in a draw here in Central Texas have died of the the intermittent exceptional droughts of the last several years. The bark has split away and curled into tubes. It’s a snapshot of widespread deforestation & incipient desertification of the Edwards Plateau.

    “A drought for the centuries: It hasn’t been this dry in Texas since 1789”

    Oil prosperity here won’t make it rain and won’t pull water out of the ground when it isn’t there. The success of KXL pipeline will be a Pyrhicc victory indeed as climate change turns the means of production into ashes and dust.

  19. Thomas:

    Its really a difficult issue. If Keystone is blocked, there is a very high chance the Chineese will get the oil -they are reportedly investing heavily in the tar sands (and just about any other source of oil they can). So we could simply end up shifting where the oil is used, rather than keeping it in the ground.

    BTW, those near step function changes in T in the graphs, particularly for 1075 and 1750 look very nonintuitive. Is there a simple explanation for them?

    [Response: The comment about the Chinese is a red herring. So far as climate goes it doesn’t matter who gets the oil. The CO2 still winds up in the atmosphere if anybody gets it. And to get it, it has to flow out somewhere (so for those who want to keep it in the ground, every leak has to be fought, not just Keystone XL). But for economics, it doesn’t matter if the Chinese get the oil either. Oil is traded on the world market, so if the oil sands oil is produced at all, it makes no difference whatever if it’s the Chinese that get the oil, since that displaces some other oil they would have used. It is true that extracting oil sands crude increases world supply of oil — but also increases the ultimate world emissions of CO2. To protect climate, some way needs to be found to do without that oil. No two ways about it. You can argue about means, but if you accept that a trillion tonnes is the danger line, then it’s not at all pointless to want to find ways to leave it in the ground. –raypierre]

  20. Balazs:

    Could somebody educate me, what kind of life style we should adopt to keep our energy use per capita under 2000W (which is the global average today). I just made a quick calculation that a round trip (5000 mi at 50mi/gallon ~ 300kg kerosene) from New York to San Francisco for an AGU meeting is the equivalent of 400W energy use for a whole year (which is twice the energy use per capita in Bangladesh).

    [Response: Well part of the answer to that is better transportation systems and more carbon-neutral energy. If all US participants could go to AGU by high speed train, that would improve matters even if the train were powered by fossil-based electricity. Even better if it’s carbon-neutral energy. (I would mention how France does it, but I don’t want to start a distracting conversation on that). It’s a big job, but it’s one that has to be done anyway, since if the whole world tries to pull itself into prosperity by burning carbon at the rate the US does, then we run out of coal even at the highest estimates by 2100, and you wind up with no fossil energy and the hellish climate you get from 5000 gigatonnes cumulative emission. So since the job has do be done, why not do it before the climate is irrevocably trashed, rather than putting it off? Gee nobody likes to go to the dentist, but an abscessed tooth — you really don’t want to go to that. –raypierre]

  21. ccpo:

    Without even reading the post or any of the comments, let me just say OH Em Gee!!! I can FINALLY talk about resources and cliamte without being smacked down!!!!!

    OK, I’m chill… I’ll go read now… back soon…

  22. Earl Killian:

    Your estimates of climate sensitivity come from the IPCC, which assumes that aerosols will continue to provide a very strong cooling effect that offsets about half of the warming from CO2, but you are talking about time frames in which we have stopped burning fossil fuels, so is it appropriate to continue to assume the presence of cooling aerosols at these future times? Since we would already be over 2C of warming with current CO2 levels, except for aerosols, isn’t the safe amount of fossil fuels that can be burned zero?

    [Response: This is an interesting point that bears thinking about. The 2C warming for a trillion tonnes is for carbon alone, and already factors in an assumption that aerosols go away when you stop burning fossil fuels. The issue, though, is how to reconcile that figure with the amount of warming we’ve seen so far. There, you have to factor in not only the aerosol cooling but the methane (and possibly black carbon) warming, as well as a few other anthropogenic greenhouse gases. One problem is that we don’t know today’s aerosol forcing very accurately. If aerosol forcing is high, then reconciling with recent warming demands very high climate sensitivity (which you see realized after the aerosols go away) — and that would indeed mean we may have already passed the threshold for 2C warming. A trillion tonnes only buys you a 50-50 chance that warming is 2C or less. There is a nice article in GRL by Kyle Armour and Gerard Roe on the interplay of aerosol masking and climate sensitivity. –raypierre]

  23. flxible:

    re #20 – The XL pipeline would have no effect on the amount of oil China removes from the sand, they’ve already made massive investments there and will produce it regardless of the end user. Agree w/ raypierre, fear of China getting it if we don’t is myopic, but rather than fighting TransCanadaXL, it’s the Canadian and Alberta governments that need to be awakened.

  24. Jeff Green:

    Businesses are so successful at winning politically, that they have not had to pay external costs of emitting carbon into the atmosphere. A fair and honest system of paying for carbon and let the market decide if it wants tar sands or not. Not paying for co2 emissions, denying conseqences of AGW results in public protests. Its time for some of the carbon based industries to accept the reality of climate and work it into their business models. If Obama is elected, I believe he will enact the EPA to go ahead with their co2 plan. That in itself will drive down the value of oil sands to the United States.

  25. John Pollack:

    @16 “And there is no reason why a reasonable compromise cannot be achieved with respect to the sensitive regions the pipeline will pass through.”

    Except that Keystone will not compromise. They insist on putting a high pressure pipeline through the Nebraska Sand Hills, buried only 4 feet deep, in an area that is subject to blowouts, especially during droughts. Their Environmental Impact Statement completely ignored the issue, as well as an excellent paper on the subject. See here
    for the abstract. During the last megadrought, this area was active sand dunes, subject to movement of dunes over 10m high. A lousy place for a pipeline, even without the “end of game” carbon issue!

  26. Emanuele:

    I sincerely hope that you are not serious in maintaining the following:
    The peak warming is linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted
    It doesn’t matter much how rapidly the carbon is emitted
    The warming you get when you stop emitting carbon is what you are stuck with for the next thousand years
    The climate recovers only slightly over the next ten thousand years
    At the mid-range of IPCC climate sensitivity, a trillion tonnes cumulative carbon gives you about 2C global mean warming above the pre-industrial temperature.

    Even the lame IPCC does not try to maintain that warming due to anthropomorphic carbon emissions will result in linear warming. The accepted relationship is exponential.

    The warming effect lasting 1000 years is not at all the accepted truth, ie that CO2 has a atmospheric lifetime of 150 years and I believe that s an exaggeration.

    The climate only recovers slightly over the next 10,000 years. Excuse me just what were these people smoking to make that claim. the climate has changed considerably more than current trends, with out human intervention in as little as a century.

    Please the only trends that deal in absolutes ignores the fact that this figure is still a small percentage of total carbon budget for our home. The claim that the amount is cumulative is not confirmed by the facts.

    Why do you continue to print such nonsense. Will the warmers finally admit that their cause is lost, please!

    Emanuele Lombardi

    [Response: Yes, I’m seriously saying all that. You ought to try reading some of the literature sometime, including the National Research Council report on climate stabilization targets, available free for just clicking on the link. That summarizes the research on which my synopsis is based. You are confusing atmospheric concentration with emissions. Radiative forcing is logarithmic in concentration, but the concentration increases faster than linearly with emissions, since the more you emit, the less is taken up by the oceans and the more remains in the atmosphere. That effect turns out to cancel out the logarithmic behavior, giving you a nearly linear warming (at least up to about 5000 gigatonnes total emissions). All based on fairly simple carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium chemistry. –raypierre]

  27. Edward Greisch:

    Results: See:
    Beijing’s Desert Storm
    “The desert is sweeping into China’s valleys, choking rivers and consuming precious farm land. Beijing has responded with massive tree-planting campaigns, but the Great Green Walls may not be able to buffer the sand, which could cover the capital in a few years ”

    I got an email from the Sierra Club today about the Taylorville, Illinois coal to gas plant proposal:

    “Dear Edward,
    Your senator voted for Tenaska’s coal plant. Urge them to oppose dirty energy!

    Like a bad Frankenstein bill that just won’t die, the Taylorville Energy Center is back from the dead and looking for handouts from Illinois ratepayers like you again.
    Last Thursday in Springfield, a majority of senators voted to kill the expensive and dirty project and the bill failed. But a motion was filed to reconsider, and the bill will be back for a vote next week.
    Unfortunately, your senator voted to support this costly coal plant. Please make sure this risky project is dead once and for all: Contact your senator to share your disapproval and urge them to vote NO when it comes back next week.

    Sarah Gulezian
    Sierra Club Illinois”

    My guess is that it is easier to protest one pipeline than to protest the whole coal industry, but there are people protesting mountaintop removal and coal fired power plants.

  28. Edward Greisch:

    21 Balazs: We are not saying you have to go without the energy. We are only saying you can’t get it from burning carbon any more.

  29. Ernst K:

    “It’s like an alcoholic who says he’ll leave the vodka in the kitchen cupboard, but first just take one little sip.”

    “Developing just a little bit of the oil sands is like being a little bit pregnant. –raypierre”

    This is where we disagree completely. It is actually a major assumption of yours that developing oil sands to the tune of 4 or 5 million barrels per day implies that virtually the entire resource will be developed in a ~100 year time frame. Especially when you consider that any scenario where temperature increases are limited to 2 C or less imply that a lot of fossil fuel sources must remain largely untapped. If this kind of argument applies to oil sands, why not coal?

    Personally, I don’t believe that the oil sands will ever be developed at a rate much higher than 5 million barrels per day, primarily because at such a rate it won’t be possible to meet even current environmental standards, let alone the inevitable higher standards that will develop over the coming decades. That said, I don’t expect this to be a convincing argument unless you have personal knowledge of the politics and environmental regulations of Alberta, which is way too complicated an issue to cover in this forum (unfortunately).

    I would agree though that one of the more effective ways (if not the most effective) to limit the growth of Oil sands development is to limit the rate at which it can be delivered to its primary consumer, the US. The strategy makes sense, even if the rhetoric is often over the top. But I’m seriously concerned that the kind of arguments used in the Keystone debate don’t bode well for the prospect of a well-informed US electorate on what will be required to keep CO2 below about 450 ppm. I wish this kind of effort could be put towards a proper price on carbon, which is far more important.

    Also, its “University of Calgary” not “Calgary University” and you use the old spelling “Athabaska” at in your third last paragraph.

  30. Ross:

    Good analysis. But if I read it right, you ignore accelerating feedback effects:

    “This graph gives you an idea of what the Anthropocene climate looks like as . . . without even taking into account the possibility of carbon cycle feedbacks leading to a release of stored terrestrial carbon.”

    Any thought on how much incorporating this bit of reality would affect your conclusion re: Keystone XL? (Or did you already incorporate it in your assumption of “a 50-50 chance that climate sensitivity is at or below this value”?)

    [Response: No, unfortunately for all of us, the 50-50 chance only includes uncertainties in “fast” feedbacks like clouds and sea ice. It does include the inorganic feedback on the ocean carbon cycle (via carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium) but not the biological carbon cycle feedback. It’s possible that terrestrial sinks could continue to sop up and sequester some anthropogenic carbon, but there’s an owful lot of near-surface carbon and if that get’s oxidized at some point in the future, then we could be in even hotter water. –raypierre]

  31. Peter Adamski:

    Re: #1 Andrew Leach:

    Andrew, you do indeed cover many of these points in your blog post. You cover them again in a Globe and Mail op-ed, published early last June, where, in reference to Hansen and McKibben’s claim that the Keystone “could increase CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by up to 200 ppm,” you concluded that “even if the [Keystone] pipeline is built and in service for 100 years, it’s unlikely to lead to an increase of even 1/100th of that amount.

    Is it fair to say that you are in the “pipeline is no big deal camp?”

    [Response: I think McKibben’s “lights the fuse” metaphor is pretty apt. The one pipeline would be no big deal if there were some agreement that that’s all the oil that’s coming out of the sands, but how likely is that? One pipeline doubles the oil flowing to US refineries, generates more market, generates more capital to develop more oil sands, then demand for more pipelines and … well you get the picture. Hard to predict the future, but it’s hardly a trivial concern. –raypierre]

  32. Holly Stick:

    #6 Steve: As an Albertan, I think Schindler is correct that we are being cheated by our government which gives the stuff away far too cheaply. But we have little chance of getting rid of our petro-state provincial government anytime soon, and our current federal government is even worse, cutting funding for environmental monitoring and implementing other stupid, destructive policies.

    About the First Nations lands, though, it varies from place to place. Treaties 6 and 7 in central and southern Alberta, signed in 1876 and 1877, surrendered that land to the government of Canada. In 1887 the government first started to reserve subsurface rights from land grants in the prairie provinces, so Indian reserves which had been surveyed before then kept the subsurface rights, as did early homesteaders. Some of these First Nations have benefited a lot from the oil and gas under their lands, though there are also lawsuits against the federal government for its handling of the oil and gas money and royalties.

    Treaty 8 including northern Alberta was signed in 1899, so I think the reserves there would probably not have kept the subsurface rights unless that was specified in the treaty.

    Then there are the Lubicon Cree, who never signed the treaty and may have a legal claim to the land and subsurface rights. There’s a long story of failed negotiations there, but I’d say they are probably having their rights violated.

  33. Toby Thaler:

    #5 Mark J. Fiore asked about methal hydrates. I have also read enough (including on RC!) to have the same question. It would be very helpful if raypierre added them (and any other significant forcings/feedbacks likely to occur) to the calculations. Or explain why they are not significant factors.

  34. Holly Stick:

    Oh yes, and the idea of moving water from northern Alberta to dry southern Alberta has been around for decades, but no government was insane enough to try it. If Texas needs water, Texas should build desalination plants or something, because we don’t really have that much to spare for other countries.

  35. Craig Nazor:

    This is an excellent post – thanks, Raypierre!

    Jim Bullis and Mike Whitfield – It was the hottest summer ever measured in North America this year in Central Texas; there were 80+ days above 100ºF. We are seeing the continuation of the worst 1-year drought in Texas history. Our major water supply, the Colorado River, is down to less than 40% of capacity, and we are dealing with stage 2 water restrictions. At 11PM at night, it was regularly still above 90ºF for most of the summer. That’s just Central Texas. I really don’t want it to get any hotter.

    Is this anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC)? If it’s not, then it is exactly what the effects of AGCC will look like. But forget about the effects of AGCC for a minute.

    Developing the Athabascan Tar Sands has already destroyed over 680 sq. km. of boreal forest and muskeg swamps, and polluted billions of gallons of water. It has destroyed the habitat of many species of plants and animals, particularly boreal birds. (Winter birding, which includes many boreal birds, is a multi-million dollar business here in Texas.) Tar Sands pollution has caused increased rates of cancer in native people downstream from the open pits in Northern Canada. Refining tar sands oil in Texas will increase pollution in an area that already boasts elevated levels of cancer due to years of oil refinery pollution. Unfortunately, Enbridge’s record is not good when it comes to cleaning up after a pipeline spill:

    Of course, the fact that bitumin, rather than floating, sinks in water, unlike other forms of crude oil, doesn’t help.

    I went to the State Department hearing about the Keystone XL pipeline in Austin, Texas recently. The oil companies had bussed in hundreds of people to the hearing, and paid their expenses. They had arrived early in the morning. I arrived at 10:30AM, on my own time and own dime. The hearing started at noon. I didn’t get to speak until 4:30PM. Many opponents of the pipeline, who had taken the afternoon off of work to come to the hearing, didn’t get to speak at all. It was the most corrupt public hearing process I have ever witnessed, and I have attended many public hearings. I wonder why?

    Why would you want to support ANY of that?

  36. CM:

    So basically, if we assume the oil and gas are too irresistibly convenient to be left in the ground, within the trillion-ton target we could hypothetically still binge on oil sands if and only if we were to quit coal cold turkey. Well, with 43% of current world emissions from fuel combustion coming from coal (2009, IEA figures), we can forget about that.

    From the other side of the pond, my best wishes for the protesters and my sincere respect for Jim Hansen and others who have followed the dictates of their conscience into civil disobedience.

  37. tharanga:

    I have to disagree with the direction here. I think trying to block the pipeline is a silly tactic. If these materials are economically viable, then they will eventually find some other path out, and those paths might not be controlled by the US.

    Restricting supply is not the answer. It just won’t be a stable solution. Restricting demand is. Anyway, humans don’t just change from one resource to another because the first resource ran out – in fact, often, the first didn’t run out. They change because the alternative is somehow better.

    The key is to make the alternatives better through some sort of carbon price, however you want to implement that. If you go around assuming that every last economically-recoverable molecule of fossil fuel is burned, you’ll despair each time a new deposit is found wherever – deep sea, arctic, what have you. That isn’t a plan.

    I somehow doubt the administration has the authority to do such a thing, but I’d take a different approach: approve the pipeline under the condition that the producers pay some sort of penalty for the excess carbon used in processing this stuff, compared to conventional oil. Then, separate from this deal, continue to work on the financial incentives for using carbon in general.

  38. Balazs:

    In response to Ray and #28. I don’t see how fast trains would allow us to stay under the current 2000W/per capita energy use even if better transportation network would cut the energy cost of an AGU round trip by half. France’s 6000W/per capita energy use is still far away from living under 2000W.

    If we accept that energy use has to double or triple (just to offer comfortable life for developing nations) then all the calculation before (e.g. Socolow and Pacala’s wedges) fall apart that assumed a reduction of the current 15TW global energy use by improved energy efficiency. Jacobson and Delucchi calculated that the available solar energy over land is 6500TW. At 10% efficiency, 5% of the land should be covered by solar panels (wall-to-wall) to provide 30TW energy.

    Jacobson and Delucchi assumed that the bulk of the renewable energy would come from 3.8 million 5MW wind turbine (that would be 19TW rated capacity) providing half of the global energy demand at 11.5TW (that is 28% utilization which seems to be optimistic and the number I read so far where more around 10-20% at best). Concentrated solar taking up 0.192% land (6500TW*0.192%=12.5TW solar insolation) would provide 20% of the 11.5TW (2.3TW) which assumes 18% efficiency capturing solar energy. Once you double and triple these numbers to meet more realistic energy needs and lower your expectation to more realistic efficiencies (5-10% solar and 10-20% wind), renewables become less attractive.

    If we pause for a moment on the 3.8 million wind turbine, that by itself would be an enermous infrastructure. I could not find numbers how much a 5MW wind turbine weights, but I have seen 150 ton 1.5TW wind turbines. That is the equivalent of 100 passenger car so 3.8 million wind turbine weight about the same as 380 million car (compared to the 1 billion, which is on the road today including trucks). I suspect, building the necessary power lines to connect these wind turbines would double that weight.

