Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Robert Rapier on Jul 2, 2013 with 54 responses

The Increasing Irrelevance of the Keystone XL Debate

Keystone XL’s Insignificant Contribution to Climate

Last week President Obama unveiled a new plan to combat climate change in a speech at Georgetown University. While there is generally broad consensus that his comments further threaten the already battered US coal industry, his comments on TransCanada’s (TSX: TRP, NYSE: TRP) Keystone XL pipeline project had pundits guessing at his meaning. Here is what the President said in his speech about Keystone XL:

Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The reason that there have been widely differing views on the President’s intentions boils down to his use of the phrase “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” The State Department’s Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL Pipeline project already concluded that approval of the project would have little impact on global carbon dioxide emissions or on the development of the oil sands because of their view that the oil will get to market one way or another. More on that below.

My own position is that it doesn’t matter whether the pipeline is built, because I also think — for reasons I detail below — that the project will make no measurable contribution one way or another to the global climate. In my opinion, after digging through the data I believe that the pipeline is irrelevant as far as the global climate is concerned. In fact, I will demonstrate below why I believe that this is so. The only reason I care at all about this issue — as I explained in Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns — is that I think it is a misallocation of resources when we don’t have time to misallocate resources. It also conveys a false impression of the most important drivers of global carbon emissions.

Let’s first use a bit of science and data to see what the numbers imply about the significance of Keystone XL — even for a worst case scenario. Here’s a 3-step exercise that anyone can do to estimate the impact based on specific sets of assumptions:

  1. State your assumption of how much oil that you believe Keystone XL will facilitate being burned that wouldn’t be burned otherwise. You can make that number as high as you like, but state your reason for choosing the number.
  2. Calculate the expected global temperature impact that would arise from your number.
  3. Finally, calculate the length of time it would take to burn the amount of oil you chose in your first step. How much would the global temperature be expected to have changed 50 years from now in your scenario? (Information cited below will allow you to calculate Steps 2 and 3).

For me, the calculations look like this.

For Step 1, the pipeline itself would transport 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) at maximum volume. I would certainly expect this volume to displace some other oil from the market such that the entire 830,000 bpd is not a net addition to the global oil market. However, the climate impact of even the total 830,000 bpd is trivial. It less than 1/10,000th of a °C per year.* This contribution wouldn’t even be measurable. It would merely be noise in the global temperature measurement.

So, that clearly wouldn’t get anyone excited, therefore one has to begin extrapolating. What if the pipeline was the catalyst for extracting the entire Athabasca oil sands reserve in Alberta? Well, that’s still not much to get excited about. For Step 2, I refer to a 2012 paper by Neil C. Swart and Andrew J. Weaver from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria published in Nature Climate Change. The reserve itself — that is the part that is economically viable to extract — is 170 billion barrels. Using standard climate models, the researchers calculated that burning the proven reserve would lead to a global temperature increase of 0.02°C to 0.05°C. That is between 1/50th and 1/20th of a degree Celsius. Not only is this still only noise in the global temperature measurement data, but now the amount of time it would take to burn through this reserve becomes relevant (which is Step 3).

But before we calculate the time to burn through the reserve, let’s look at the worst possible case that I frequently see pipeline opponents cite (with no caveats attached to it). What would be the temperature impact if the entire 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place could be burned? This is a ridiculous assumption for several reasons, but let’s work through the case anyway. The researchers in the previously-cited paper in Nature Climate Change calculated that burning the entire 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place could raise global temperatures by 0.24 to 0.50°C. Guess which number Keystone XL opponents like to cite? 0.5°C, the high end of the worst case, most unrealistic scenario (it’s technically impossible to burn through all the oil in place).

Besides the fact that it’s ridiculous to associate the Keystone XL pipeline with burning all the oil in place in the Athabasca, once we work through Step 3 even this worst case falls apart. Always overlooked in this debate is the length of time it would take to burn through the reserve, or the resource. The fact is that there is a limit to how fast oil can be extracted. The Canadian oil industry has been growing, but at the current production rate of 1.8 million bpd of oil sands production it would take 259 years to burn through the reserve, and 2,740 years to burn through the resource.