    Jacobson and Delucchi: Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials, Energy Policy, 2011

  39. Shan:

    Preventing the construction of this pipeline will not stop development of the oil sands, probably not even delay it by very much. It’s a nice symbolic gesture, but in itself it won’t accomplish much in the way of avoiding carbon emissions. It might even increase them, as the alternatives are less efficient. In the short run the pipeline would let the oil companies get better prices for their product, so they’d like you to believe it’s absolutely necessary to the continued health of their industry; but in the long run, it really isn’t.

    Without the pipeline, various things might happen. The oil will get shipped by truck or by rail to the gulf coast. It will go by by truck, rail, or pipeline to the west coast to be exported to China. More of it will be sent to east-coast refineries that currently import oil by tanker. More refineries will be built in the region served by current pipelines.

    That the black stuff will be left in the ground seems about the least likely outcome.

  40. Danny Yee:

    There’s a litre of rat poison on the table. If your child drinks 200 ml of it there’s a 50% chance they will die. They ask for permission to drink 1 ml of it. This has almost no chance of killing them, or even making them very sick, and it might taste nice. Do you let them?

  41. Ernst K:


    “Oh, and actually it’s mostly lands that were given to first nations through treaties many years ago, which means the Provincial and Federal Canadian governments are also shredding their treaty obligations in the rush to hand over the exploitation rights in a massive firesale.”

    The land is question was never “given to first nations”. If anything it was given by the first nations to Queen Victoria (but that’s not quite right either). The land being developed is essentially all crown land (i.e owned by the government and primarily administered by the province of Alberta). None of the oil sands mines are on reservation land.

    However, Treaty 8 grants first nations the right to hunt, trap, and fish their traditional lands in perpetuity and the land in question is pretty much all traditional lands for one first nation or another. Obviously, you can’t hunt of fish in a mine.

    This doesn’t mean that any mine is by definition a violation of treaty rights, but the federal and provincial governments are required to conduct meaningful consultation with first nations affected and the first nations have significant rights that can potentially be enforced by court action. Also, courts appear to be becoming more sympathetic to the first nation’s positions every year, although the process is quite slow because these cases take a long time to work their way of the chain.

    It is not clear right now at what point oil sands development will cross some legal threshold into an outright treaty violation because the courts haven’t worked through all this yet. However, it’s difficult for me to imagine how this line won’t be crossed if expansion continues to develop beyond the current plans for 5 million barrels per day development levels, if not sooner.

  42. David Keith:


    I didn’t say that Keystone XL was no big deal. I hope it is canceled both for the worlds climate and because in the long run it will be better for the people of Alberta.

    Have said, in the technology review piece and elsewhere, that Keystone is in some respects an odd choice for the environmental movement to draw a line in the sand. Cutting emissions for American coal-fired power is cheaper and would have far larger environmental side benefits. In the long run I don’t think we will succeed in getting transportation of oil by trying to stop oil production on a site-by-site basis, we are going to have to put a high price on transportation fuels that have high carbon emissions and get much more serious about driving energy innovation they can get the transportation system off carbon.

    Another minor correction, my academic affiliation is Harvard not UofC I switched a few months back.


    [Response: Thanks for the clarification, but whoevever wrote the headline on your Tech Review article didn’t seem to pick that up from your article. That reads “Controversy over a proposed oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas is sidetracking us from bigger issues,” which would seem to put you in the no-big-deal camp with regard to the pipeline itself. Thanks also for the news on your new affiliation. Sometimes it seems academics move around more than baseball players, so it’s hard to keep current. –raypierre]

  43. Noel:

    As always, an excellent article. I appreciate how you are careful to show that you avoid double-counting emissions. It is a nice contrast to the “skeptics” who typically double-count the cost of avoiding emissions, while often claiming we can’t even realistically estimate them.

  44. clv101:

    @20 Balazs – good point! As climate scientists we really should be making more of an effort to live the lives our data tells us we must. This was addressed in a recent article in Weather:

    Making our actions consistent with our scientific predictions, Thompson, E. (2011)

  45. Earl Killian:

    @raypierre (22) Would you say then that the conclusions of the National Research Council report contradict the calculations presented in Ramanathan and Feng (PNAS September 2008), which asserted that emissions up to 2005 had already resulted in a 2.4°C (1.4°C to 4.3°C) warming without aerosols. Was that paper incorrect?

    [Response: I wouldn’t want to criticize my colleagues without adequate space to give the scientific justification, but aside from that you need to remember what I said about the contribution from non-CO2 radiative forcing to date (and unlike CO2, the methane radiative forcing is largely reversible, so I myself don’t count that the same way as CO2 radiative forcing). But for a more complete story on the implications of aerosol masking I’d suggest looking at the Armour and Roe GRL paper. –raypierre]

  46. SecularAnimist:

    The bigger picture is that Keystone XL represents a commitment to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely, and, in order to do so, to commit ourselves to extracting increasing amounts of increasingly destructive and polluting forms of fossil fuels. It’s that choice of direction that really means “game over” for any hope of avoiding globally catastrophic warming.

  47. CM:

    Tharanga (#47),

    Great tactical advice. How about you sell Congress on carbon pricing first, and then the pipeline protesters go home and let the market sort it out?

  48. jhm:

    I don’t think I’ve seen that chart before (or if I have, I certainly wasn’t paying close enough attention).

    If I have your numbers aright (a dangerous assumption, granted), added to an already emitted 500 GtC,
    139 GtC from oil,
    100 GtC from Gas,
    230 GtC from Canadian tar sands,
    846 GtC from coal, bringing this fossil fuel total to circe 1,800 GtC. My question is: what are the additional contributors of carbon that could push us into the 4,000 GtC range? how would these be unleashes/avoided?

    [Response: The coal number I quoted from Nehring is economically recoverable coal. In addition, there are known, or proven, deposits that are not economically recoverable at present prices. But to get numbers like 4000 or 5000 gigatonnes, you have to go into the diffuse territory called coal “resources” which amount to coal that somebody for some reason things is out there, but hasn’t yet been discovered. It turns out that the methodology for estimating coal “resources” varies widely, and in some cases is not at all geologically rigorous. It’s fair to say that any number beyond the proven reserves is, at present, speculative. Besides coal, there is also quite a lot of carbon in shale oil (a different thing from oil sands). I haven’t yet sorted out the peer reviewed literature on that, so I don’t want to quote any numbers, but shale oil is another of those unconventional petroleum deposits that need to stay in the ground if we are to avoid hitting a trillion tonnes. –raypierre]

  49. Andrew Leach:

    In response to Peter Adamski’s comment above, I would say that I am in the, “pipeline is no big deal” camp – here’s why. The pipeline itself, on a life-cycle basis, will carry product with an annual contribution of 165 Mt/yr, assuming it’s all SAGD oilsands at the high-end of steam-oil ratios. Under the most generous assumptions, whereby you assume the oil transported by Keystone XL would not be either shipped elsewhere or replaced with some other source, then this represents an incremental change on the order of fractions of a percent of global emissions.

    Of course, neither of the above assumptions are likely to be true, since global oil supply and demand elasticity are not zero – alternative sources (some cleaner, some not) will replace some oil not produced if you could prevent oil sands production, and some reduction will occur in total global oil demand. My personal feeling is that the best estimates of the incremental impact of KXL are in the mid-range of the State Department estimates, or the lower end of the EPA range – 10-15 Mt/yr of incremental emissions. It’s small.

    The issue, as @raypierre points out, is how you view the “lighting the fuse” argument. I’ve written a little bit on this here ( I think you need to separate the causal effect from the correlation. Yes, Alberta’s oilsands expansion plans will require more pipelines, but the question is whether building Keystone XL makes those pipelines easier or harder to build and whether it enables more expansion than would otherwise occur as a result. There’s a case to be made that building on an existing right-of-way is easier than a greenfield one, but beyond that it’s hard to see how you are lighting a fuse to anything. The only way you can assume that is if you believe there will somehow be a meaningful effect on the physical access to oil or a meaningful discount offered to the US below world prices on Canadian oil supply. We’re nice, but not that nice. Here’s a little more on that:

    Finally, and this I think is the crucial point, is that you can’t treat blocking KXL as a proxy for climate policy even if you believe that KXL would not be viable under an appropriate global carbon policy. It would do you all well to keep in mind that the reason we have oilsands development in the first place is that there is a shortage of supply of cheap, easy, conventional oil. Limiting the supply of less easy, more expensive, unconventional oil doesn’t drive people to low carbon alternatives in and of itself – it drives them to the next best substitute with no carbon-based preferences. On the merit order of substitutes for oilsands, the next best things are generally comparable (GTL) or higher (CTL) carbon emissions per barrel of oil. I’m 100% in agreement with David Keith’s point above – if you are going to draw a line in the sand, draw it around emissions which are easily reduced at lowest cost, and for which the next best alternatives are ALL lower carbon. Coal power meets all of those criteria.


  50. Andrew Leach:

    Follow up:

    Your quote on mapping resources to reserves takes some figures out of context. You quote a paper from the National Petroleum Council which, “estimates that Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage could recover up to 70% of oil-in-place at a cost of below $20 per barrel.” That’s absolutely true on an individual project, but not at all true over the entire resource base. Recovery rates of original oil in place for mining operations are much higher than 70%, but these recovery rates can’t be extended over the entire resource base – hence why much of the resource base is not included in reserve numbers. There are certainly techniques in development which could dramatically increase recoverable reserves, including electro-thermal extraction which accesses deposits too deep to mine but to shallow for SAGD, deploying SAGD in carbonate resources, etc. Reserves will certainly increase with technology, but scaling up reserves to anywhere near 70% of 1.7 trillion barrels with SAGD is not on the horizon.

    [Response: The point of that quote was not to say that all 1.7 trillion barrels should be added to economically recoverable reserves right now, but to just point out the pace of extraction technology, so taking the stance that they’ll never be able to get all that oil out anyway is not a very sound position. The first oil drillers probably never envisioned secondary, let alone tertiary recovery methods. –raypierre]

  51. Laurie:

    @raypierre’s response in 19 [Response: The comment about the Chinese is a red herring. …]

    Unfortunately raypierre you have it wrong in this case. The real red herring here is XL Pipeline. People are duped into believing that stopping the XL pipeline will make a difference when the real problem is the use of coal generated power plants around the world to meet an unrestrained world demand for electricity.

  52. Dan Arles:

    Seriously? You realize that if it doesn’t go via Keystone, it will be pumped west and go to China and other countries in Asia who are starving for oil. In other words, it won’t remain “in the ground” regardless of whether Keystone is built. Would you rather have it shipped in from the Middle East instead? That is where your argument takes us to.

  53. Chris Colose:


    Is there a reason for the spike in global temperature out at ~4000-6000 yr for the relatively low emission scenarios, after the T anomaly has already begun to decay? It’s only a couple of tenths of a degree, but I imagine there’s a reason for a model produced it.

    [Response: Oh, those spikes. Somebody else mentioned it earlier but I didn’t know which graph he was talking about. In the UVic model, they come from flushing events in the southern ocean, which affect ocean heat uptake and release. They haven’t been studied much, and the UVic ocean model is fairly low resolution, so I wouldn’t put a lot of credence in these fluctuations. They are interesting, though, and need to be followed up in full ocean-atmosphere GCM’s. –raypierre]

  54. harrywr2:

    estimates that world economically recoverable coal amounts to 846 gigatonnes, based on 2005 prices and technology.

    Those estimates ignore the fact that coal mine productivity has been falling since 2000. 25% in the US and the numbers are even more grim elsewhere.

    A single US coal miner produces 12,600 tons of coal per year. His Chinese counterpart produces 505 tons per year.

    Nuclear,wind and hydro are already cheaper then burning coal in most of the world. What is lacking is the industrial and human infrastructure required to roll them out quickly and effectively.

  55. Mike H:

    The tar sands will be developed and mostly exported to world markets. If Keystone is scrapped, the oil will go to China and other countries. If absolutely necessary, the oil will be refined in Alberta with products exported to the U.S. Possible groundwater contamination is a separate and important issue, but people who think the tar sands will stay in the ground if they protest loud enough are delusional.

  56. tamino:

    An important factor seems to be unappreciated. While it’s probably true that if we nix the pipeline, the tar sands oil will end up shipped elsewhere, there’s still a meaningful social, political, and psychological impact if the U.S. rejects the pipeline because of climate change. It’ll be the very first time the U.S. said “no” in a situation where it really amounted to anything.

    The minutemen at Lexington and Concord didn’t make any real dent in the British military dominance of the American colonies — but they did indeed fire the “shot heard round the world.”

  57. SecularAnimist:

    Mike H wrote: “If Keystone is scrapped, the oil will go to China and other countries.”

    And if Keystone is built, the oil will go to China and other countries. That’s the whole point of building a pipeline to the Gulf Coast where facilities for refining and exporting the oil already exist.

    Raypierre is correct that the issue of who ultimately burns the tar sands oil — China, the US or whoever — is irrelevant. It makes absolutely NO difference to the Earth’s climate.

    So, those who are offering the argument that “without Keystone XL the oil will go to China” are really arguing that “somebody, somewhere, is going to extract and burn the tar sands oil, no matter what”.

    Which may well be true. In which case, I think James Hansen is right — it’s “game over” for any hope of avoiding globally catastrophic warming. Not only because of the direct impacts of Keystone, which this RC article addresses — but because of what that scenario implies for the trajectory of GHG emissions from all fossil fuels over the next decade.

    We need to stop burning ALL fossil fuels as quickly as possible. If, instead, we are going to go full tilt into digging up and burning as much of the worst, most destructive, most toxic and polluting fossil fuels as possible, then we can forget about “stabilizing” the atmosphere at the already dangerous levels of CO2 that we have today.

  58. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Re #17 response by moderator jim, and #17

    As I tried to point out previously, there is a complicated situation to consider.

    It would be very helpful to market development of a very efficient car if the oil sands was blocked and coal mining stopped. Prices of both gasoline and electricity would go up and there would be higher demand for the such a car. Electric vehicles such as we now are seeing emerge will be costly to operate without great subsidies, and public tolerance of such subsidies will hit its limit. So if there is to be mobility, it would depend on very efficient forms thereof. And that is a market I could find very profitable.

    However, I take no comfort in such foolish prospects. Though it might be a great business climate for Miastrada products, the economy could be so miserable there would be little left of the devoped world life to enjoy.

    [Response: Jim, I think you could have your cake and eat it more easily than you think. Sweden has a much lower per-capita carbon emission than the US, their economy is booming and innovative, and if you take a look around Medborgarplatsen on a Saturday night you don’t get much feeling that those people are having a miserable time of it. Denmark also experienced strong economic growth even during periods when they were making progress on carbon emissions, though the recent economic crisis has to some extent put on the brakes. France is a somewhat similar example, in that people seem to be having a grand old time and enjoying life despite their per capita carbon emissions being only a quarter of the US. It’s not as clear cut an example though, since there is high unemployment and some signs of stagnation in their economy. Those who know France, though, know there are lots of other factors at play besides energy policy. –raypierre ]

  59. Andy S:

    Despite what some people here and oil company representatives say, if Keystone XL is scrapped it is actually unlikely that the bitumen will instead go to China. The political opposition in British Columbia to the Northern Gateway through Kitimat and expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through Vancouver is much stronger than any opposition to KXL in the US. Native groups oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline and BC voters are firmly opposed to the prospect of 200 supertankers per year through the pristine fjords and islands of BC’s north coast. The Kinder Morgan proposal will involve increased tanker traffic through Vancouver (“Canada’s greenest city” and where the current mayor has expressed opposition to the project) and the Gulf Islands (where Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party was recently elected). See here and here. So, the argument that scrapping Keystone won’t make a difference is simply not true. Bitumen exports from Alberta will be restricted.

    To be sure, preventing Keystone won’t shut down bitumen extraction in Alberta but it will slow it down, which is second best.

  60. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    #10 moderator jim

    Yes, the operative word is ‘fantasies’.

    It is a question relative to the notion that fossil fuel based energy sources can be stopped by appeals based on climate change threat.

    It is also a question relative to the notion that technologies such as solar, wind, and electric vehicles are viable when they require on-going subsidies to support their existence. (Quick start subsidies can be ok — note the distinction from ‘on-going’.)

    Things that I fantisize on are first contingent on a prospect of economic merit, at least some hope thereof. Big thinking, especially out-of-the-box big thinking, is easily dismissed as fantasizing.

    So what about revisiting the possibility of widespread stimulation of plankton, even though there was an experiment showing some eating of the plankton by zooplankton? (I have no sense of confidence in my spelling here.) The revisiting needs to be with intent to work with the observed realities and still accomplish results. (And by the way, the formation of calcite shelled creatures in warmer waters might not be as well estimated as a CO2 capturing process in general- – and yes, I understand the concern about reduced alkalinity of sea water due to CO2.)

    Economic merit here is that such stimulating of plankton sounds like an inexpensive process that could be justified more easily than most endeavors by international agencies. Ensuing growth of fisheries could be a benefit to justify such action.

    [Response: There is actually a lot of ongoing work on plankton stimulation by iron fertilization as a means of accelerating ocean uptake of CO2. One of the issues there is that it is very hard to demonstrate that any CO2 that disappears from the upper ocean is actually buried in the deep ocean, rather than at fairly shallow depths where it comes back within decades. There are questions about the effects fertilization would have on ocean ecosystems (the Gulf dead zone being a good example of too much fertilization being a not so good thing), but people are indeed working on it. My personal take is that the area that is underfunded is direct air capture, which would be a real game-changer. There is work on this, but not at the scale that would be justified by its potential importance if it ever becomes possible. Nobody should bet on direct air capture and sequestration to solve the problem, since the technology is so uncertain, but I think it belongs in the portfolio of research since it’s one of the things that could conceivably come through for us (even though it would be foolish to bet the house on that possibility). –raypierre]

    [Response: I’m not apriori against any potential solution. However, generalized rule #1 of ecosystem manipulation, learned the hard way from much past experience, is: don’t alter important drivers unless you know exactly what you’re doing, because you will be likely be surprised at what happens, relative to what you thought was going to happen.–Jim]

  61. SecularAnimist:

    Jim Bullis wrote: “Electric vehicles such as we now are seeing emerge will be costly to operate without great subsidies”

    I see no reason to think that. On the contrary there is every reason to believe that electric cars can be, and will be, dirt cheap to purchase and to operate.

    The electric cars “such as we now are seeing” are the first generation. The original 1981 IBM PC (with an 8 Mhz 8-bit processor, 64 Kilobytes of RAM, a single 360 Kilobyte floppy drive and no hard drive, and a monochrome text display!) cost over $7000 in today’s dollars. Look what you can get today for one twentieth of that amount.