But let’s assume that Canada’s oil sands industry continues to grow — and despite the challenges of dealing with Alberta’s harsh winters, it manages to reach the 10 million bpd level of Saudi Arabia. Over the past decade Canada’s oil sands’ industry has grown at a rate of 8.9% per year. If that impressive rate could be maintained, Canada would reach 10 million bpd from the oil sands in 20 years. (Of course the same people arguing for this possible huge temperature effect would argue that there is no possible way to transport that much crude from Alberta).  If they could then maintain that level of production, it would take Canada 57 years to extract the 170 billion barrel reserve and contribute the aforementioned 0.02°C to 0.05°C of warming to the atmosphere. So, in making a number of stretch assumptions, if the Keystone XL pipeline allows the extraction of the entire Athabasca reserve, in 57 years it will have made a contribution to the global climate that is too small to be measured.

If we make one final stretch assumption and say the Keystone XL enables the extraction of all the oil in place in the Athabasca, then using the same assumptions as in the previous paragraph it would take 502 years to extract all of the oil in place and contribute the 0.5°C that pipeline opponents throw around as some sort of reasonable assumption on the expected impact the pipeline could make toward the climate. Yet in this case it would still be over a century before any impact could even be measured. Most climate activists I know don’t believe we have 100 years to solve this problem, yet time and resources are being spent on a tiny contributor to the overall problem that won’t make a measurable contribution for over a century — if ever.

At this point, some Keystone opponents will argue “Yes, but this could be the beginning of a social change that could make a difference.” But I have yet to see anyone detail how that might work. The vast majority of the world’s growing carbon emissions are coming from Asia Pacific. The reason they are growing is because billions of people aspire to a standard of living that still pales in comparison to Western standards of living. If I could connect the dots to how outrage over a pipeline from the oil sands to the US translates into a reduction of coal usage in Asia Pacific, I would concede the point. But thus far, I haven’t seen anyone connect those dots.

The following graphic illustrates what I consider to be the real problem, and why I consider the focus on Keystone XL to be seriously misplaced. This graphic shows the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from coal consumption in the Asia Pacific region, compared to the carbon dioxide emissions that would result from burning 100% of Canada’s oil production.

co2 emissions 1965-2012

In this section, I attempted to show why I think Keystone’s potential contribution to the climate is insignificant. Jesse Jenkins has also performed extensive calculations on this in Climate Change and Keystone XL: The Numbers Behind the Debate. He looked at three possible scenarios involving Keystone XL and how those might impact upon carbon emissions. I think he does a great and very detailed job, but I would add that it is important to keep in mind that all of this carbon can’t be burned overnight.

The time element is one that I feel pretty much everyone overlooks. Climate change activists argue that we are in an emergency situation. But in an emergency situation, you don’t spend your time and energy on things that might have a tiny impact a century from now. Your greatest focus should be on those that can address the emergency as quickly as possible.

In the next section, I explain why I feel that even though the potential climate impact is insignificant, Keystone XL is irrelevant in any case.

Why Keystone XL is Irrelevant

One of the contentious issues in the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline is whether the oil from the Alberta oil sands will get to market even if the pipeline isn’t built. “The rail system doesn’t appear to be capable of moving Keystone XL volumes” is a popular claim among Keystone opponents. When I ask why they believe this, the response I get is generally based on anecdotes by oil companies and pipeline companies, for instance, suggesting that the pipeline is an absolute necessity in ramping up oil sands production. Or, they argue that rail is simply too expensive to be an alternative method of transport. This is a perfect example of a theory being directly contradicted by data.

In the US and Canada we have already seen oil transport by rail increase by about one million barrels per day (bpd) over the past 5 years. This scale-up is greater than the 830,000 bpd the Keystone XL would transport at full capacity. Bakken oil is now being railed to refineries on the East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf Coast – and if you listen to the earnings calls or investor presentations from various refiners, they plan to continue expanding this practice. Four years ago there was essentially no oil being shipped by rail from the Bakken. Two years ago, approximately 50,000 bpd was being shipped by rail. Today that number is 640,000 bpd — 71% of the crude oil production in North Dakota — and rising rapidly.

Source: Association of American Railroads

There is nothing special about the US rail system that enabled it to ramp up the transport of crude oil so rapidly. It simply responded to demand as Bakken production exploded and oil producers sought access to lucrative and distant markets. The reason is not — as some Keystone XL opponents have claimed — because there is anything special about the light oil from the Bakken that makes it easier to transport. The reason simply comes down to the differentials (as explained below).

Five years ago, these arguments could have been just as easily applied to the Bakken: production would be constrained because there was simply no way rail could ramp up fast enough to move the Bakken crude out of North Dakota. And of course shipment by rail would be too expensive. Yet it did ramp up, because the explosion in production depressed the price of Bakken crude relative to more widely traded waterborne crudes like Brent, and this created a tremendous incentive for refiners to move that product to coastal refineries one way or another.

As pipeline routes reach capacity, the decision to move by rail comes down to three factors: 1). The cost of rail shipping; 2). The price of crude oil at the destination, and; 3). The differential in the price of crude at the origin and the destination. The Bakken-Brent differential averaged about $20/bbl in 2012. According to a recent investor presentation from Valero (NYSE: VLO), the company can ship Bakken crude by rail to the West Cost for $9/bbl, to the East Coast for $15/bbl, or to the Gulf Coast for $12/bbl. This is the reason crude transport by rail in the US has exploded. Yes, shipping by pipeline is less expensive, but shipping by rail is still economical at such a wide Bakken-Brent differential.

The future of oil sands development depends not on whether Keystone XL is approved. It depends on a sustained high price for waterborne crudes. With heavy Canadian oils trading at a greater than $40/bbl discount to Brent in 2012, it’s no wonder that rail transport of oil in western Canada is also skyrocketing. Over the past two years — from the April 2011 through April 2013 — the volume of oil shipped by rail in western Canada nearly quadrupled, rising from less than 46,000 bpd to more than 177,000 bpd.

oil rail canada

Transport of heavy oil from the oil sands is expected to increase by another 60,000 bpd this year. If the differential remains high, expect the growth rate to be high, as it was in the Bakken. (I am unaware of anyone predicting 5 years ago the extent to which oil would be moved by rail from the Bakken, but the Bakken-Brent differential was very high and drove investment decisions).

As a result, Canadian rail companies like Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX: CP, NYSE: CP) and Canadian National Railway (TSX: CNR, NYSE: CNI) are turning in the best quarterly results in their histories. They are investing capital in expanding their crude oil transport capabilities. Analysts expect this trend of oil via rail to continue, with estimates that 10% of Canada’s oil production will be transported by rail by 2015.

Logistical constraints haven’t thus far prevented oil sands production from growing exponentially for the past two decades. In just the past 10 years, Canadian oil sands production has grown by 1 million bpd. This didn’t happen because Canada had a million barrels of spare pipeline capacity 10 years ago. It happened because many logistical projects were executed as production increased.

As we have already seen in the development of the Bakken in the US — and in the rapid rise in rail transport of oil in Western Canada over the past two years — if the price is right the oil will find its way to market. Logistical problems get solved when the price of oil is high enough. I believe this is the single biggest oversight of protesters who believe that by shutting down Keystone they will stall development of oil sands.

canada oil sands production

One variant of the argument against rail replacing Keystone XL has been to look at only the oil flowing from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Since that is a much smaller number than what the Keystone XL would transport, the argument is that rail is therefore simply incapable of replacing Keystone XL. That misses a very important point, because it only counts oil that is getting to the Gulf Coast. Oil that is transported by rail to a Midwestern or West Coast refinery — possibly backing out crude being piped up from the Gulf Coast, wouldn’t be counted in this scenario. But it’s not that the oil must flow to the Gulf Coast. It must simply flow far enough from Alberta to make it economical to ship it. Refiners all over the US are installing heavy crude capabilities, and rail can (and does) move this crude from Alberta to those facilities.