    As with personal computers, electric cars designed around industry-standard form factors and interfaces, and economies of scale will drive down prices, even without the technological “breakthroughs” (eg. dramatically improved batteries) that are already in development.

  62. Susan Anderson:

    The argument that stopping Keystone XL is a variant on an increasingly common argument that since doing anything will not be fully successful immediately (springing from the head of Zeus, so to speak) we should do nothing. People should beware that the many-headed hydra of the fake skeptic PR machine is constantly developing new ways to divert the conversation. Secular Animist (among others) has covered the specifics above but in general getting us all to go down these tempting byways is part of the game. Doing nothing protects massive subsidies to existing profit centers and minimal subsidies to clean energy. I don’t need to mention that the latter is exactly what we need, sooner than soon.

    Aside from the physical benefits of not creating a massive and probably dangerous pipeline 1700 miles long to bring extreme fuel to a port where it will be exported worldwide (Canadian firm is already working on “taking” individual properties, thanks to our wonderful Supreme Court who ruled some years ago that it’s OK to use eminent domain for profit.)

    Anyone who hasn’t seen it would do well to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article:

    It is simply not true that the project is not highly destructive. There were wildfires nearby this year too (Slave Lake). Zooming in on the map you can easily see the scars of the tar sands project.

  63. wili:

    An important discussion here, but we should broaden it to the larger picture.

    Transporting ffs is bad.

    Burning ffs is bad.

    Extracting ff is bad.

    Of course, opening up whole new areas of ever-dirtier ff is particularly bad, but really we have to be marching in earnest in the direction of ever less (and ultimately essentially no) extraction, transport or burning of any sort of ff.

    We are already way past the safety zone of 350 ppm (probably itself too high). We need to be planning and enacting ways to cease any more UN-sequestering of stored carbon and working toward effective ways to draw down the current, too-high CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

    We should not even have to discuss whether this pipeline is a good idea. Instead, we should be figuring how to very rapidly stop all use of ff in ways that causes very bad negatively effects the fewest people.

    But as Gore said long ago, the politics is in a very different place than the science is.

  64. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    re #58 raypierre inline

    I quite appreciate the value of studying other countries ways.

    Some key differences though, France does half the CO2 that we do by having undertaken nuclear power on an overwhelming scale. They also embrace far more diesel vehicles, smaller at that than here in the USA. Shorter travel distances exist, and much higher gasoline and diesel prices are clearly wiser government policy. Note that we can’t even manage to cut off the oil depletion allowance, which I see as a far more likely event than anything curtailing oil and coal on a more significant scale.

    Could we transition to a way of life as accepting of austerity as the Danes and Swedes seem to accept? Lifestyles there are not unappealing, though I suggest this notion is the greatest fantasy of the day, since it would require erasing of the USA distributed living and working arrangements that most have chosen.

    Recently having seen Bergen Norway it was surprising to note that that city moved from a urban system confined by mountains to a suburban system with multiple tunnels through the mountains as soon as big money from oil showed up in the National coffers. My point is that people really choose distributed living when they have the option. So applying this rule to the USA, where the choices were made long ago, it must be seen as a difficult and unlikely notion that this would be reversed.

    [Response: You are very misinformed about the Danes and Swedes. I have spent a lot of time living in Sweden, and “austerity” is not a word I would apply to their style of life. (That was partly the point of my remark about Medborgarplatsen, but if you haven’t spent time down in Söder, maybe that remark went past you and a lot of others). Affordable medical care, a transit system that gets you comfortably where you want to go, good livable urban design, great restaurants, countryside in proximity to cities, two months vacation, paid time off for more than a year for child care, widespread ownership of summer cottages, time off at holidays to spend with family, well gee if that’s austerity, I wouldn’t mind a bit more of it. –raypierre]

  65. Holly Stick:

    #62 Susan Actually, despite its name, TransCanada is an American company:

  66. JCG:

    Re: what happens to our quality of life if we remove oil from the energy equation? One man’s real-life experience: I purchased a Nissan Leaf and have PV panels on my roof which provide all my house and Leaf energy (~10K kWh). Given that I needed a new car anyway, I ignore the $350/mo lease for the Leaf. But, I do know that I have an extra $250 to $300/mo in my pocket because I do not pay Costco for gas any more. This $250-300/mo plus the $100/mo I save on my house electric bill has an ROI for the PV in about 3 years. After that I have free energy for the house and car. I kept the ’97 Ford Escort as the back up gas-car, which is rarely used. My financial bottom line is better, my quality of life is at least the same, if not better. Does that translate to your situation? I do not know, but the calculations are a lot easier than those for climate models, that’s for sure!

  67. Holly Stick:

    Andrew Nikiforuk on some of these issues:

    “…Environment Canada estimates that total carbon emissions from the oil sands will likely grow from 49 million tonnes today to 92 million tonnes by 2020. At that point the dirty industry will surpass the emissions of Canada’s buildings, agriculture or entire passenger car fleet. It will also exceed the carbon emission of more than half of 50 U.S. states south of the border…”

    Andrew Leach tends to argue that Nikiforuk gets some things wrong, but I think he has a lot to say that is valuable.

  68. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    60 raypierre inline

    Thanks for info on plankton studies. On that, why does it matter where the calcite from plankton ends up? Deep ocean is great of course, since there it would be out of reach of being digested in acidic stomachs, if that was an issue.

    Direct capture of CO2 from air seems hard to imagine on a scale that would matter. And after capture, what? I am aware of an attempted Wind Fuels project that would utilize excess electric energy from wind sources in a process that captured CO2 and turned out motor fuel in the process. I think they would be grabbing more concentrated CO2 from power plant stacks. The CO2 would be returned to the air of course, but the net gain would be in oil not burned. Even here, the net CO2 removal rate is not huge.

    #60 jim (moderator) inline:

    I quite agree about hazards of tinkering. Here though, I see the various economies of the world, developed and otherwise, as being ecosystems themselves. The question of the day is whether actions that seem intended to cancel the Industrial Revolution are not tinkering of a serious sort also.

    Whether there will ever be complete certainty in generalized action, I doubt. But some element of risk is probably necessary for any right action to come about. Finding a balance in judgments about such things is not going to be easy.

  69. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    61 Secular Animist

    Uh, not again, the Moore’s Law for electronics being applied to cars?

    Start the Moore counter in 1900 when electric cars were well defined, and not that much different than now. We should be zipping about like space age fantasies like to show it, you know, ‘beam me up Scotty’.

    Moore’s law has not even been relevant for power semiconductors, which have also not changed on that scale since the power MOSFETs of 1960s.

    Electric motors? Tesla Motors uses the 100 year old Nikolai Tesla invented induction motor. Brushless DC motors utilize power semiconductor switching to make a real improvement, though brushes are not all that bad.

    Dirt cheap? Uh, look at the economics of Lithium. In modest quantities it can be produced from a few (maybe two) mountain lakes in Chile-Argentina area. Getting it out of its abundant resting places is vastly more expensive. That is the biggest impediment to dirt cheap. The other is that the moving mass of the car as we know it is costly for many reasons not related to its engine size, or its motor in the electric form.

    But the real problem is that fundamental energy required to quickly move the customary bluff body is large, whether it comes from a heat engine carried in the car or a heat engine in a central power plant.

    Yes, an electric motor in a vastly different body form has possibilities that could be quite inexpensive – – not ‘dirt cheap’ though.

  70. Barry Saxifrage:

    Re: electric vs gasoline car affordability. I think it is humorous that people who argue that oil-burning cars are less expensive than electric cars manage to exclude the cost of that oil.

    Here is the cost to buy gasoline up here in Canada for a fuel sipping Honda Civic:

    $15k at 2000 Canada prices
    $20k at 2006 Canada prices
    $30k at current Canada prices
    $50k at current UK prices
    $55k at current Netherlands prices

    For a big SUV like the kind that clog our streets today, double those numbers to $60k – $110k for gasoline alone. And note that this doesn’t count the cost of the car itself.

    So an SUV today runs over $110k for car plus gas and somehow the Leaf is too expensive?

    With gas prices heading ever upwards and record oil profits linked to rising oil prices, you don’t need Moore’s Law to see electric cars as the future even if all you care about is lowest cost.

  71. Andrew Park:

    Nice post; I am confused about one thing though. Why does it not matter how fast the Carbon is emitted. Surely, it must matter, because we have soem sinks, including vegetation, soils, and ultimatley the gradual burial of dep sediments. The rate at which carbon is emitted will surely affect the imbalance between emissions and the rate of uptake by the various sinks. Doesn’t a faster rate of emissions ultimately mean faster rise in atmospheric concentration?

    [Response: Faster emissions growth does give you a faster temperature increase, but with fixed net emissions, doesn’t much affect the climate you wind up with at the end. Even the effect on rate of temperature increase is somewhat muted by the response time of the ocean. The Journal of Climate paper by Eby et al (cited in the NAS study I linked) has some nice comparisons of instantaneous emission vs. gradual emissions, that make the point well. –raypierre]

  72. MMM:

    “One of the issues there is that it is very hard to demonstrate that any CO2 that disappears from the upper ocean is actually buried in the deep ocean, rather than at fairly shallow depths where it comes back within decades.”

    Another issue is depletion of phosphorus and other nutrients in the water… so you fertilize in one region which was iron-limited (but phosphorus rich), see local CO2 uptake, call it quits, and not only does the CO2 that got gobbled up come out decades later, but somewhere dozens of miles downstream, you’re getting reduced plankton growth and reduced uptake because the incoming water is now phosphorus depleted.

    Yeah. Messing with ecosystems is all about the unintended consequences.

  73. Susan Anderson:

    Thanks Holly Stick, can’t go back and fix it but if I could I would. That’s interesting, but selfish greed is international and lives are being destroyed. I got some stuff from the NYTimes and was too lazy to get the link. I was appalled at the idea that people are already losing their properties – the one I remember was Texas but there were at least a couple of others.

    What Tamino said:
    @156 3 Nov 2011 at 1:12 PM

  74. Craig Nazor:

    I would like to point out (since he is not responding to me directly) that Jim Bullis’ statement:

    “It is also a question relative to the notion that technologies such as solar, wind, and electric vehicles are viable when they require on-going subsidies to support their existence. (Quick start subsidies can be ok — note the distinction from ‘on-going’.)”

    is based on a hidden fallacy. That fallacy is that the price of carbon-based fuels actually reflects their true costs to human society. As long as people like Jim Bullis deny these costs and don’t support pricing fuels based on the damage they do to the environment, carbon-based fuels will always be cheaper than cleaner technologies. It is a circular argument, so that those companies with huge infrastructure investments in carbon-based fuels can continue to maximize profits while continuing to avoid paying for the damage those fuels cause to the environment.

    Which is why it is so important that expensive infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline never gets built.

  75. Barry Saxifrage:

    To get a sense of the size of Alberta’s oilsands reserves, they contain five times more carbon than all of Canada’s coal reserves.

    That compares what is currently economically recoverable using existing technology for both Alberta oilsands (72 GtCO2) vs Canada’s coal (13 GtCO2).

    The oilsands have twice as much carbon that can be recovered using current technology but need a higher oil price to make economic. What is the chance of oil prices going up?

    And the head of Shell estimates oilsands could release over 1,000 GtCO2 with new technology.

    In 1990 the carbon extracted from the oilsands equalled 3% of the carbon burned in US coal plants. Today the oilsands have exploded to 14% of US coal burning.

    The oilsands industry has plans for 10% increase in carbon extraction per year, leading to 6m barrels a day by 2035 which would be over one GtCO2 annual by then just from one carbon source in one part of Alberta. All fossil fuel burning in Canada today is about half that much.

    McKibben is exactly right this this is a “carbon bomb” exploding. Hansen is correct that adding a new carbon bomb of that size to the carbon cycle is “game over”.

    For all those folks who say Canada won’t allow it all to be sold, all I can say is fine, have Canada set a sane maximum limit on total carbon that will ever be allowed out of the oilsands. The fact they refuse to discuss such a limit tells you everything you need to know about how safe it is to let this project explode any more than it already is.

  76. Miguelito:

    I’ve got no love for the oil sands and would rather have them stop production from it, largely because the world doesn’t need another source of any scalable oil, not just bitumen-based oil. Having said this, focusing on Keystone as a way to stop oil sands production is probably not the way we should be going about this, for numerous reasons.

    1) Far more of the emissions come from burning the gasoline and not the upstream production of the bitumen. This whole Keystone-focused opposition is a very large investment of time and resources for only a small reduction in overall emissions, simply the gap in the market would be filled with oil would originating from somewhere else. This time and effort could probably be far better spent on something else (more later)

    2) As has been said elsewhere, the bitumen and synthetic crude oil (SCO) will find another way to a market whether in North America or internationally. Commonly cited is China through ports on the west coast of Canada, with the bitumen getting there via pipelines. Sure, it’s not slam dunk that the pipelines will get approved by the federal regulator (there is tremendous opposition, including from pretty much every First Nation along the pipeline routes and who uses the coastal waters), but should the regulator deny the application because of the opposition, the federal cabinet as the power to overrule the regulator and, currently, is very pro-business. Almost certainly, there will be pipelines to the west coast of Canada. It’s been a growing key message of theirs over the past few years.

    Alternatively, the crude can be shipped via rail anywhere in North America, west coast, Gulf Coast, and east coast. And once it gets to the Mississippi River, it can get down to the Gulf Coast via ships.

    3) Far more efficient is to simply reduce demand for oil through big-P policy making. How did the world reduce CFC production? By going after individual projects? By targeting infrastructure? No. It simply banned them. Something similar can happen for oil by levying carbon taxes. Make it more expensive to use and the market will sort it out pretty quickly about where we get our oil from.

    I should also say that, unless demand is attacked, oil consumption will continue to rise. As we’re finding out with tight oil now in the Bakken, as is being applied across North America and will certainly be applied around the world, there’s no shortage of oil to burn. Big-P policy making can take care of this in one fell swoop, by discouraging the use of any oil. Frankly, this is where we should be spending our time and energy.

    [Response: I don’t see the point you are making in #1. My carbon accounting includes both the carbon released by the fuel user plus the upstream production emissions, with most of the focus on the former. –raypierre]

  77. Pete best:

    Americans and Europeans should conserve and consume less fossil fuel energy. Demand 60 mpg cars, eat less meat, invest in renewables and cut usage whilst driving up efficiency and even work from
    Home if u can

  78. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Re #76 Miguelito,

    It looks to me like you are correct in your #1. It looks like raypierre is thinking that by stopping the pipeline this will also stop use of oil in the amount that the pipeline would carry, including like oil from elsewhere. Your premise that the oil will simply come from elsewhere is entirely realistic. In raypierre’s words, ‘carbon released by the fuel user’, this is the the constant in the situation.

    So yes, it is a practical matter that there must be measures that reduce the demand if any progress is to be expected.

  79. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    re #77 Pete best

    Fantasiast Bullis suggests actually accomplishing the goal for CO2 reduction from vehicles with a goal of 150 MPGE (honest equivalent for electric vehicles) for automobiles. Similar reductions for trucks are also on the Fantasia plan. It is a frightening thing indeed to see how this sort of thing could be accomplsihed at the miastrada web site. You add the dot com part. (Nothing for sale – – it is only a marketing study at this point.)

  80. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Re#70 Barry Saxifrage,

    I am not sure if you are thinking electricity is free.

    But it is really cheap now; guess why, it is because the cost of electricity the world over is pegged by the cost of coal. Electricity from renewables is ‘free’- – of course you know better.

    Renewables as a source of electricity do not even figure in the equation since they are not remotely close to being in a position to handle load variations such as would be involved with electric vehicles. Natural gas power generation exists with reserve capacity that can handle this added demand, but only as long as cost of that is very low can governments trick rate payers into paying the extra cost of using such. And we might expect that tolerance for such burdens will diminish as the economy worsens.

    So when I see future costs, as long as coal is the cost driver, you are right, electric vehicles will be cheap. So it could be an easy change, and look for plug-in SUVs to be coming soon. (But not until batteries get cheap; that is the real cost impediment for now.)

    As far as CO2 goes, this is not a good thing.

  81. timg56:

    I’m curious if you have any concern regarding credibility? You giving so much weight to the opinion of Bill McKibben calls this into question. Professor McKibben is certainly well known and has written extensively on issues related to the environment, but by his own account is an activist not a working scientist.

    Were someone with solid academic credentials, like McKibben’s, come out with a report, or statement saying that the potential health and environmental risks of the project were minimal, would you as readily accept that position? To not recognize that a well known environmental activist has as much of an agenda as someone funded by an oil company is in my opinion evidence of either great naivity or reflective of having one’s own agenda.

    I also was caught by a reply in the comments section where you refer to high speed trains as found in France. I recall seeing recently in the news that the project in California is way behind schedule and already exceeded budget by 100%. Which is not surprising with even the barest understanding of our nations rail transportation system or for anyone who has ever had to get any sort of infrastructure project built over long distances. Just as with the fuel cell car – where the properties of H2 require a complete rebuilding of the nation’s fuel distribution and supply infrastructure – basic engineering and financial issues exist which will not disappear simply because we manage to stop all carbon combustion.

    People who have to deal with supplying the nation’s energy have to deal with these problems. I don’t think McKibben cares. But then he can afford not to care.

    [Response: Did you read the post? I have a lot of respect for Bill McKibben’s judgment, but none of the numbers in my post come from Bill McKibben. In fact, I wrote this so as to help people make sense of the various claims being made about the significance of the carbon pool involved. So now you know that yes, the amount of carbon is a big deal indeed for climate, but that there is also a significant question about how much of the pool will prove economically recoverable (but that there is no grounds for a priori dismissing the possibility that most will indeed be recovered). Don’t you find that useful? Your remark about high speed trains just goes to show that some countries know how to handle big engineering projects better than others. It has nothing to do with intrinsic properties of trains as a means of transportation. –raypierre]

  82. Miguelito:


    My point is that, by focusing on the small wedge of increased emissions because of mining and in-situ production when compared to more conventional production, we can end up neglecting that most emissions come from the tailpipe. You might save a little bit of CO2 from being emitted by singling out the oil sands, but that oil is going to be replaced by oil from somewhere else not accounted for in proved conventional reserves (either increased reserves in existing fields, undiscovered oil, shale oil, or other sources) and the overall emissions don’t go down by that much.

    While I love Realclimate, I don’t think I’m a big fan of this post. Maybe it’s that you guys set a really high standard and I balk when I see something on the unrealistic side. It’s a dubious assumption that this entire resource will be exploited. 50 per cent recovery of the 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in place and producing at 5,000,000 barrels per year would have this resource last for 466 years – how realistic of an assumption is that? At 10,000,000 barrels per day (a real stretch that it will ever get that high), it would be 233 years. Is that any more realistic?