To conclude, in discussing this issue with people I feel that many have a comic book view of oil markets and the oil industry. Things aren’t static. Insufficient heavy oil capacity today can change in a short period of time if the economics warrant that. A million barrels of oil can be transported by rail in a few short years if the economics favor that. For more insight into this, see this excellent article by Peter Tertzakian (author of A Thousand Barrels a Second) on Why markets don’t watch pipeline debates.

Price will be the determining factor here, or more correctly the difference in price between what producers can get for their crude oil locally in Alberta versus what they can get if they can transport it to a coast. If that differential is high enough, you will see continued explosive growth in rail traffic, and you may even see convoys of 200 barrel tanker trucks headed from Alberta to Canada’s West Coast.

If, on the other hand, the global price of crude oil falls and remains depressed for years, that would put the brakes on the growth of the oil sands industry. I believe that even though we may see some weakness in the short-term, there won’t likely be a sustained collapse in the price of oil. Thus, I believe that the rapidly growing business of oil-by-rail will continue to expand.

Calculations: * Per the paper by Swart and Weaver, each barrel of oil burned would have the impact of raising the global temperature by 2×10-13 °C. Thus, burning 830,000 barrels per day that is transported through the pipeline would raise the temperature (2×10-13 °C) * (830,000 bpd) * (365 days/yr) = 0.00006 °C per year. At that rate, it would take 1650 years of burning 830,000 bpd to raise global temperatures by one tenth of a degree.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Robert Joshi for pointing me to several valuable sources of data for this article.

Disclaimer: I do not have any financial interest in any company discussed in this article. Some who prefer ad hominem arguments to actually addressing data were falsely spreading a story that I own TransCanada stock.

Link to Original Article: The Increasing Irrelevance of the Keystone XL Debate

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Se%gatherer on July 2, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    An excellent posting. I hope it is widely disseminated. I think that even though you have shown that there is a misallocation of carbon reduction effort towards blocking the pipeline, these efforts will continue – because the fundraising is lucrative due to the ease of mischaracterizing the tar sand oil as more poisonous, more dangerous, more corrosive – and about to enter our country to cause spills and other evil. The story is simple, tugs at basic emotions, and is wrong in fundamental ways – but serves to increase donations to the organizations that seek to stop Keystone.
    Some environmental groups do good work, some don’t – like other human enterprises. Some could even be considered, I would imagine, ultimately parasitic to society – but they are certainly not the only sort of organization, or the most powerful, of that nature.

    • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Very perspective and well balanced argument as to why Robert Rapier’s commentary and analysis is spot-on and

      Why NGO Enviro groups have miss-placed their efforts towards moving society away from fossil fuel addiction and towards a low carbon lower growth economy…and …

      ….that applies to the entire world community of countries, not just the high carbon per capita, energy wasteful western economies..

      In British Columbia, among more forward thinking enviro orgs, this realization has seen them shift towards a more economic focus with job creation central to the theme so as to not alienate 60-70 % of the general population who regard their jobs as a priority over the environment, even if, in the long run this is a false premise..

      It is my view that the True Evil One is The Consumer that is the problem, not the oil producers, legally operating to provide a profit for shareholders and pension funds (Old Consumers who caused the problem).

      These poorly named “Evil” Oil/Gas Producers get this constant, repetitive signal from The Consumer to fill up his or her gas tank on Demand and then The Consumer heads out on his/her quest of guilt-free freedom to roam, yet is then fully responsible for about 75-85% of the Evil-Doing GHG emissions…by way of his/her ICE vehicle tailpipe.