    Will we be using it to refine into motor-vehicle fuel for any significant amount even beyond 100 years? Certainly not in any policy driven world, especially as climatic effects of continued fossil-fuel use become apparent. Further, would your assumption make it into a reputable scientific journal? Certainly not in any case except for a high case (disaster scenario), and not as a most likely case. The most likely case would be much, much less.

    I’ll repeat, I love this website. But I don’t think the climate community (scientists and policy makers) is being well served by this kind of post. It’s not particularly constructive.

    [Response: The wedge is small now, but demand for oil is huge and the pool the wedge taps into is huge and significant. Why should we bet the planet on your gut feeling that production will inevitably stay small? –raypierre]

  83. Miguelito:

    Sorry, I meant 5,000,000 barrels per day, not per year. 5,000,000 per year would be entirely unrealistic on the low side. Woopsie.

  84. Steve Fish:

    So, Canadian tar sand development, even though it produces considerable damage to the environment, would probably not really add much carbon to our atmosphere because there is just not that much oil commercially available from this source. It is just a drop in the bucket, so let’s do it!

    US oil shale is just like tar sands, insignificant, so let’s do it!

    Mountain top removal in West Virginia may cause serious damage to the watershed, but population density of the state is low and the total carbon added to the atmosphere is just a drop in the bucket, so let’s do it!

    Deep water drilling for oil has the potential for causing serious ecological damage, but there is a lot of technology that will reduce the probability of this from happening, as we have already seen, and burning the oil derived from this source will add only a little to the total amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. It is just a drop in the bucket. Why not?

    Drilling in ecologically sensitive areas, such as in Alaska, can probably be done safely and the amount of oil would produce additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is just a drop in the bucket. So let’s do it!

    Just a drop in the bucket? Drip, drip, drip. Steve

  85. Jon Kirwan:

    Re #80, Jim Bullis, “Renewables as a source of electricity do not even figure in the equation since they are not remotely close to being in a position to handle load variations such as would be involved with electric vehicles.”

    I recently had a conversation with the engineer in charge of special projects at Portland General Electric (PGE, not to be confused with California’s PG&E.) They are nearly drooling at the idea of electric cars. He said that they hope to build in the intelligence at the home/car so that they can use these cars as an energy “store-and-forward” system. For them, the great boon is that they wouldn’t have to pay for the capital costs!! They’d just arrange “benefits” that would encourage participation in the longer term. But they’d reap big, at first, not having to lay out capital costs in the front end and they’d control the entire payout scheme so that it works well for them all the way to the bank.

    I gathered from listening, and I think this disputes perhaps some of what you are suggesting, that they see these cars as leveling out variations at the generating stations. So on the contrary, reading his excitement during that hour’s discussion with him, it may be the electric cars that put them into a better position, not worse. They seem to have worked the figures out and like what they see.

  86. Thomas:

    I do want to partially refute the point about the oil being diverted to China instead of going south being a red herring. I’m not so convinced that oil exports are going to remain as fungible as has historically been the case. Those who buy into the production, via investment likely get access at preferential prices. Also the price varies regionally based upon local supply and demand issues. Note the absurdity of quoting the oil price as the West Texas Intermediate price in Cushing Oklahoma, whereas in almost the entire rest of the world the price is $20 or more higher. This is a case of being on the end of an increasing spigot, caused by increasing production of the Bakken (N Dakota mainly), and some tar sands oil, and limited export capability. Of course the benefit from access to some cheaper oil goes to the corps not the common man. In any case, who owns the means of production and transport, and where they are physically located does matter economically. This may not matter much in terms of net global emissions, but politically it could be signficant. And I fear reactionary forces will take advantage of any hardship that can be plausibly blamed on environmentalists.

    I don’t dispute that thre is a dangerous amount of carbon in unconventional sources, and delaying or slowing their production could buy time for alternatives to become competitive.

    BTW. shipping oil via train is not very effective, even a medium sized pipeline carries much more volume that a railroad line can handle.

    Cost of electric vehicles, is dominated by the batteries. Unless there is a dramatic breakthrough in battery tech, the only path to affordable electric cars, is to downsize the vehicles.

  87. Mike H:

    I don’t think this kind of analysis is that helpful. The vast majority of economically recoverable oil is going to be extracted and consumed in the next 100 years. That ship has sailed. Hopefully we save two hundred billion barrels or so for plastics. How much coal is burned and how fast natural gas is consumed are the only remaining questions. Activists should try to focus the minds of policy makers first on levelling the playing field for different energy sources then recovering societal costs (eg health related costs due to coal burning) that are now ignored. The world is not prepared to make large economic sacrifices at this time, and making carbon miners pay their fair share is the low hanging fruit.

    [Response: You’re not making sense. If you want to be a defeatist about prospects for climate protection, but if you’re flatly going to say that the vast majority of economically recoverable oil is going to be extracted, you might as well say the same for economically recoverable coal. What’s the difference? All I did in this “analysis” is to point out that the amount of carbon we’re talking about in the reserves tapped by the Keystone pipeline is a very climatically significant amount. If you don’t find that helpful, you have no respect for numbers. –raypierre]

  88. David B. Benson:

    There appears to be an assumption that a global warming of 2 K will somehow be bareable. I seriously doubt that. The changed patterns of drought and rainfall appears likely to put an end to a sizable portion of existing agriculture.

    We have around 0.8 K warming so far and the effects upon agriculture (and the distruction of civil structure fro flooding) is already quite apparent. I conclude that even 2 K warming will be horrid.

  89. Edward Greisch:

    49 Andrew Leach has a point about why not demonstrate against coal emissions instead. Could somebody clarify why the KXL pipeline was chosen as the thing to demonstrate against?

    [There is a lot of coal too. If we could get coal shut down completely……] Is it really numbers or really symbols?

    57 SecularAnimist: “We need to stop burning ALL fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”
    Agreed. The problem is what do we mean by “as quickly as possible?” To people who own fossil fuel stock, “as quickly as possible” means as soon as the fossil fuels run out in a few centuries. What I mean by that phrase is about 5 years for coal. What Raypierre means is “keep the total under the trillion ton mark.”

    As Tamino says, the pipeline is a symbolic thing, not that big in actual size?

    Or is it that coal is already common, so coal is harder to stop?

    Does winning on the pipeline imply winning on another source of carbon? Is it a political momentum thing? Is the choice arbitrary?

    [Response: Protest against coal emissions instead? Why do you assume it’s either or. I can think of at least one notable climate scientist who has the distinction of having been threatened with arrest both in a coal protest and an oil sands protest. There are plenty of protests against coal, so that’s hardly being neglected. The plain fact of the matter is that if we’re to stay short of the trillion tonne limit, almost all of the remaining coal needs to stay in the ground, AND almost all of the nonconventional petroleum needs to stay in the ground. A tall order to leave it there, but there you are, no two ways about it. –raypierre]

  90. R. Gates:

    Just a general question related to trying to keep global temperature increases under 2C. Considering the paleodata seems to show that when fast and slow feedbacks are considered, at the 400 ppm that we are approaching, we are likely already into mid-Pliocene type warming in a few hundred years at most, which generally is over the 2C of warming. 2C seems already unrealistically low. Maybe 3C or 4C is closer to something we can actually prevent?

    [Response: Pliocene warmth is one of the more disturbing indications that climate may be more sensitivity to CO2 than our climate models predict. While it’s possible the geochemical estimates of Pliocene CO2 are off, barring that possibility the Pliocene indicates higher climate sensitivity than the mid-range IPCC models. That may in part be due to slow feedbacks like vegetation change (Carbon cycle feedbacks are not an issue here since it is the estimated CO2 concentration itself that is used as the basis for estimating Pliocene radiative forcing). So yes, my 2C is based on just the middle-range IPCC estimate, and a trillion tonnes could buy you a lot warmer climate, either through slow feedbacks not included in the models, or things like cloud feedbacks coming in at or beyond the high end. A trillion tonnes is not an especially safe place to go, but it’s a lot better than two trillion tonnes. –raypierre]

  91. RichardC:

    84, Steve has it right. Each individual decision is just one drip, but there are 7 billion of us making such decisions. Individual producers will produce as long as oil sells for over $10 (mideast) to $30 (tar sands) a barrel, while individual consumers will consume as long as oil is priced less than $150 a barrel. Saying no to an individual project does make a statement, but it won’t change the math. A 400% difference between the highest cost producer’s willing-to-sell price and the average buyer’s willing-to-purchase price is just too large to deny in a free marketplace. Renewables don’t solve much by becoming cheaper than $150/ barrel equivalent. Instead, they have to get cheaper than $30 a barrel, as that’s the threshold where fossil fuel production will start to decline. The alternative is a $100/barrel equivalent carbon tax, which would drive the price of crude to perhaps $40 for the producers while keeping the cost to consumers at $140, thus allowing the market to work its magic. The nice thing is that there isn’t any real cost involved. The $100 doesn’t disappear, and it can be redistributed, much as James Hansen has suggested. A $100/barrel carbon tax phased in over 10 years would make keystone unpalatable economically, and economics is the most efficient way to drive decisions. Of course, the vast majority of the planet would have to agree to implement, and perhaps enforce by embargo, such a drastic scheme. Not likely to happen until people get truly scared about global climate change.

    In the meantime, what we can do is prevent the sinking of capital into projects like Keystone. Keystone also represents the enabling of further capital investments in tar sands extraction. Building Keystone is a decision which can’t be undone without the loss of all that capital. And with all the right-of-ways paid for, adding a second larger pipeline would be almost imperative from a profit standpoint as in-situ extraction comes online. Thus, building keystone almost guarantees that tar sand operations will greatly increase in scope and go on for 50 years. That’s 50 years where the US and Canada will have no business telling Venezuela, South Africa, and others to not develop their own little carbon bombs.

  92. Anonymous Coward:

    Many of you are posting about strategical issues. Tamino’s pithy #56 makes the two central points (namely that this is a political conflict and that it hasn’t started yet). I urge you to read it again and ponder it.

    As others have explained, the ultimate amount of fossil C emissions is indeed not going to be decided tommorow or next year. In fact it won’t be decided before we’re all dead. And yes, keeping emissions low enough to avoid a dire catastrophe will most likely require sacrifices people are currently not willing to accept (Ray, the current Swedish emissions level is way too high).

    But the marginal political victories which can perhaps be achieved in our lifetimes as well as the large emissions reductions which could be achieved with little effort by the world’s top emitters will shape the future. They would lessen the terrible burden on the next generations and put them in a better position to fight the battles that will decide the climate of the twenty-second century. Yes, people do care about the twenty-second century (see for instance ).

    [Response: Well, in some sense everybody’s emissions are way too high, in that fossil fuel emissions have to go to essentially zero at some point in order to avoid continued warming. Reducing emissions rates allows more time to figure out how to decarbonize the economy, so it’s useful. Sweden’s per capita emissions are 1.6 tonnes C per person, down from 3.1 tonnes C per person in 1969. US per capita emissions are 5.3 tonnes C per person, down only about 10% from their peak value in 1975. Getting the US down to Sweden’s per capita rate wouldn’t get us all the way to where we need to go eventually, but it sure would help, especially in view of the large and rapidly growing population of the US. –raypierre]

  93. Hugh Laue:

    Two relevant posts by Joe Romm;

    1. Additional carbon released from peat as permafrost melts not accounted for in Ray’s analysis.
    2. No sign of global CO2 emission rate decreasing

  94. Kevin McKinney:

    #52: “Seriously? You realize that if it doesn’t go via Keystone, it will be pumped west and go to China and other countries in Asia who are starving for oil.”

    Seriously? You think that building Keystone will somehow magically prevent any from being pumped west?

    Tar sands distribution needn’t be a binary proposition–unlike the decision whether or not to make a massive investment in a technology we desperately need to wind down.

  95. Kevin McKinney:

    Here’s a nice summary of the state of play for CO2 air capture.

    As it turns out, there are three start-up firms, all with significant funding and impressive scientific talent, currently at the prototype stage (more or less.)

    It’s rather more hopeful than one might have thought–though the problem of scale is daunting, to say the least. (Vide “Langley + flight” for one cautionary example–and even if ‘technological scaling’ isn’t too problematic, solving CO2 via air capture would necessitate basically the creation of a whole new infrastructure–parallel at first, then taking over.)

  96. Kevin McKinney:

    Jim Bullis said: “Renewables as a source of electricity do not even figure in the equation since they are not remotely close to being in a position to handle load variations such as would be involved with electric vehicles.”

    This was partially addressed by Jon Kirwan in #85, where he made the point that electric cars can, in principle, have a stabilizing effect on the grid. I’d add that IIRC (and I’m pretty sure I do, in this case) the Danes are experimenting with this as one way of increasing the utility of their wind generation fleet. (No pun intended.)

    But what really puzzles me is this: Jim Bullis, weren’t you one of the very people making this “stabilization” argument two or three years back, here on RC? Wasn’t that an advantage of miastrada? Did I dream that, or what?

  97. Susan Anderson:

    How about we start by switching all subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables. That would be a start, and fossil fuels has plenty of money without it. As to Solyndragatepocalypse, I saw Fiore commented earlier, and this is both funny and enlightening on the subject.

    Huge jump in emissions is new front page news, and I see the MSM is beginning to let up on the hedging about GW/CC. (global warming/climate change – now I see why the new addition to alphabet soup).

    Keystone XL is so obviously egregious on so many fronts (company record on spills is appalling) that it seems like mountaintop mining to be a good place to take a stand.

  98. Pete Dunkelberg:

    Big Carbon marches on:

    Tar Sands Action
    had better be just the beginning of the uprise of the humans.

  99. Kevin McKinney:

    #91–Just so, and well-stated, too!

    I see a couple of comments have now pointed to this story in various forms, but just so I don’t completely appear to be a “cock-eyed optimist”:

    Deep trouble. . .

  100. Barry Saxifrage:

    The central point of Ray’s great article is that we already know how to economically recover far too much carbon.

    We as humans are faced with having to voluntarily say “no” to a gigantic amount of economic carbon energy if we want to avoid thousands of years of extreme weather.

    The wealthiest corporations in the history of money are set up in their very nature to oppose leaving any of that economic carbon in the ground.

    So far we are failing miserably. The boulder is rolling with huge momentum. It is going to take a fight at every level, from both supply and demand and retail politics and social pressures to slow this beast.

    McKibben has been on the front lines of trying to get citizens involved in this fight for a long time. And to his great credit he has figured out a number of ways to engage people around the world to step up and take on some part of the problem in larger numbers than I see almost anywhere else. The focus on Keystone XL is brilliant because it engages thousands in direct action, educates millions more and forces a dialogue with industry and politicians about one of the biggest carbon deposits on earth.

    Those folks who think something else should be a focus should go out and do it. It will take all of it and more.

  101. garhighway:

    I apologize if this question has been answered upthread, but the article basically makes a 2C warming level the definition of defeat. I haven’t seen that point asserted so starkly before. (Note: I’m a layman, so a lot of what you folks talk about here gets past me. So be gentle.) I’m convinced of the science behind AGW, and I am disappointed at the way the issue has been portrayed in the popular press. But what is the significance of the 2C number? Most of what I read about trying to match particular outcomes to particular temperature increases has stressed the uncertainties.

    So, simply put: what is the current thinking about how the Earth would be different with a 2C global tempo rise?

    [Response: In the last paragraph, I try to make clear that there is no one number that magically denotes “defeat.” 2C is not a magic threshold. I quote it because it more or less corresponds to the target the EU settled on, by some mix of what seemed practical and at what level of warming the effects start to look scary (a subjective judgment). Think of it like a speed limit. If you go over 100km/h, you’re not guaranteed to get in an accident, and you’re not guaranteed safe below it either. But the faster you go, the more likely it is that something will go wrong, and the worse the consequences. You can get an idea of the rise in damages ‘by degrees’ by reading the executive summary of the NRC report on Climate Stabilization Targets, linked in the post. –raypierre]

  102. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Re#85 Jon Kirwan,

    Yes, the utilities are happy to utilize storage from wherever, and if free from car batteries that is fine with them. There are some issues with that, but it could work out ok. And if cheap in the end it could make wind and solar a little less awkward to utilize, thus bringing the effective cost of these down somewhat. But this is about storage, not basic electric energy production.

    Production of electricity still will come from fossil fuels, and these type of generating capacities stand ready to fill new loads. Renewable sources are instantly tapped out in most cases, and there is no reason to expect brighter sun, stronger winds, or more rain to jack up the renewable apparatus when the aggregate of new electric vehicles gets plugged in. We can expect more coal to be shoveled.

    [Response: I think the discussion of electric vehicles has run its course, and seems to be degenerating into speculation and statement of personal opinions without much information content on either side. Enough, please. –raypierre]

  103. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    From the article: “A knock-on effect of oil sands development is that it drives up demand for natural gas, displacing its use in electricity generation and making it more likely coal will be burned for such purposes.”

    I note that this effect is similar as that resulting from California’s proud action to ban coal fired generation.

    All involved are quick to deny that the elimination of numerous coal facilities put California in a precarious position with power, hence a trivial accident brought 6 million people to a screeching halt for about a day, on a hot day last September in Southern California.

  104. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    re #102 raypierre,

    Please note that logically supported statements are characterized as speculation and personal opinion when they run critical of the sacred electric vehicle.

    Enough ok, but I do make a last appeal to those striving to be scientific to look at the EPA formula for MPGE for electric vehicles. It is not a personal opinion that this is an insult to science by denying the laws of thermodynamics by denying the effect of the heat engine that makes the electricity for the electric vehicles.

  105. timg56:


    With regard to the question “Did I read the post?” – I stopped soon after the part where you stated Bill McKibben has the better argument. This is the point of my question concerning credibility. McKibben is an activist with an agenda. Tying him into the subject is introducting politics into it. When the objective is to provide people with the science behind climate change, I would suggest this is something you would want to avoid. I have not paid much attention to the Keystome debate and seeing a post about it offered me the opportunity to increase my knowledge. Unfortunately, no matter how good your piece may be, I stopped reading because it was, at least in my opinion, contaminated. Your respecting Bill McKibben is fine. Whether one agrees with him or not, he has an impressive list of accomplishments. That you agree with his position on Keystone is fine as well. I am simply suggesting that it might have been better if you would have put forth your points and, at the end, said for these reasons I find McKibben’s argument carries more weight.

    As for the train bit – a) I was not questioning the intrinsic value of trains and b) No, it does not show that some countries are better than others at managing big engineering projects. What the comment on high speed trains and fuel cell cars – just two of many supposed means to lower the carbon footprint – was addressing is the point that waving one’s hands and saying we don’t need fossil fuel energy because we have all of these better alternatives indicates either a lack of understanding of the true challenges, costs and hurdles associated with these alternatives or some underlying agenda. The belief that our society can be forced off of fossil fuels is false, unless one thinks that the majority of people are willing to make significant, even dramatic changes to their lifestyles. That won’t happen unless there is demonstratable proof that they are at grave risk if they don’t or someone scares them enough to think the risk exists.

    Which brings me to where I am today – questioning whether or not I am on the right train. I work for a utility which relys primarily on hydro generation but is also one of the biggest developers of wind generation. We are switching our fleet to hybrid and all electric vehicles. I make my home in a city that is not only pedestrian friendly but has one of the best light rail systems in the country. I’m even working on getting back to biking like I used to. Are these a result of climate change concerns? With the possible exception of developing wind turbine generation – which is largely driving by tax incentives and a state mandate for renewables – no. But even the wind power part is justifiable on the basis of energy independence and the knowledge that fossil fuels are not inexhaustable. But now I see policies based on the arguments of catastrophic impacts due to climate change that could have a significant impact to me. An impact I would not consider favorable. So when the people I’ve been believing in start supporting this, without backing up the claims of catastrophic impact, and alaigning themselves with people having a clearly stated agenda (like Bill McKibben) which I am not all that in agreement with, I start thinking it may be time to get off at the next stop.

    To summarize, you can side with McKibben all you want. Just don’t be surprised if the people you are trying to reach start wondering about you.

    [Response: People have been “wondering about me” since I was two years old, maybe longer. I think I’ll manage. But I do appreciate your — concern. –raypierre]

  106. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    #60 raypierre.

    I wonder if you are referring to establishing standing forests as ‘direct air capture’?

    If so, that could indeed function at a significant scale. I see 30,000 square miles, mostly on federal lands, as significant for capture area. Greatly enhanced agricultural productivity could make this a politically feasible project.

    I did not get very far with discussing this here last year. But it still is a real concept. Much hostility erupted with the inclusion of the idea of water distribution on a continental basis in North America. But I did offer to let Canada do the oil sands if they would divert some of the fresh water southward, that they now dump into the salt oceans.

    [Response: The problem with standing forests and similar agricultural carbon sequestration schemes is that they store carbon in a fairly labile form near the surface. It’s not at all clear how long that carbon will be sequestered. –raypierre]

  107. Stuart Smith:

    I guess the line in the sand is really about whether low EROEI carbon energy sources will be tapped – at least when easily accessible and high efficiency oil/natural gas/coal that is easily accessible and converted to energy, the high value of burning these fuels at least probably means that even if we could factor in the generally unaccounted for climate and environmental impacts, mankind is likely still better off as a whole (although of course we might be even better off using a renewable energy source to achieve the same thing). If we start using these more marginal energy sources, with commensurately larger externalities per net unit of energy, it could quickly become the case that for every gallon burned of such oil overall everyone is worse off due to the lack of accounting for the externalities makes it still economically viable for the companies/individuals involved to do so.

  108. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    Campaigners against Keystone might do well to give a serious read of:

    Then look again at the comparison of environmental damage of the mining itself and running a pipeline over environmentally sensitive Nebraska(?). There are, of course, a few more people around in Nebraska that might be bothered. But not many.

    It is not really that hard to control what leaks from a pipeline. Of course, someone has to pay attention.

  109. timg56:


    I did go back and read the entire post. And have this question –

    If one were to assume that the 500,000 barrels a day from Athabasca were to replace imported oil, isn’t that a good argument in favor of it?

    Your point about energy requirements to recover and refine the oil is a good one and I can see that increasing energy usage may not be seen as a concern to the producers if the overall cost is less than recovering over fuel sources. In that sense, one can view the tar sands development as a move in the wrong direction on the basis of it’s adding to rather than lowering the amount of CO2 being generated.

    [Response: No, it wouldn’t be a good thing, not so far as climate is concerned. The imported oil isn’t ‘replaced,’ it’s just burned somewhere else. That oil coming in over Keystone is oil that would be better off being left in the ground, so far as climate is concerned. but remember, its not the 500,000 barrels itself that’s the big deal. It’s the possible effect of that flow leading the way to more extraction of oil sands carbon. –raypierre]

  110. Chris R:

    I don’t know if this has already been linked to, but earlier in the comments Raypierre refers to Armour & Roe’s GRL paper “Climate commitment in an uncertain world”. There’s a pre-print available here, and a very imformative pdf of slides from Gerard Roe here.

    Thanks for the main article, IMO it’s one of the most alarming and important pieces RC has published.

  111. richard:

    raypierre’s comment @31:
    “One pipeline doubles the oil flowing to US refineries, generates more market, generates more capital to develop more oil sands, then demand for more pipelines and … well you get the picture. ”

    I am not sure Andrew Leach would agree wholeheartedly with that scenario.

    Tar sands oil is already moving into the US. The goal of the pipeline seems to be to get more of that oil into the US South. If it does not go into the US it will go to Asia. But either way, the oil is going to be exported.

  112. Alastair McDonald:

    Re #101

    The origin of the 2C limit is described by RealClimate here.

    It is estimated that the 2C rise corresponds to a CO2 level of 400 ppm. The CO2 level is currently 392 ppm and increasing by 2 ppm per year.

    Jim Hansen, shown in the arresting photo, reckons that 350 ppm is the maximum safe level, which means that we are already in the danger zone. He is probably correct because there is now no way to stop the Arctic sea ice disappearing and, unless we reduce CO2 levels, the Greenland ice sheet will continue to melt too. Moreover, without the Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet may melt even faster.

  113. R. Gates:

    Reply to raypierre’s response @90:

    I agree completely keeping it to 1 trillion tonnes vs. 2 trillion is important, and I do oppose the Keystone XL pipeline for several reasons. But I think a strong case can be made that 2C is already “baked into the cake” so to speak at the near 400 ppm, and the probability is probably higher that we will see both 560 ppm and at least 3C, and so we ought to take a stand to prevent going over that, because we can be more realistic about what kinds of preparations we are going to need to make for a world of at least 3C. How much more, for example, might the ocean levels rise in a 3C world versus a 2C? I doubt this is linear, and that difference could be huge for coastal cities. Make no mistake, getting off our carbon fuel addiction is certainly paramount, but, if we take this to the analogy of a junkie, we have to realistic about how much damage has already been done and is already in the pipeline to the system, as we ween the junkie off his carbon-fix. I think 2C is already there, and so putting our defenses up at 3C might be a better tactic.

  114. Holly Stick:

    Jim Bullis, if you think you can waste your own water on the assumption that you can import more from Canada, you are going to die of thirst.

    Get it through your head: You can’t have our water. You can’t have our water. You can’t have our water.

    Not even the water contaminated by the tar sands which is producing a higher rate of rare cancers among the people living there, as well as deformed fish.

  115. Holly Stick:

    #109 timg56 Canada is not part of the US. If you imported more tar sands oil, it would still be imported oil.

  116. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    115 Holly Stick,

    I get it that you would rather dump water into the salt-water oceans than share it. And you know, it is really hard to get it back after that.

    You might not be right in assuming that water would be wasted. Of course it is in some places, but that needs to stop.

    We do share the Great Lakes, last I looked. Hmm. But I was hoping for rational negotiations, and even some mutually beneficial arrangements of water distribution systems. Even Canadian farmers could benefit from some water distribution improvements.

    Do you represent Canada?

  117. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    raypierre and moderator jim,

    Thanks for the conversation.

    [Response: A pleasure, Jim. Keep coming back! –raypierre]

  118. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    115 Holly Stick,

    I left off my main point which is that perhaps the majority of Canadians are interested in solving global warming sufficiently to be willing to share water that could be important to achieve that end.

  119. Anonymous Coward:

    R. Gates (#114),

    The trouble is that “we” have no effective defenses against aggregate global emissions to put up yet. Stopping a particular project here or there, maybe that could be done. In fact it needs to be done as part as building the defenses.
    But any talk of drawing a line in the sand with respect to CO2 concentration or global temperatures before the fight has even started in earnest is mere political rhetoric. If it’s effective organizational rhetoric like, great.
    Since 350 is already well in the rear-view mirror, I think it’s a good choice in that no one is going to be misled into actually trying to defend that line or into panicking because it’s been crossed.

    Certainly it would be prudent for the bodies in charge to plan for a sea-level rise congruent with a long-term increase in average temperature of 3C or more.
    But there are even more uncertainties as to the effect of a given rise in average temperature. Keep in mind that the major problem for many coastal cities is going to be the management of rivers rather than the sea level as such.
    Check my link above to see how such early planning could look like. This 2008 report acknowledges the possibility of >6C by 2100 (implying more warming later) as per the relevant IPCC scenarios and models so I don’t think you should be overly concerned about planners assuming warming will be stopped at 2C. One doesn’t only plan for the best-case scenario.
    I’d be more concerned about the planning for which no one is responsible yet.

  120. J Bowers:

    Cornell Report Busts Myth of Keystone XL Job Creation

    Pipe Dreams? Jobs gained, jobs lost by the construction of Keystone XL: A report by Cornell University Global Labor Institute (PDF)

  121. Jeff Green:

    From the skepticism on this subject about renewable energy, there is more education needed. It is difficult to jump into something you don’t know especially if you don’t believe in it.

    From skeptical science there is an article to address 100% renewable energy. One of the important points to get to is that can we refine the different high temperature processes to make it beyond oil and coal that have done it so well in the past.

    Fortunately we are headed in peak oil now and peak coal is soon to arrive. That is working for us economically. Some people here also read climate progress and there are now several articles showing that solar is decreasing in cost.

    Another interesting point is that tar sands have an EROEI of 3, 5 to 1.
    Solar single crystal is 9 to 1 from Home Power and thin film is 17 to 1.
    Wind is 18 to 1. Oil which use to be 100 to 1 now varies around 10 or 20 to 1. I’m scratching my head wondering how they got tar sands down to $20/barrel when it used to be $60/barrel. They must be getting some pretty cheap natural gas to get their work done.

    From the Oil Drum, there is quite a bit of conversation around the cost of oil creating recessions. The timing the price of oil during the Arab Spring and our last dip in the economy seems to hold true. As the costs go up, the United States groans because we are built on the price of cheap energy. What used to be our economic strength is now raising its ugly head.

  122. Peter Adamski:

    Richard @112,

    If Keystone XL is not built, how then does the oil get to Asia? Via existing routes? But can these routes handle the increased load? Or do you mean Enbridge’s proposed Gateway line to Kitimat, B.C? Or their propsed Monarch line from Chicago to the Gulf Coast. But is either one of these a sure thing? I don’t think so, not with more and more people waking up to the dangers of global warming.

  123. jd:

    It would be much worse to leave oil sands in the ground because the result would be coal to liquid fuels production(synfuel or methanol) on a massive scale. Compare the impact of electric blackouts to an oil embargo. If the US stopped coal consumption, US electric production would fall by 50% but reducing oil production by more than a few percentages and the world would collapse over night. At present consumption, conventional oil will last about 40 years and there is no alternative to petroleum (or bitumen) for the next 40 years at least. Unconventional oil at least will reduce the dangerous hold conventional oil has over the world.

  124. Holly Stick:

    “I left off my main point which is that perhaps the majority of Canadians are interested in solving global warming sufficiently to be willing to share water that could be important to achieve that end.”

    What a load of passive aggressive BS. If you greedy so and sos have wasted your water while at the same time having caused global warming, don’t expect any other country to bail you out. I fail to see how you stealing our water would in any way solve global warming.

    Water is necessary for life. There are no rational negotiations for giving that away.

  125. Steve Funk:

    The genie is out of the bottle. If they don’t send it south, they will find a way to sell it to Europe or China. Use it and tax it. These protesters should be focusing on getting a carbon tax. But that is out because it would lower our precious standard of living and force conservation.

  126. Anonymous Coward:

    Steve Funk (#125),
    British Columbia already have a carbon tax. It’s world-famous actually. Other places have carbon taxes as well. Existing carbon taxes are poorly structured and are way too low but their existence demonstrates that this “no new taxes” mindset is plain denialism.
    Raising taxes is also possible. It happened in the past and we know in general terms how to do it in a representative democracy: the taxes need to benefit a large constituency as well as to appear righteous according to the value system of that constituency.
    Carbon taxes need not lower “our” standard of living. Maybe they would lower yours but definitely not everyone else’s.

    Educate yourself first and only then move on to tell others what’s possible and what they should be doing. Some of the protesters you’re talking about are quite smart and well-informed, you know.

  127. CM:

    Apparently, there’s a law that every fuel, no matter how polluting, will be touted as an “alternative” to an even more polluting one.

    What will jd (#123) and others come up with when it’s time to sell liquid coal?

    Actually, no, you don’t have to do cocaine just because heroin is worse.

    We can go on digging ourselves deeper into the hole we’re in, scraping the bottom of the oil barrel, replacing each exhausted non-renewable fossil fuel with an even dirtier one, until there is no longer anything to dig up and burn, or we are too hot and too hungry to bother, whichever comes first. Or we can work on real alternatives that might leave us with both energy and a planet to spend it on.

    Cue Agent Smith, saying: “One of these lives has a future.”

  128. daedalus2u:

    The economic problem is that right now, those oil sands have a “value” that depends on the cost of extraction. All fossil fuel resources are “valued” the same way, with the costs for extraction and utilization accounted for, but the costs of CO2 mitigation not accounted for.

    All of the fossil fuel resources that have such a “value” cannot be extracted and burned without putting unacceptable quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. The “value” that those deposits have is a fiction, a fiction based on the delusion that all that carbon can be burned to CO2 and put in the atmosphere while the rest of the Earth and the rest of the economy remains unchanged.

    The problem is the fictitious “value” that these fossil fuel deposits have. Because they have a “value”, they can be used as collateral to borrow cash, either as debt, or by selling stock. That borrowed cash can be used to buy things, like other companies, other investments. But if the “value” of the collateral falls, because the lenders realize that the carbon that is in the ground has to stay in the ground, then the whole house of cards collapses.

    What is the “value” of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil sand oil while it is still in the ground? If we say it is only $20 per barrel, then 1.7 trillion barrels is worth $34 trillion. If only 0.1 trillion barrels can be extracted, then it is only worth $2 trillion. Who lost the $32 trillion asset?

    This is the problem, the people who “own” the deposit or the rights to the deposit have an asset which they have borrowed money on and which they (and those they borrowed money from) think is a real asset.

    What people who care about the future environment of this planet need to do is find some way of destroying the “value” of an “asset” of fossil fuel in the ground such that it cannot be used as collateral to borrow money either by selling stock or by taking on debt. Carbon taxes is one way of doing so.

  129. Edward Greisch:

    123 jd: Yes we must prevent coal to liquid fuels production and coal to gas production.
    127 CM: Roger that as well.

    119 Anonymous Coward: 6 degrees C is the extinction point for Homo Sap. isn’t big enough to do it all. Strategy please?

  130. Thomas:

    daedalus@128. The arithmetic of potential gain is really compelling. What if the oil can be produced for $100/barrel below the market clearing price? Thats not hard to imagine: with increasing demand, and decreasing volumes available on the export market, prices in excess of $200/barrel are not beyond the pale, but quite possible. If $trillions are possible, and the population it could be shared with is only several million, greed is hard to defeat. It could litterally make an entire province wealthy. Hard to get local people to give that up for a global (and future) good.

  131. flxible:

    It could literally make an entire province wealthy.

    Might need to look into that closer – the royalties paid to the province are minimal until capitol costs are recaptured, only then does income tax kick in – also the cost of living in the “oil patch” is out of reach for even most oil company workers. The only folks getting rich off the environmental rape there are the oil company executives and share holders, so “the population it could be shared with” is waaay less than “several million”.

  132. Craig Nazor:

    I find a lot of narrow-mindedness in a discussion about transferring water willy-nilly around the North American continent that fails to acknowledge the needs of an entire ecosystem for ample water, and not just the needs of humans. To imply that allowing water to flow into the salty ocean is somehow a waste of water is completely denying the value of brackish water estuaries to the planetary ecosystems, just for starters. And since anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC) will actually increase the earth’s capacity to draw fresh water out of the salty ocean and dump it on the land, might this interpretation the water problems of a warmer planet be way over-simplified? I think we would be far better off concentrating more on the problem at hand: let’s all reduce our carbon footprint NOW, both from a personal point of view and through national political action, such as keeping tar sands carbon in the ground. Water conservation is another serious issue that AGCC, coupled with population growth, is going to compound enormously.

    I’ll bet that I have better than halved my own personal carbon footprint over the past few years without reducing my quality of life in the least, and I’m just getting started! I have also significantly reduced my use of water at the same time. Change is possible, and it starts in the individual mind. Human thoughts are creative, which means that if you think you can’t, then you can’t. Science provides the light that will shine down any path we chose to take, whether it is the right one or not. But with a little light, it just might be possible to see ahead far enough to notice that some paths run right off the cliff!

  133. Ray Ladbury:

    People tend to overestimate the value that accrues to the population of a region from a windfall of natural resources. This is especially true for petroleum. What usually winds up happening is that a few individuals accrue tremendous wealth, while the region as a whole tends to benefit little, and perhaps be even worse off than before (viz. the Niger delta). People look at the wealth of Saudi Arabia, but fail to realize that what they are seeing is the wealth of the Saudi royal family and whatever crumbs they choose to brush off to the masses below. For small nations, the resulting demand for currency can inflate its value and strangle other industries (the so-called Dutch disease).
    And then when the resources are depleted, the economy is left with no industry, no jobs, and the wealthy move on.

  134. Thomas:

    Ray, overestimation of benefits is a major problem. But, when we are dealing with human decisionmaking, it is perceptions rather than history that tends to drive things. A rich well governed province like Alberta probably thinks it will avoid those mistakes. The wealth in Saudi Arabia has been well enough distributed that its population has exploded severalfold. That is actually pretty frightening, if you consider what sort of population that land would support without massive oil revenues to pay for imported food.

  135. richard:

    “If Keystone XL is not built, how then does the oil get to Asia? ”

    If the demand is there, the oil will get to Asia. Yes there are a number of alternative pipelines in the proposal stage; demand and price will be the determining factors in whether they go forward – both Alberta and Canada are addicted to the resulting revenues. It would be wiser to reduce demand thru a hefty carbon tax.

  136. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    106 raypierre,

    re standing forests, your ‘not clear how long it will last”, thanks for commment.

    I did not get into details here about a forest and water project, but the fundamental rule is that the forest must be made to last. I imagine tying agriculture to forests, and making water available to growers, contingent on continuation of the forests.

    After looking hard at orchards in the California Central Valley, I have been thinking that standing orchards could work also, if on aggregate there is a long term standing wood mass. That way orchards can be retired and replanted, but the net mass just has to continue forward.

    The same rules could be used for managing mature forests.

    The good thing about forests is that we know they work on a large scale, and they are a natural solution, albeit vastly expanded on lands hitherto unforested.