  2. By Jabs on July 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

    A very interesting read with lots of good discussion about local and global oil markets. I am kind of missing the main point, though. This argument – that the Keystone pipeline will not significantly contribute to global climate change – can, however, be made about essentially any single energy project.

    Is the main conclusion that environmental “activists” (for lack of a better word) should be putting their energy towards an all-encompassing global climate agreement instead of focusing on individual tangible projects?

    Then the key question is this: what is the best way to effect change? Through abstract global lobbying or through going after concrete (though relatively insignificant) projects? Or both? Maybe this could be the topic of another article, but of course it will be a challenge to find data to support either argument. Maybe there is an example from outside the oil industry/climate change debate that is applicable?

  3. By Betty on July 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I am concerned about pipeline leaks polluting the water supply.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      Betty, if it was that easy to pollute the water supply, farmers wouldn’t be allowed to dump thousands of tons of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers on top of the aquifer every year. There are cities standing on top of the aquifer.

      • By Powertrain on July 4, 2013 at 8:27 pm

        Hi Robert: I think you’re right, but this is a concern that’s become rooted deep enough in people’s minds that it won’t come out without extra effort. You have tremendous skill in gathering and presenting data substantiating your arguments with facts. Would be keen to see something along these lines re: oil pipeline spill risk in one of your future posts. Thanks.

  4. By Dave on July 3, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    While you’re point is well taken that Keystone by itself would not be a “significant” contributor to global warming, I think the larger idea of why Keystone IS important is being missed. It’s largely symbolic, demonstrating that even when we have this large, looming problem (the way we get our energy leads to CO2 emissions that leads to warmer temps that leads to a compromised future) we continue to dig ourselves deeper in the hole. It would be like telling a fat guy that eating one more hot dog is not going to hurt him as he begins a weight loss journey. It simply makes no sense to continue to promote the status quo of destructive energy production and consumption.
    Furthermore, the fact that it is tar sands is important, because tar sand oils do contribute more to carbon pollution than other forms of oil. That’s just a fact. Again, will this one project trigger any kind of terrible tipping point by itself? Of course not. But it would be just another major project that contributes to the problem, and actually does so more so than many other individual sources of CO2 emissions because it is tar sands. A 2012 report from Congress showed well to tank emissions from tar sands oil leads to 70-110X’s more CO2 pollution than other forms of oil. Keystone was estimated to, over the course of its existence produce the equivalent of what 5 coal plants would produce in CO2 emissions. Why, if dirty fossil fuels are causing this warming, that is causing problems would we ever want to support a project that is the equivalent of supporting the building of 5 new dirty coal power plants?
    As for why tar sands oils are bigger CO2 polluters, you have to look at how they contain less hydrogen and more carbon, sulfur, and heavy metals than most other oils. They take more processing, they require more greater energy to extract and distribute, they are 82% dirtier polluters than comparable crude oil, and they are the dirtiest source of diesel emissions. For anyone who understands why it would be bad if we continue to make our planet warmer moving forward, and who understand that carbon pollution is doing just that, to say that whether or not you support Keystone or oppose Keystone is an “irrelevant” issue seems like an inaccurate and careless statement that lacks a full and clear perspective of this issue.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      “While you’re point is well taken that Keystone by itself would not be a “significant” contributor to global warming…”

      It’s more than that. I show in this essay that the entire oil sands reserve isn’t significant against the backdrop of coal consumption. Back to an analogy I have used before, it’s like having an ingrown toenail and a brain tumor, and focusing on the toenail since that’s what is calling for more attention. Meanwhile, the brain tumor kills you.

      • By Jabs on July 4, 2013 at 6:19 am

        I don’t think it is fair to compare one single oil resource to “the backdrop of coal consumption”. You have to either compare the oil industry with the coal industry (two brain tumors) or a single oil project with a single coal project (two ingrown toenails).

        You could write the exact same essay about, for example, the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming.