    Special interest is currently appropriate since this could be a way to provide employment and generate positive foreign money exchange by sale of agricultural products.

    Curiously, this has led to a new endeavor which is to build tools that make agricultural work more attractive, with the intention of enticing unemployed Americans to the ‘field’, including the incentive of increased productivity to encourage the growers to hire such folk.

  137. omni:

    Anyone advocating not building the Keystone XL is going to have to explain how we can create the vast infrastructure a renewable society requires without tapping every last drop of oil that is economically feasible. At least if they want to be taken seriously by serious people.

    There are 2 curves that have relevancy in this conversation. The first is the change in price of fossil energy over time. The second is the change in price of renewables over time . Currently, the price of fossil energy is getting higher. The curve is sloping up. Renewables are going in the other direction. At some point in time the curves will cross. When they do, no force on this planet will be able to stop the mass adoption of renewables. By the same token, until the lines cross, the is no govt subsidy large enough or green protest massive enough to make adoption of renewables happen before the technology is ready to support our society.

    I, for one, would like to hasten the day when those 2 curves crossover. Since the development of any and all technology is dependent on the availability of resources, it is quite *nonsensical* to believe that reducing the availability of the resources required (eg not developing the tar sands) will result in a quicker, more thorough adoption of renewables. It won’t. It will, in the simplest point of fact, delay the date at which the curves cross. Delaying this curve crossing date, even if it is to limit carbon uptake into our atmosphere will *without a doubt* cause more harm than good.

    Let me put to you all this way-
    Society is on a horse. The horse is fueled with carbon. A few days travel away is another food the horse can run on (renewables). What is going to happen if we stop feeding the horse before it has made its way to the new food? If the horse starves to death before it reaches its destination, it will *never* be able to eat the new food. Like it or not, if we want to get to the new food, we have to flog this carbon fueled horse for all its are worth until we crest that hill the renewables are hiding behind in the distance.

    [Response: This “carbon flogging” is like the alcoholic who says he needs a drink to calm his nerves enough to get a job so he can relieve the stress that causes his drinking problem. There’s already enough enconomically recoverable fossil fuel (including the coal) to bring cumulative emissions well over a trillion tonnes. If you are going to say all that has to be flogged in order to make enough money to do renewables, you’re saying basically the game is lost before it’s even hardly begun. If we’re going to make the transition before hitting a trillion tonnes, some pathway needs to be found to do it, that allows almost all of the remaining coal and unconventional oil to remain in the ground. I’m not offering any easy solutions, but implementing a good number of carbon stabilization wedges would slow down emissions growth enough that we can figure out what to do. Andy Revkin is also right that a lot more investment in energy technology is needed. You’re not going to solve the problem by just burning more and more fossil fuels and hoping that the wealth created will just magically call the solutions into being. –raypierre]

  138. Craig Nazor:

    Omni – I said this before, and I will say it again: The amount we are currently paying for carbon fuels does not reflect the true cost of those fuels to human civilization and world ecosystems. That cost is getting passed on to future generations, and, boy, are they going to be pissed at us when they get the bill.

    So let me put it to you this way:

    Society is on a horse. The horse will only eat carbon, although there are other fuels currently available that the horse could eat, but does not want to because he thinks they are “too expensive.” The carbon fuel is rapidly making him sick (which he denies), but if he keeps on eating carbon, he will die. So maybe the human rider, who controls his horse, and who we assume is actually smarter than a horse, might try changing the horses diet?

    Science is clearly telling us what we need to do. We just need the courage (and that means positive thinking) to do it.

  139. Brad Neufeld:

    Greetings all. I want to start by saying Hi to everyone and say that as a first-time poster I am glad to find this particular discussion. I was raised in the town of Fort McMurray, which is where the oilsands are, my father worked at one of the main plants (Syncrude) until he retired and I worked for 1.5 years at the other (Suncor). Having been raised there I am always interested when the subject comes up although there really aren’t many forums where you can have an on-going thoughtful discussion about the subject.

    Now despite having worked there, I am in 100% agreement with the goals of reducing emissions, limiting our use of fossil fuels and being very careful in general with making changes to the environment that we can neither control afterwards nor accurately anticipate consequences. The first thing I want to do is clear up, as best I can, some of what I perceive are mistaken notions about the oilsands development as I think it is critical to know what the battle is that we face if we have any hope of succeeding.

    First I want to talk about the idea that production of the oilsands is related to this Keystone pipeline. The idea is, in my opinion, entirely false. The only thing that this pipeline affects is distribution, not production. Suncor went online around 1978 and Syncrude went online about 2 years later and the necessary pipelines to get their products to market were already in place at that time. By the 90’s they were combining to produce 500k barrels per day and today they have improved that somewhat to 600k to 700k barrels per day. The Keystone pipeline adds another possible destination, but there are already numerous ways this oil is getting into the US market. I believe, in fact, that the majority of it already makes its’ way into the US. It makes diesel, gas, naptha, kerosne and even plastics and if you have been driving for any length of time in the US I am fairly certain you have already burned some of the tarsand oil in your car. So you can oppose the pipeline for a lot of different reasons, but the notion that opposing it will somehow prevent the oilsands from being exploited is simply untrue. At the very best it may prevent the oilsands plants that exist from expanding, but even that claim is dubious.

    Second I would like to talk about the ability of the Canadian government to affect anything here. Syncrude is largely owned by Exxon and they have taken a much more active management role in recent years. Suncor is owned by Sunoco. There is also a plant owned by Shell and then some small plants owned by China, Japan and possibly others (I do not live there anymore so I am not aware of all the plants anymore). The bulk of the production is Suncor and Syncrude though and the rest are mostly bit players in comparison. There are no Canadian plants that I am aware of. Although the Canadian government has always had an open door policy for anyone wanting to exploit our resources, NAFTA essentially codified our obeisance to foreign industry to the point that we are no longer allowed to say “No” to American companies that want to exploit our resources without subjecting ourselves to huge penalties, lawsuits, fines, etc. Granted the Canadian government was all too happy to enter into such bondage with the Americans but at this point, as far as power goes, the Canadian government has little more than token control over the land. The Albertan government has also shown enthusiasm for any approach that pulled more oil out of the sands and a reluctance for regulation and accountability that would probably please Ron Paul. So by choice and by law the Canadian government will make little difference in the outcome. Whatever business and foreign corporations want to do, it will be supported.

    The third issue I would like to mention is the nature of the process and the product that is released. The process is roughly like this: It takes 2 tonnes of sand to make one barrel of oil. That sand, which looks like a big pile of dirt, is then put in the Primary Separation Vessel where it is given essentially a hot soapy bath. The main difference is that in this case it is the resulting bathwater that is desired. It is sent to a vertical centrifuge where it is spun fast enough to increase the force of gravity 300 times and, since the oil is lighter than the sand and water particles, the oil can be siphoned off to a horizontal centrifuge that repeats that process only on a horizontal axis rather than a verticle one. Then it is “cracked” or evaporated with high heat and re-condensed at a variety of temperatures to produce the various types of products. By this point we have a product very similar to what you are used to however it has a few difficulties that require some further refining. At Syncrude the resulting product is then blasted with hydrogen to remove the sulfer content (you should see the pyramid-sized mountain of sulfur they have onsite) and that is known as Syncrude Sweet Blend. Both Suncors and Syncrudes products are pretty well refined at this point and raw bitumen is definitely not being exported out of Fort Mac. (This makes no difference from an environmental stand-point I know but it a personal quibble I have since I always cringe whenever I read an article that says the bitumen is sent down the pipeline for refining). Now the tarsands that have been mined for the last 30 years is about 60 feet in height and thousands of square kilometers. It is right near the surface so the open-pit mines that extract it do not have to dig too deep. The machinery that is used is incredible. The extraction problem that they are facing today is that the tarsands are deeper and deeper the further north they go until, by the time they get to Lake Athabasca, the oil is about 2km down under a huge lake and a giant piece of bedrock known as the Canadian shield. That oil, even if the price were essentially infinite, could not be recovered by any process we know of today. The steam injection method where they drill into the sand inject steam and then pump the resulting water out for extraction (colloquially known as “Huff-and-Puff”) is still experimental and has lots of technical hurdles that prevent it from being all that effective (at least the last I heard anyway).

    So, after all of that, my only remaining comment is that if you are concerned about the Carbon Bomb, as Bill McKibbon has put it, or the Game Over scenario as James Hansen as described it, I fail to see how the fate of the Keystone pipeline will make any difference at all. My own prediction is that every last barrel of recoverable oil is going to be pulled out of the sand and then that expertise is going to go down to Venezuela where they have an even larger oilsand field to make money on. I wish the climate warriors all the best in their fight, however. Take care.

  140. Edward Greisch:

    89 raypierre: You are correct.
    I receive emails that ask me to sign petitions or letters to congress. Some ask me to call congress or go to a local congressman’s office or write a letter to the editor. There is a web site that is a petition generator.

    If I generate petitions, I think nothing will happen. Nothing is what happened with my Whitehouse petition. This conversation is so frustrating. It keeps going around in circles. [Will it or won’t it take another route.] Trying to run for the US congress was also frustrating. It seems like there is very little we can do, but my son tells me we are gaining. has a lot of petitions.
    The Occupy Wall Street started at is the group protesting the pipeline. starts a lot of petitions.

    Since RealClimate wants to stick to science, I hope those other groups read RealClimate.

  141. omni:

    You’re not going to solve the problem by just burning more and more fossil fuels and hoping that the wealth created will just magically call the solutions into being. –raypierre]

    I am not really saying (remember I didn’t say all the oil, I said just what oil is economically viable and don’t forget viability is a moving target!!! a target defined by 2 price curves, not just one like the analysis of 1 or 2 trillion tons you are using assumes) that and am most certainly not meaning to imply it either! Not saying we shouldn’t adopt all reasonable (reasonable=eroei return greater than whatever the current carbon based eroei is) measures to push the day of no return farther away. We *should* adopt all measures that show energetic viability. Not saying that directed investment in R and D is a bad idea either. It isn’t.

    What I *am* saying is that the horse we are riding needs to be fed *every* day. Not feeding the horse results in hobbling the horse or in severe circumstances, death. If the horse is hobbled, reaching the destination(destination=carbon neutrality) takes longer, and even more carbon will be consumed in that extended, longer process! In the worst case scenario of premature fossil disinvestment, the carbon fed horse actually dies before we reach our destination and our destination will not be reached. This event is to be avoided at all costs. Do not put your applecart before this horse.

    Discontinuing the investment in the old infrastructure before the new infrastructure is ready is a horrible error. How are we to smelt the steel and copper for the wind turbines? How will we create the silicon for the solar panels? How will we refine the the rare earths and lithium needed for viable electric cars? If you truly believe we can bring forward the day carbon neutrality arrives by hamstringing the industry that is required to achieve it, you’re just flat out wrong!

    Also, on a side note, the link between wealth and technological growth is *most* assuredly not magical in the least. Technology creates wealth and in turn more wealth creates more technology. Again, in simple point of fact, this positive feedback loop is what got us to where we are today. By saying this process is “magical” you are saying what? That our technology and the resulting wealth don’t actually exist? Or are you saying this process is somehow broken and scientists are no longer smart and engineers are no longer clever? Are you saying entrepreneurs are no longer greedy? What exactly do you mean when you imply technological advancement is somehow *magical* and not the natural result of an intelligent creature interacting with its environment?

    Also, I am not saying we shouldn’t do everything we can to mitigate climate and energy issues in our personal lives. I ride a scooter in the summer and I drive a hybrid. My tires are always aired up my main mission when I drive somewhere is to use as little fuel as possible in that process. My home is also well insulated.

    Also, the alcohol/addiction analogy is quite tired and was never particularly apt to begin with. Again in simple point of fact, energy is required for life, alcohol is not. Are you addicted to eating? Are you addicted to sleeping? Can you explain to me how I can sleep in my house if it is not heated in the winter? Can you explain how I am going to be able to eat if the farmer who made my food can’t get diesel for his tractor or fertilizer for his fields?

    Also, saying “some pathway must be found” and then declaring a couple sentences later that I use magical thinking isn’t a very convincing debating choice, to say the least!

    Best hopes for a climate stable future for our children!!!
    Omnivorous Rex

    PS-Sorry about the length of this response. Wanted to answer all your points.

    [Response: And can you explain to me how we’re going to eat in 2100 when the coal runs out and we’re trying to grow food in the heat you get from 5000 gigatonnes cumulative emissions? Could happen sooner (though with proportionately lower temperatures) if there’s less coal than that. Wouldn’t it be prudent to have policies that nudge things in the direction of doing without fossil fuels without waiting for the day the hard landing is practically upon us? I’m no better than anybody else at predicting what kind of nudge would work, and won’t go into that here, but there are plenty of ideas around. –raypierre]

  142. CM:

    Thomas #134 [off-topic],
    I don’t want to start an OT discussion on this, but 1) data on wealth distribution in Saudi Arabia are generally “not available” (which in itself is rather telling), and 2) there are no grounds for assuming that high population growth reflects equality in the distribution of wealth (incidentally, nearly one third of S. Ar.’s population are migrant workers). The absolute monarchy’s bid to trade some oil wealth for social and political peace by keeping much of its native population so to speak on welfare is not just ecologically unsustainable; the social cracks are showing, too.

  143. Anonymous Coward:

    omni #127,
    In your model there are two curves which represent price over time. Prices are affected by supply and demand so measures which affect supply or demand (like the Arab oil embargo) alter the curves. If you alter one curve, their crossing point changes. That’s very simple math you’re arguing against!

  144. Kevin McKinney:

    #137–Moreover, increasing the (effective) supply of fossil fuels is *not* the way to “hasten the day when those 2 curves crossover,” since presumably doing so would have the effect of lowering FF prices.

    The comment as a whole seems to argue that relative prices are sensitive to technological factors and nothing else–which is certainly not true. And in the real world, the “govt subsidy” of renewables via a FIT has had very large and obvious effects on the deployment of renewables already–as in many billions of dollars of investment, the establishment of renewables technology as a viable industrial sector globally, and over a hundred gigawatts of installed generation capacity.

    Finally, the throwaway clause, “before the technology is ready to support our society,” seems to me both unsupported and tendentious. I think the technology is basically ready NOW, and that the transition is underway.

    (For clarity, when I say “basically ready,” I don’t exclude that practical developments are still needed for the technology to qualify as fully mature–but looking at history, I don’t think any significant technology ever fully matured “on the shelf.” Operational experience, technical refinement and economic integration happen as a consequence of projects existing in the real world, not on the drawing board–however interactive and sophisticated the “drawing board” may now be.)

  145. Kevin McKinney:

    “Discontinuing the investment in the old infrastructure before the new infrastructure is ready is a horrible error.”

    And it’s a “probability zero” scenario, too. Can’t and won’t happen, both due to economics and common sense. But that doesn’t mean that policy choices–say, an internationally-coordinated carbon tax–can’t nudge those curves in a desirable direction.

  146. Anonymous Coward:

    I think the key insight some commenters might be lacking is how huge the scale of current fossil fuel consumption is.
    A commenter above referred to the fuel used by the tractor used to grow his food. Relatively, that’s a very small amount. You could offset such amounts with Jim Bullis’ standing forests (I did the math last year: his proposal could unfortunately not possibly offset the current consumption) or similar carbon sequestration projects.

    From the point of view of what’s technically possible today and regardless of one’s opinion about the potential of renewables (I’m not as optimistic as most), most of today’s fossil fuel consumption is a waste. It’s a tragic waste not only because of the pollution but because it’s a vital limited resource which is being depleted senselessly.
    With the current price structure, the waste makes sense for individual agents trying to make a quick buck. That’s why the price structure needs to be changed. And that’s not a technical issue. It’s a political issue.

  147. Holly Stick:

    A couple of reactions to this post; one from Michael Levi, an economist who tends to agree with Andrew Leach (or vice versa):

    And Keith Kloor, with some pretty good discussion in the comments:

  148. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    146 Anonymous,

    Your statement that ‘my’ standing forests could not possibly offset the current consumption might assume too much about the bounds of ‘my’ forest, and also limit it to whatevery type of tree, root structure assumptions and such that you would have made. It also mis-represents my initial premise which posed the notion of standing forests to compete with ‘carbon capture and sequestration’ of the sort being discussed by the EPA to be applied to new coal fired generation – – not offset current consumption.

    But thanks for doing the math. That could be useful in working on the concept. Yes, something that big would need to go further than my initial premise. But there is much flexibility in the extent it could be undertaken. Involving both massive forests and greatly expanded agriculture still looks possible as a major new economic system.

  149. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    146 AC

    To your noting the ‘tragic waste’, that also has to be fixed. No, forests can not balance gluttony of the sort we practice.

    Political issues are handled by lobbyists and public markets for fashionable products. No hope can be held for changing things here.

    I see more chance for change when there are new choices. Here is where there might be possibilities for new thinking. Here though, real progress in motor vehicles is snubbed off by false thinking about electric vehicles.

  150. Ric Merritt:

    OK, this is by way of a cruel oversimplification, but something like this needs to be said.

    Raypierre says we need to leave huge amounts of carbon in the ground to avoid gargantuan risks.

    Omni says we probably won’t get very far very fast with renewable infrastructure without big investments that spend FF energy.

    They are both right.

    No one should take omni’s point to mean that BAU is OK. We’ve done that for 30 years, and it is working badly. Ray’s point (#141 inline answer) about policies to nudge things away from FFs is steering in the right direction. I would express the point with something stronger than “nudge”.

    The best path is more like triage amidst loss than shiny solutions that all will applaud.

    Omni, you should pay more attention to your own arguments. It is true (lately) that FF costs generally increase and renewables decrease. A rosy assumption that all will be well when the curves cross ignores the fact that the curves so far have existed in an environment of plentiful FF. We know rather little about costs of renewable infrastructure in a world of drastically constrained FF use. What we are sure of is that today we don’t build renewable infrastructure without cheap FF.

  151. Ray Ladbury:

    Omni, Might I suggest another related curve to look at: Investment in renewables as a function of fossil fuel price. As long as fossil fuels were cheap, we did bupkes wrt developing alternatives. We just got fat (literally) and happy (not so literally) and bought more worthless junk.

    This argues that we need to increase the price even more! At the very least, fossil fuels should reflect their true cost, including environmental degradation. The proceeds can be used to develop renewable energy–and the concommitant infrastructure–more quickly so that we need not deplete reserves before it is finished.

  152. Kevin McKinney:

    #146–Scale of the problem–oh, yeah:


    Which is why we can’t be “waiting for the world to change.”

    “With the current price structure, the waste makes sense for individual agents trying to make a quick buck. That’s why the price structure needs to be changed. And that’s not a technical issue. It’s a political issue.”