        • By Robert Rapier on July 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm

          “I don’t think it is fair to compare one single oil resource to “the backdrop of coal consumption”.”

          That’s what opponents of Keystone are doing. They have made all sorts of exaggerated claims about what Keystone will do, undermining their credibility in the process. But I am actually comparing the entire oil sands reserve and showing that even that is insignificant relative to coal. So you may have 2 problems, but one is disproportionately worse than the other, and receives disproportionately less attention.

          • By Jabs on July 5, 2013 at 8:31 am

            But of course the oil sands will be insignificant compared to all of coal. Just like the Black Thunder mine would be insignificant compared to all of oil.

            I wholeheartedly agree with you that the coal industry should get more attention (as should agriculture, meat consumption, etc.) and I very much appreciate all of the information you have compiled for this piece, but I think the argument you are making about the Keystone Pipeline vs. the coal industry is a logical fallacy.

            Like I said in my other post, the key question is how can these environmental groups best make a difference? By attacking specific projects like the Keystone XL or through more abstract campaigns on regional, industry or global levels?

            • By Robert Rapier on July 6, 2013 at 3:29 am

              “But of course the oil sands will be insignificant compared to all of coal.”

              I am not even comparing it to all of coal. Only Asia Pacific coal consumption. Keystone XL got traction for whatever reason, but political capital is being expended on something that could pay 100x the dividends if it was directed at Asia Pacific coal consumption (in particular).

              The problem, though, is billions of people who all consume only a tiny bit per person, and when they slightly increase their consumption it gets multiplied by billions.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm

              Check this graphic out from the Swart/Weaver paper, and you will fully understand why I believe everything is insignificant compared to coal. Because it is.

            • By Russ Finley on July 7, 2013 at 12:13 am

              Interesting chart. It suggests that oil sands are roughly half of the potential of oil, which is a lot, but still dwarfed by coal.

            • By Jabs on July 8, 2013 at 8:25 am

              Thanks all for the great replies. Russ, your points are very well
              taken. I think we could also break down all the different types of coal reserves, but that is beside the point and I would guess that even so the big segments would dwarf the tar sands. Clearly I agree with you that coal is overall a bigger problem than oil or the tar sands when it comes to climate change.

              Another interesting point in this discussion is the additional limitation on coal exports caused by high oil prices. Since the average energy density of coal being mined is generally declining, it becomes more and more expensive to ship coal for long distances. Therefore, as oil prices increase, it makes less and less sense to export coal. This could present a massive problem as China is depleting its coal reserves at an impressive rate and going forward burning the coal near to the regions it is mined will likely become more of a necessity. This could also be an interesting topic to cover in a separate article.

              Also, to doubletrack: I am pretty sure environmental activists had little to do with Ontario’s decision to scrap coal-fired power. That decision was made by a government that was introducing a large scale green energy program across the province – they made the decision because they felt it was the best way to reduce GHG emissions and to stimulate a “green” manufacturing sector (partly to compensate for lost jobs in the decimated – at the time – auto industry). The key, I think, was that the population was very supportive overall of renewable energy at the time and I wonder if you would find the same levels of support in Alberta.

              Anyways, thanks again for all the responses!

            • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm

              @ Jabs: your quote:

              “Like I said in my other post, the key question is how can these environmental groups best make a difference? By attacking specific projects like the Keystone XL or through more abstract campaigns on regional, industry or global levels?

              From my informed sources in BC, the NGO Enviro groups have more or less conceded they have failed in many of their campaigns to effect significant change in the Oil Patch of Alberta, admitting they are tired of biting the ankles of this powerful energy / economy driver in Western Canada.
              If they had spent as much effort on calling for a halt to coal power in Alberta, that ALONE would have been equal to shutting down the ENTIRE oil sands operations on a GHG output equivalence basis…and if Ontario can do it, Alberta certainly can as there are many renewable energy options that Alberta could pursue if policy was adjusted to support such a move off coal power….just as Colorado decided, with the stroke of a pen, to give coal power utilities a suitable dead-asset write-off schedule so as to protect their shareholders

          • By Russ Finley on July 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm

            But I am actually comparing the entire oil sands reserve and showing that even that is insignificant relative to coal.