    Very well said, IMO.

  153. Kevin McKinney:

    By the way, a sad milestone–I’ve commented several times on Beacon Energy’s flywheel storage technology here. But last week they filed for Chapter 11 protection; their attorney said that the Solyndra fiasco had caused private funding to dry up more or less completely. It’s really too bad, as their first 20 MW plant is up and running and earning, and they had a couple of good contracts in the bag.

    But, current share price: $.10.

  154. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    #141 re raypierre comment

    It is a strange notion that coal might run out in 100 years. This has to be based on ignorance, and this was thoroughly dispelled by the recent USGS study of the Gillette field of the Powder River Basin.

    That field alone contains 1000 years supply at current rates of consumption. The only limit is the market price of coal, which determines whether it is worth the trouble to scrape off greater amounts of dirt.

    But this is only one field of a large region that goes from Wyoming, across Montana and into Canada. If the dragline gets too big, they can go on to shallower fields until the price goes up enough. Coal is so abundant that over half its cost to the user is the cost of its transportation to the power plants.

    Of course, the transportation cost will be eased by the enhanced ‘smart’ grid infrastructure, which will enable mine-mouth power plants, skipping the railroad part. The great enamoured feelings for grid improvements from DOE need to be given a little scrutiny.

    We need to anticipate plug-in SUVs of the Yukon, Escalade body form, and bigger, since there is no limit to the energy source. And of course the plug-in Yukon will be rated at about 40 MPGE by the EPA. Who can get upset by that – – uh unless they are really concerned about the climate.

    [Response: “Current rates of consumption”? Would that we could assume that rates of consumption would stay fixed at the current rate. That would actually solve a lot of problems. The 100 year figure is based on rates of growth of carbon emissions; the growth rate has been pretty steady over the past 100 years. Can new mining and generation capacity actually sustain that rate of growth for another 100 years? I have no idea, but the energy demand at the end of that isn’t ridiculous, since it’s similar to what you get if you bring the entire world up to the current US percapita consumption level. If you doubt that scenario, you have to believe that growth either abates, or that growth of prosperity decouples from energy growth (a consummation devoutly to be wished) –raypierre]

  155. timg56:

    @115 Holly,

    I am trying to figure out if you are someone who believes themselves to be more intelligent than the rest of us – hence the comment about it being “imported” from Canada, or if you intended that as a serious remark.

    If you cannot differentiate between oil from Canada and that from certain other parts of the world, what makes you think someone would give consideration to your opinion on any other subject?

  156. timg56:

    #139 Brad Neufeld,

    Thanks for the info Brad. In addition to being very informative, I was struck by the lack of a smart ass response from Raypierre. I guess when I asked what was the big deal if Canadian tar sands oil replaced that from Venezeula, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, I receivdd the simplist response – no it will just get burned somewhere else. I have to wonder if there is any point in having a discussion with someone who dismisses a question or another point of view in such a manner.

  157. Anonymous Coward:

    You may not be aware of this but global per capita energy consumption has actually been on a slight downward trend bewteen 1979 and 2003 (source: BP). The dates are cherry-picked of course and we can now dismiss this trend. But the stagnation in per capita energy use was real and it basically lasted from 1973 to the point around 2002 at which China’s growth put per capita global energy use back on a rising trend. In contrast with the post-war boom, energy use was obviously decoupled from whatever metric you might want to use for prosperity during that period.
    Efficency gains come easy on the back of a long period of cheap energy in which gross waste has flourished.

    [Response: Yes, one can hope that the downward trend in per capita energy use resumes, particularly if due to an increase in efficiency or structural change in the economy away from activities that are energy intensive. China itself made considerable strides in that period in reducing the carbon intensity of their economy (tonnes C per $ GDP), though the effect of that was overwhelmed by the growth of the economy. –raypierre]

  158. Holly Stick:

    #155 timg You are aware that Canada is a separate country from the US, aren’t you? Therefore it would still be imported oil. What is your problem with me pointing that out?

    If you have been listening to the “ethical oil” arguments that Canadian oil is somehow better than oil from Saudi Arabia or wherever, I can tell you that such arguments are dishonest and fallacious, and I am familiar enough with the people pushing that argument to doubt that they know anything about practicing ethics or honesty.

    For your information here is some information about the idea of “ethical oil” with links to much more:

  159. Kevin McKinney:

    #154 and inline–

    Well, things aren’t quite so cut and dried supply side as Jim indicates. According to the study referenced, Powder River has about 650 times *US* annual capacity IF you include all the reserves up to and including coal categorized as “hypothetical.” (About 400 billion short tons of the 650 total are classed as either “hypothetical” (42 billion) or “inferred” (367 billion.)) And the US exports something like 10% of its production.

    Moreover, the USGS estimated that less than 50% is economically extractable even at $60/ton. (Powder River coal was going for $14.15 on November 4, 2011.) “In August 2008, the USGS. . . concluded that at the time of the economic evaluation, only 6 percent of the original resource, or 10.1 billion short tons of coal, was currently economically recoverable.”

    So, let’s say 10% is recoverable; that would be 65 years worth of coal assuming that domestic consumption stays constant. Allow 10% more yearly for export, that’s 65/1.1 = 60 years worth. At least, the idea of 100 year’s worth of coal–economically extractable coal; as Jim says, the market price is determinative–isn’t obviously wrong.

    Nor is the Powder River Basin is just “another field”: “In 2007, the Powder River Basin alone produced 436 million short tons (396 million tonnes) of coal, more than twice the production of second-place West Virginia, and more than the entire Appalachian region.” There are other fields in the West, but with lower-value coal, or less of it. The coal in western Canada, for example, is mostly lignite.

    Clearly this topic is bedeviled with definitional questions, uncertainties, and competing scenarios. But the one thing we know is that the coal had best stay in the ground. Demand has been dropping over the last few years, but that’s not likely to be enough. Costing emissions honestly is what we really need to make sure that that coal does (mostly) stay put.

  160. Deep Climate:


    The first link works, but not the second.

    The endorsement of the “ethical oil” meme by the Canadian and Alberta governments is especially pernicious (I discussed this back in January):

    The two levels of government continue to peddle myth that planned massive expansion of the oil sands is somehow compatible with reduction of GHG emissions.

    In fact, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent recently stated that Canada would move towards a decarbonized economy (at an unspecified rate). Nevertheless, he justified “responsible” expansion of the oil sands because fossil fuels “would predominate” the global energy mix “for many decades to come”.

    So much for a 50% global cut in GHG emissions by 2050.

  161. Anonymous Coward:

    Deep Climate #160,

    There’s no contradiction between fossil fuels predominating the global energy mix for many decades to come (the most likely scenario) and a 50% cut in global GHG emissions by 2050.
    The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix is so large that if their consumption was cut in half while electricity generation from wind, solar and geothermal increased 20-fold, fossil fuels would still predominate.

    Without investment in fossil fuels, emissions would be cut a lot more than 50% by 2050.
    Massive investments in “oil sands” would be perfectly compatible with emissions cuts if coal was being phased out in North America. It’s more efficient to replace fossil fuels for electricity generation than for untethered motor vehicles.

    What’s not compatible with emissions cuts is to put significant amounts of this oil on the market so soon.
    If it was produced for some kind of strategic reserve or if the productive capacity was kept in reserve it would be a different deal. People who claim to care about human rights, independence from Middle-Eastern oil and such but who aren’t arguing for the establishment of a massive reserve are dupes or hypocrites.

  162. timg56:


    I see you fit in well here, with your habit of talking down to people. Yes, I know Canada is a separate country. Even had a Canadian roommate in grad school – he’s a prof at UBC now.

    I will have to admit to being unfamiliar with “ethical” oil. Sounds like some artificial construct to me. But them I didn’t introduce the term into the conversation. You did.

    I asked if you were able to differentiate between sources of oil. Believe it or not, supplying the nation’s energy needs is not all about how much CO2 gets produced. One of those issues is security and reliability of supply. On whom do you think it would be better to rely on – Canada or the Saudi’s?

    Of course we wouldn’t have to rely on anyone if we made the decision to increase the percentage of nuclear in the mix. It would also go a long way to solving the CO2 problem, or at least the US’s contribution to the problem. But I’m betting you would disagree.

    [Response: This dialog between the two of you isn’t going anywhere useful at this point. Can we just call it quits for this particular line of discussion? I think you’ve both stated your positions. –raypierre]

  163. Innocent Bystander:

    I can’t help but wonder about the CH4 response to increases in CO2. If we target a doubling of CO2 and calculate from that a 2°C increase then there will be an associated increase in CH4 which again adds to the overall temp increase. I think in the High Permian event the magic number was something like 4°C to trigger the CH4 hydrate that led to a rather dramatic end. But in todays climate system there’s already ~150% increase in CH4. Not good. If that trend continues and we don’t curb CO2 well bellow that doubling to 500ppm then aren’t we likely to hit that dreaded 4°C and illicit the same response from the oceans CH4 hydrate store. Which results in “game over” or at least has in the past?

    I love the work your doing on this site and I use it as a reference all the time. I can also understand how for the sake of economy we stick to one subject at a time, however I think there is a distinct link between temp CO2 and CH4 that is by and large inseparable. I can’t help but think we’d also have to extrapolate out the CH4 levels to get very accurate with temp predictions.

    [Response: I’d put it a bit more broadly than you do. The big issue is the feedback of temperature (and precipitation) on near-surface organic carbon in permafrost and ocean sediments. That carbon could get oxidized and released as CO2. Or it could get out as CH4. Either way, it’s the organic carbon cycle feedback that has some real dangers. It’s also possible that the terrestrial ecosystem will continue to be a sink of carbon, but with the present state of modeling the land carbon cycle we just don’t know how long that can last. It’s an area where progress can be made, but it may be an even harder problem than clouds. The best reason to be worried about this is the PETM event about 55 million years ago, when some kind of organic carbon release occurred in the context of an already warming climate. –raypierre]

  164. Peter Adamski:

    Ray, In your post you say that the Keystone, at 500,000 barrels per day, “adds up to a piddling 2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years.” If that’s the case, 95 Keystones adds up to a significant 195 gigatones in a hundred years.

    But the NY Times, in referencing an Andrew Leach blog, says “It could take 95 Keystone XL pipelines — and until the year 3316 — to release the full amount of carbon in Canada’s oil sands.”

    Something is not right here.

    [Response: Yes. You can check my arithmetic yourself. (Just did it again and got the same answer) About a hundred pipelines for about a hundred years would release the full carbon. You can do it even more simply just doing the computation in barrels: 1.7 trillion divided by (500000 barrels per day * 365 days) gives 9315 years for 1 pipeline, or 93 years for 100 pipelines. I can’t figure where the “year 3316” could be coming from. I’ll ask Andrew what he had in mind. By the way, while we’re on the subject of a hundred pipelines, note that in order to build 100 you have to build the second one (we already have one), so it’s obvious that if you stop the second one you don’t get the rest either, at least not over the US route. I guess you could sum up McKibben’s strategy that way –raypierre]

    [Response: I just heard back from Andrew Leach. Evidently I’m not the only one reading email at midnight. He says that the NYT quote mixed together two different estimates he made. The 95 pipelines figure was for about 100 years, and is consistent with my numbers. The “year 3316,” however was based on an assumption of extraction at a fixed rate of 5 million barrels per day. I am sure a lot of people are as a result going around with the erroneous notion that it would take 95 pipelines more than a thousand years to add up to a serious amount of carbon. –raypierre]

  165. Edward Greisch:

    How much CO2 is too much? I have noticed an increase in the price of pecans. According to
    it seems that the drought in Texas could have something to do with the price of pecans, and with GW.

  166. Chris Colose:

    Unfortunately this thread is no longer young, but I wanted to mention a couple of things concerning the more recent thinking of defining a sensitivity metric that relates global temperature to emissions rather than to atmospheric concentrations. I’d like to see what other people think as well. It’s the latter that matters for the radiation physics, but some of the numbers here might have a bit more meaning to the regular person, especially in light of the recent news that 2010 set the record for global carbon emissions, with large growth coming from the developing world.

    I was initially skeptical of the application- the traditional climate sensitivity perspective involves a rather robust simplicity of the forced climate response that relates some forcing F to the global temperature anomaly dT, by S=dT/F (in equilibrium) assuming no large non-linearities or bifurcations within the range of change being considered. However, for the emissions perspective (with a sensitivitySE=dT/E, where E is the emissions), we need to decompose the problem into a term dT/C multiplied by C/E, where C is the change in atmospheric carbon (where E and C have dimensions of mass of carbon). This introduces considerable issues with the carbon cycle response, and still incorporates the uncertainty in climate sensitivity when determining how much emission you need to reach a given temperature target.

    The traditional approach already incorporates carbon cycle responses into S (through the definition of F, the final radiative forcing), but information is lost as to how fast a specified concentration target (such a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration) is reached, which depends on these carbon feedbacks (that ultimately determine the time dependence of CO2 concentration in terms of sources and sinks). Diagnosing this behavior is of critical importance on policy related timescales.

    After reading some of the papers on SE that started to pioneer the idea, I began to grow on it (such as the recent work of Damon Matthews, Solomon et al 2009, and some others which ended up becoming a major theme in the NAS 2010 report). The linearity between global temperature and cumulative emissions was not self-evident to me, and to the extent that it holds over a fairly broad range, there has to be some exciting applications to ancient climates as well as to contemporary policy goals.

    The upside is that determining a cumulative emission threshold for a target global temperature increase could be very useful as a tractable and clear metric for policy-makers. This is particularly attractive because ideas like “radiative forcing at the tropopause” can’t really be appreciated outside of the climate community.

    There’s also been good steps made in thinking about what we mean in terms of “committed climate warming” in contrasting a scenario where we stabilize atmospheric concentration (implying a ~80% reduction in global emissions, and requiring some heating in the pipeline as the oceans warm enough to accommodate energy balance) vs. a zero emission future scenario (which is what “committed” should mean, since it is only fair to use the past emissions when we say “committed”). In the latter case, it is possible to eliminate future warming in the pipeline, although recent studies show that global temperatures do not decline for centuries to millennium even after atmospheric CO2 begins to decay (though the physical arguments for this involving the deep-ocean seem a bit hand-wavy to me and I think it should be explored more…but it seems to open up the door for a new way of thinking about climate change recovery).

  167. Mark_BC:

    My own calculations put the EROEI of gasoline from Alberta tar sand at around 2:1. I am as horrified by the prospect of oil sands development as anyone. But one thing needs to be considered — the USA must get its oil from somewhere. Big Oil has stalled and sabotaged the transition to alternative energy sources for decades and now the US will finally be paying for it. When the financial system collapses over the next few months likely, the US dollar will inevitably lose its reserve currency status, which means that the US will no longer be able to export worthless pieces of paper in exchange for the importation of valuable real world commodities. This means it will be severely oil stressed, and oh look, just north is all that oil… It’s coming out regardless, whether we like it or not.

    I come from a science and engineering background and I don’t think scientists really grasp the gravity of the financial situation facing the globe, and what is about to happen. Unfortunately the vast majority of people still view the world as “economy versus environment”; there is a separation. When the economy collapses, 99% of the people out there, most of whom will be simply trying to eat, will have little sympathy for scientists’ cries over the future of our climate a few decades down the road. The oil industry will take advantage of this situation and try to get away with murder. The US will be getting oil one way or another, and it will likely be taking it by force, from Canada.

    If this Keystone pipeline doesn’t go through, then Alberta will be pushing for the alternative market — Asia — and will try to ram through the Northern Gateway pipeline to the west coast, through unimaginably rough terrain, and negotiate supertankers through precarious BC fjords. Oil spills are guaranteed.

    I think all effort should be on weaning the USA off oil.

  168. Kevin McKinney:

    “The US will be getting oil one way or another, and it will likely be taking it by force, from Canada.”

    That reminds me of the old (and crass) adage that “one who refuses to resist can’t be raped.” That is, the probability of the Harper government resisting any blandishments from either Big Oil or the US seems vanishingly small–so it seems highly unlikely to me that any force will be required, even if this scenario otherwise plays out exactly as described.

  169. couldabin:

    For those of us who see that excess GHG is accelerating humanity’s demise, it would be comforting to believe that stopping Keystone XL meaningfully changes that timetable. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, the problem is demand, not supply.

    [Response: But the demand is for energy, including portable energy for transport, not specifically for fossil fuels. Capital will flow to one or another sort of expensive energy production, but it is not written in stone that it will be fossil fuels. Actions like McKibben’s are based on the premise that raising a sufficient ruckus about investment in one particular direction can give cleaner options a chance. I have no idea if that will actually work, but I for one am glad that somebody is giving it a try. The unassailable principle is that almost all of the tar sands oil must stay in the ground, and while I have no particular qualifications to try to make a prediction about the prospects of one or another tactic working (does anybody?) I think I am on firm scientific grounds in proclaiming that one way or another, the carbon had better mostly be left where it is. –raypierre]

  170. Pete Dunkelberg:

    raypierre, Help! You look like a man aware of human factors. I’m going to repeat something I have tried to bring up in another thread or two. There appears to be a trend toward more area covered by floods and drought, and even a trend toward bunched precipitation (fewer but stronger events to deliver a greater fraction of the rain or snow that falls on an area) between arid and flooded areas. The looming problem is this: One year between now and 2030, say, both floods and drought may have a ‘big year’. Big as in a famine and a million or more dead people. The cumulative probability of a coincidence grows faster than one might think (recall the coinciding birthdays puzzle).

    How can the cumulative probability for n years be estimated? This requires a model study of course, but by not using the slowest model you can get some idea of it pretty soon. Humankind deserves this sort of warning. raypierre, please speak to this question.

  171. Jessen:

    Good article, but would “it doesn’t matter much how rapidly the carbon is emitted” apply to both climate change and ocean acidification? Or would faster rates of emission only further overwhelm the ocean’s ability to “neutralize” an excess (possibly contributing to accelerated decline in the “biological pump”)? And is bitumen closer to oil or closer to tar (sorry)? :-)

  172. RichardC:

    Raypierre said, ” “Current rates of consumption”? Would that we could assume that rates of consumption would stay fixed at the current rate. ”

    Coal to oil and gas are destined to become very cheap.

    [Response: Interesting to know that you think so, but could you let us know your reasoning? –raypierre]

  173. Holly Stick:

    #171 Jessen, the government of Alberta unveiled a new information portal about the oil sands/tar sands today, and their Glossary describes bitumen:

    “Bitumen – A thick, sticky form of crude oil that is so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless it is heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature, bitumen looks much like cold molasses. It typically contains more sulphur, metals and heavy hydrocarbons than conventional crude oil.”

    The decisions on the pipeline will be delayed for a year or so, as anounced today:

    So all those pipeline protests may have helped, along with the good research by reporters and bloggers. Public pressure can have an effect.

  174. Pete Dunkelberg:

    Breaking! Keystone stopped! for now at least.

  175. Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company:

    173 Holly Stick,

    Thanks for the link to Pres. Obama’s statement.

    He seems to be thinking that his administration is on a path to doubling the fuel energy of cars, thus we would not need the additional oil.

    Those of us concerned about CO2 should note that the only significant change in ‘fuel economy’ is a deception that could enable electric vehicles to accomplish the goal in the form of the government CAFE standards. The electric vehicles will be given a bonus in the EPA formula for MPGE that approximately triples the efficiency that is actually achieved. Thus, they sound like progress. However, for the CO2 emissions, the electric vehicles will shift their still inefficient real operation to coal fired power sources. Of course this will increase the CO2 emissions associated with operation of such vehicles.

    I recently heard that the CAFE calculations will allow manufacturers to count the electric vehicle production twice in the CAFE computations. This further accomplishes nothing but deception about vehicle efficiency.

    The President’s view seems to be that none of this will impact the economy since ‘efficiency’ will support growth. Even false efficiency could do this, but the ultimate victim of this kind of efficiency is the atmosphere.

  176. Holly Stick:

    raypierre, economists like Andrew Leach and Michael Levi were fairly critical of this post on twitter, though Levi never commented here, I think.

    You might want to check out Levi’s article here which makes some assumptions I wonder about:

    “…The first is that there is no hard threshold that signifies safety. The world might end up at 450 ppm and still experience 4 degrees C or more (7.2 degrees F or more) of warming. It might end up at 650 ppm and only experience 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) of warming. Climate change is about probabilities. This doesn’t mean that we should gamble with high greenhouse-gas concentrations — but it does mean that we shouldn’t give up just because some particular threshold gets crossed…”

    [Response: Did you have other economists in mind or did you just mean the two of them? I’m not aware of other economists who have expressed an opinion. I’ve had a rather productive exchange with Andrew Leach, and perhaps that will be aired in public if Andy Revkin sets up a forum for it on DotEarth. For now, let me just say that we agree completely on the numbers, but disagree on whether one can count on economics all by itself keeping most of the carbon in the ground, and on the notion of whether McKibben’s tactic makes a potentially effective contribution to the goal of keeping the carbon there. In a perfect world, we’d have a sensible carbon/energy policy and what Bill is doing wouldn’t be necessary, but the question is what do you do in an imperfect world, and is there room to try more than one thing. As for Levi, I don’t really understand what has gotten him so fussed. He seems to be mainly fussed about the fact that I dared to express the sentiment that maybe there’s something to be said for McKibben’s tactic, despite the fact that about 95% of the post was really about carbon accounting. I really don’t think Levi is any more or less qualified than I am to predict what kind of social movements might succeed. Having seen how poorly the economics profession does at forecasting the future, I’m not very sanguine about his rosy projections that the rate of extraction will remain fairly low. I certainly agree with him that the heart of the matter is attacking demand, but who ever said that McKibben’s tactic precludes that? Finally, I don’t understand what the Levi quote from Grist has to do with my post. I did not say that you give up when you pass the trillion tonne threshold. In fact in the last paragraph I say explicitly that you DO NOT give up, because you still have the job of preventing the next trillion tonnes. The rest of Levi’s quote amounts to “pray for low climate sensitivity,” and is just rotten economics, since expected damages are dominated by the low probability that climate sensitivity is on the very high side, rather than the low probability that climate sensitivity is on the very low side. –raypierre]

    [Response: The Levi piece linked above at Grist (reprinted from the Council on Foreign Affairs web site) is not a comment related to Keystone at all, but a comment on the recently released IEA report on lock-in effect of energy infrastructure. I find Levi’s article singularly uninformed and unenlightening. He basically shrugs and says that maybe everything will be all right even if we exceed the target emissions. Well, maybe. He also claims the IEA is wrong about the emissions to 2035 that are compatible with the 2C target, but he doesn’t state his reasoning. I’ll have to check the IEA analysis myself, but it doesn’t take much lock-in effect from infrastructure to commit us to 500 more gigatonnes C by 2035 so I don’t think they are far off (and 500 gigatonnes only buys you a 50-50 chance of staying under 2C). Then Levi shrugs again and says maybe there won’t be so much lock-in because nations may decide to abandon infrastructure. He mentions gas fired power plants, but ignores the IEA’s point, which is that if a lot of coal plants get built, they involve a lot of sunk cost that is hard to write down. Maybe in a panic nations will do that. Well maybe. So don’t just pray for low climate sensitivity, but pray for unusual willingess to write down sunk costs. –raypierre]

  177. Anonymous Coward:

    Micheal Levi is an establishment ideologue, not an disinterested thinker. He argues for things like imperial wars.
    The CFR he belongs to is not your average think-tank. It’s the premier foreign policy outfit and former senior officials as well as Generals work with it. As you might expect, they are tightly connected with industry, including the fossil fuels industry and the oil majors in particular whose strategies are of course ont entierly irrelevant to the US’ Mid-East policy.
    He would no doubt coat it in professional-sounding, politically correct langugage but I can only assume he does not want social movements the establishment doesn’t control to succeed. And I also assume he doesn’t want scientists suggesting that the establishment’s climate policies have been such a disaster that it’s past time for outsiders to rock the boat.

    [Response: I was a bit surprised to the virulence of his reaction to what I thought was a fairly innocuous post, but (while I’m not familiar with the nature of the CFR and the extent to which Levi’s views are of a piece with his employers) when it comes to climate issues, I don’t think he’s as much of a villain as all that. He seems to accept the basic science, and even the need to get carbon emissions under control. There does seem to be some disconnect between what he professes to believe about such things, and the sense (or lack thereof) of urgency he conveys. And while he seems to accept the need to reduce emissions, he also seems to throw cold water on just about everything anybody proposes to actually do something about the problem. I don’t know where he stands on carbon taxes. Most economists who accept the basic dimensions of the carbon problem think that carbon taxes are the best way to go; some also think direct investment incentives are also needed. In a Grist-reprinted piece, he once stated that he didn’t see anything wrong with lower gasoline prices for Americans (which would seem to go against the notion of addressing the demand problem through price signals). But more generally, the issue on the table is what to do in an imperfect world, involving a lot of different countries with different priorities and different willingness to do various things. –raypierre]

  178. Anonymous Coward:

    The US government does not deny basically incontrovertible science. The US government is however not intent on cutting emissions. So Micheal Levi has to justify that. There’s your “disconnect”.
    The US government is also not intent on signing on to a multilateral agreement such as Kyoto. So he has to justify that as well.
    Does that make him a “villain”? No. Foreign policy is not about morality. That does make him an ennemy however. Don’t be fooled because he’s smart and reasonable.
    If the people of the USA doesn’t throw CFR types out of government, climate policy is heading nowhere, not least because they are extremely unpopular in “a lot of different countries” (and for good reason). I would have thought the past 15 years would have made the need for change clear enough for everyone… but maybe we need to wait 15 more years.

  179. Susan Anderson:

    Edward Greisch:

    More to the point, increase in the price of peanuts. Pecans are rather a luxury. Weather disasters. Since poor people turn to peanuts this is a double whammy.

  180. Holly Stick:

    raypierre, I did mean just the two economists, sorry for the inexact wording. I follow Leach’s twittering some and have noted that he signified agreement with some of Levi’s articles, but I don’t know much about Levi. His lack of urgency to cut emissions is a problem.

    I think Leach does try to correct the numbers used on both sides of the argument. I also think he dismisses some anti-tar sands arguments too easily, but that could be my own prejudice speaking; on the other hand many Albertans are scornful of what they perceive as hippie-type environmentalists.

    I agree that the economists probably do not understand the pipeline protest movement, which I think is related to the Occupy movement and others around the world lately. Perhaps the economists expect us to be governed by rational self-interest, which isn’t how real people behave.

    I don’t understand the numbers used in climate science or in economics, but I trust the climate scientists to have less of a political agenda than some economists. But I think it would be good to have some dialogue between scientists such as yourself and economists such as Leach.

    Andrew Leach did write a blog post giving many reasons for what happened around the pipeline decision; but he still misses the social issues. I would say the main thing is that people basically do not trust the governments to look after their interests, and definitely do not trust the corporations to do so.

  181. CM:

    Regulating demand with a carbon price would be the rational thing to do. Too bad the U.S Senate wanted no truck with the rational thing, even when it came riddled in exceptions and larded with pork (Waxman-Markey). IMHO, people are spectacularly missing this point when they criticize the pipeline protesters for going after supply by resisting construction. We know perfectly well what people closed the door on cap-and-trade, what people would pay a carbon tax only when it’s taken from their cold dead hands, and what people are too busy demonizing Jim Hansen to even consider fee-and-dividend. And it ain’t McKibben.

    And however much more economic sense top-down carbon pricing makes in the abstract, little has happened over the past twenty years to assuage my suspicion that the abstract is exactly where it was always intended to stay. Some countries have implemented carbon taxes, sort of with training wheels on, but it’s going to take immense political will and capital to raise them to the point where an 80% cut in emissions could become a reality within decades. And mobilizing a social movement around something that makes sense in the abstract — and a tax, at that — is not easy. (Tackling both global warming and the recession by shifting taxes from work to carbon ought to be a smash hit with the public, but somehow isn’t.) I suspect that, should we manage to keep all but a trillion tons of carbon in the ground, a vital role will have been played by protests against specific sites and projects, and the political impetus from such protests mushrooming.

  182. gary thompson:

    It appears that you have lost this cause. Canada has chosen to send the oil via rail (carbon producer) to China (carbon polluter). Is this new option creating a larger carbon footprint than the pipeline?

    [Response: Prime Minister Harper’s speculations about what he might want to happen in the future aren’t exactly a foregone conclusion, regardless of what you think about the wisdom of pipeline or exploiting the tar sands. – gavin]

  183. Holly Stick:

    The tar sands/oil sands recoverable reserve possibly may be larger yet:

    “…What makes it significant is that Saleski is tapping the Grosmont, a rocky formation that is believed to have 400 billion barrels of bitumen in place, none of which is included in Alberta’s reserves of 170 billion barrels because it hasn’t been proven to be commercially recoverable. Almost all of the province’s reserves are in the sandy clastics formations, the part being harvested by all the oilsands players, including Suncor Energy, Syncrude Canada and Cenovus Energy.

    If even 25 per cent of the Grosmont oil is recoverable, it would take Alberta’s reserves to 270 billion barrels, putting the province within spitting distance of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for the biggest oil pools in the world. OPEC estimated in July that Venezuela had 296.5 billion barrels of crude at the end of 2010 and Saudi Arabia had 264.5 billion…”

  184. David Lewis:

    For the “do details matter” department:
    Keystone XL isn’t the first big US tap into the tar sand deposit. Two other major pipelines have received Presidential permits to bring tar sand oil across the border and are operational now. The 30 inch Keystone, the first phase of the project Keystone XL is only a part of, got its permit in 2008 and started moving oil across the border in 2010. The 36 inch Alberta Clipper, which is the same size as Keystone XL, got its permit in 2009 and went operational in 2010. Pipelines are discussed in public debate in terms of barrels per day throughput, but capacity can be boosted as demand materializes after they are completed by adding extra pumping stations thus increasing the pressure. It seems the companies talk about their projects in the beginning in terms of about 1/2 or less of the ultimate capacity – the lesser capacity is what they need for the project to be economically viable. A 36 inch line like the Alberta Clipper or the proposed Keystone XL can move more than 1 million bpd.

    The effect of delaying or cancelling Keystone XL is more fleshed out as I write, because the project has been delayed.

    The pipeline business is structured so any project that is delayed for any reason can be quickly abandoned by the oil producers who were committed to it so new projects can be put together quickly. Producers of oil who had signed up to use Keystone XL are saying they are thinking of backing out and committing to other projects.

    The choke point XL would have affected most immediately is inside the US, from Cushing to Houston. Because this part of the line doesn’t cross an international border no Presidential permits are required for replacement projects. Because of limited capacity to move oil from Cushing to Houston, the West Texas Intermediate oil price has been lower than the Brent, a fact that was costing tar sand oil producers billions. A competing proposal to Keystone XL on the Cushing to Houston section, Wrangler, was attracting producers and its owners briefly thought about increasing its size. But yesterday, Wrangler owners bought an empty existing pipeline, the Seaway, which was originally built to move oil from the Gulf up to Cushing that had seen little recent use because of the oil glut up there and announced plans to reverse its flow and up its capacity. This will have a quicker effect on this choke point even than Keystone XL, boosting prices received by tar sand oil producers thus encouraging them even more. The effect on the WTI price was immediate and upwards. The two lines already crossing the border from Canada can be increased in capacity by adding pump stations and increasing the pressure. The CPR is already loading some rail cars in Alberta for shipping right to the Gulf. 700,000 bpd was jury rigged to get oil out of the Bakken in North Dakota and the talk in Alberta is they can move 2,000,000 bpd across the border with rail cars and barges which don’t need Presidential permits. The Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, which is a 36 inch 1,000,000 bpd+ potential going across BC would open up the tar sand deposit to China. The proposal needs to survive determined Native opposition, but if Canada decides the US doesn’t want this oil it seems unlikely Natives could stop it. Only a sustained and determined opposition from the US and the rest of the world could slow down production at the tar sand deposit.

    The NYTimes did a piece on a tech development where it has been demonstrated that ionic liquids just stirred into bitumen can effectively separate oil from sand without the big energy input of the processes of today.

    In the is protesting this the way to be most effective department:

    If you read Hansen’s argument about why it is necessary to leave coal and tar sand and other unconventional fossil fuels in the ground, it dawns that he’s basically granting a “free pass” to conventional oil. He points out that most of what is left of this is in the Middle East and Russia. There’s no way to stop them from producing it, he says, and because civilization is so tooled up to use this oil, and so dependent on it even if it were to decide to decarbonize on a crash basis, it will be used.

    So imagine the citizens of North America suddenly wake up to the climate peril civilization is in. An aroused public here is supposed to stand by while the oil barons of the Middle East and Russia do what they please with what’s left of their fossil resources, while we here, on Hansen’s vision and advice, leave our coal and tar sand oil, and presumably unconventional fracked oil and gas in the ground. It seems unrealistic.

    Hansen actually opposed anyone signing the Copenhagen agreement, on the grounds that it wasn’t his plan, i.e. he wants carbon tax and rebate to citizens, even though nothing in Copenhagen would have prohibited Hansen’s own country, the US, from meeting its obligations to reduce emissions any way it chose, i.e, Hansen’s tax way. Hansen’s analysis of why Kyoto failed says it was because it was cap and trade not tax, and he leaves out the minor detail like the US didn’t ratify and China and India were exempt. He also dumps on cap and trade over acid rain in the US because, he says, it “didn’t work”. He’s inconsistent on carbon capture, saying in his papers its the emissions from fossil fuel use we have to worry about, but in many public statements its the fossil fuels that have to be left in the ground, as if carbon capture could not be done. So the guy says don’t use coal or tar sand, don’t sign international agreements unless they’re his cup of tea, nothing could work except his plan, and I look at it and think, the guy is a great climate scientist.

    I’m on the side of McKibben and Hansen on Keystone XL, because it does my heart good to see a protest, any protest, that has its focus on climate. But I’m not sure it makes much sense other than as a symbol.

    I’ll have a piece online with graphic illustrations of the various pipelines and proposals, entitled, “Keystone XL, one head of the Hydra”, but you’d need to search on that title as it won’t be up at The Energy Collective until tomorrow I’m told.

  185. Russell:

    It must delight neocon energy hawks that the Keystone pipeline’s northern terminus lies at a latitude to conjure with – Fifty-Four degrees and Forty seconds North.

    The entire masthead of The Weekly Standard should join Bill McKibben’s forces in demanding that Commander in Chief Obama follow in his Democratic predecessor President Polk’s footsteps by declaring the annexation of the Athabasca tar sands to be the manifest destiny of these United States.

  186. Russell:


    Please add 39′ 20″ to the preceding latitude, as the Forty in Fifty-four Forty or Fight is minutes , not seconds

  187. Susan Anderson:

    As long as you are bringing up the other pipelines, their safety record should also be noted. It’s not good, and disingenuous would be a polite way to describe how they handled it.

    Meanwhile, what *is* the matter with developing alternatives? Even without the all-out government push that created the likes of railroads and roads, it has achieved some in the marketplace, and would do much better if carbon products were priced properly and the subsidies moved to clean energy. Why *do* we want to abdicate progress in the name of hundred-year-old resources and planning, even if twiddled in contemporary ways? I know, the answer is obvious, but discussion of politics and lies belongs elsewhere.

  188. Holly Stick:

    The Northern Gateway pipeline would have a difficult time getting through, because there are First Nations who could tie it up in litigation for years, and also because many other BC residents are also apposed to it. They rightfully point out that Alberta might make money from the pipeline, but BC would be stuck with the environmental messes. The blustering, stupid Harper government might try to bully it through, but would probably not be able to overcome the opposition. And if they did, are they also going to guard every kilometre of pipeline from sabotage? The oil industry in Alberta and BC has already had some sabotage so the idea is out there.

    Susan, Alberta used to call itself “Sunny Alberta” and we have all sorts of sun and wind that could be used for clean energy. It is insane that most of our electricity comes from coal-burning plants, and that we appear to base our economy on the boom and bust oil industry. There are some large wind farms now.

    A hundred years ago every prairie farmhouse had a windmill for its water well. Why don’t they all have at least one windmill and some solar panels? They would not have to worry about NIMBYism for these small improvements. One of my farming relatives looked into having a windmill some years ago and said it would cost him $10,000 I think, but I bet it could be done much more cheaply nowadays.

  189. RichardC:

    Coal to oil and gas are destined to become very cheap.

    [Response: Interesting to know that you think so, but could you let us know your reasoning? –raypierre]
    “We’re improving the cost every day. We started off sometime ago at an uneconomical $17,000 a barrel. Today, we’re at a cost of $28.84 a barrel,” said engineering dean Rick Billo.
    The cost of converting Indian coal into oil should be around $40/barrel. Note, however, that the output of a CTL plant is not crude oil but refined products, which carry a higher price.
    The cost to convert the coal is $25 a barrel, the company says,
    As oil prices were increasing during the first half of 2009, the coal liquefaction projects in China were again boosted, and these projects are profitable with an oil barrel price of $40.

    At under $40 a barrel, coal to diesel is already far cheaper than crude oil to diesel. As the price of coal to liquids technology drops and the price of crude oil increases, it will be very tempting for many countries to develop this resource. It’s hard to resist perhaps a 75% decline in costs, especially when the product can be produced domestically instead of imported (Coal is the most widely distributed fossil fuel)