            I get your point. You are comparing tar sand mining, and all tar sand reserves, to coal mining, and all coal reserves. The fact that oil is made with the tar sand is not relevant because the same can be said for coal which can be made into oil, and is still is made into oil in some countries. With that perspective, it is fair to compare tar sand to coal and you are right that tar sand reserves are insignificant relative to coal.

            If you view tar sand mines as the same as oil that is pumped out of the ground, then Jab’s comment has valididty:

            You could write the exact same essay about, for example, the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming.

            I.e., if you compare only the reserves in a single coal mine to all oil reserves you would draw the same conclusion, that the Black Thunder mine reserves are irrelevant compared to all oil reserves.

            Clearly, Robert’s reasoning is more accurate. Tar sand reserves are a unique source of fossil energy. A tar sand mine isn’t an oil well or coal mine whereas the Black Thunder coal mine is just another coal mine.

            By far, the strongest argument IMHO is that this tar sand oil will reach the market regardless of a pipe line. It is only a matter of which country will reap the most economic benefit.

            As coal exports begin to soar, we will have to rethink things. Coal will not get to other markets via another country the way Canadian tar sand oil may. To stop coal exports we have to decide to throttle our own economy and leave it in the ground.

            A better idea may be to tax the coal to create or even subsidize energy that has a chance of eventually defeating coal on an economic basis, as oil did for the transportation market, natural gas did for heating, and nuclear has done for 20% of our electricity.

            James Hansen from NASA is against developing this sand. He may decide to focus his attention on stopping coal and promoting nuclear after reading enough articles like this one. He was also the first to suggest that humanity will use up all oil and that the only hope is to keep coal in the ground. Adding tar sands to the list with oil doesn’t change his original assumption significantly.

            • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm

              Good Points Russ:
              RE: James Hansen and Bill “Climate Bomb” 350-times-over McKibben….I would have a bit more respect for their symbolic position, as Robert points out very well….if upon successfully killing or defeating this Keystone XL pipeline that will allow Canadian energy to proceed south into USA markets……
              ….IF these Enviro Orgs, along with the NRDC, would then insist and Demand that America NOT import 825,000 barrels per day from somewhere else.
              That would be more “fair” to TransCanada but moreover Canadians, who may rightly feel that the USA is just capriciously trying to land-lock our oil by shutting off all outlets to markets other than America….but not willing to suffer the consequences themselves.
              Sidebar observation:
              The Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan pipelines were D.O.A. and will never get built.
              Fortunately the just-announced TC Energy East gas-pipeline reversal to Eastern Canada will provide for domestic displacement of oil supplies from “foreign” countries that refineries in eastern Canada relied on. This is a good thing and we should be thankful for this key infrastructure initiative.
              Many might conclude this may never have happened without all these pipelines having so much trouble getting permitted.
              So I give the NGO Enviros full credit for this good news, even though they may not want to take responsibility for it.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm

      “A 2012 report from Congress showed well to tank emissions from tar sands oil leads to 70-110X’s more CO2 pollution than other forms of oil.”

      I can assure you that this is not accurate. Please quote that passage from the report for context. Oil sands have been determined to be about 17% more carbon intensive than typical crude.

      • By ChielfEngineer on July 4, 2013 at 6:46 pm

        70-110X’s should have been 70%- 110%X’s. But still almost twice as much.

        • By Geoffrey Styles on July 10, 2013 at 11:18 am

          That’s still just focused just on the upstream portion of emissions, ignoring the roughly 80% of emissions that occur during end-use. If you want to reduce emissions from oil, that’s where to focus: demand, not production.

          • By doubletrackback on July 10, 2013 at 7:05 pm

            I agree. The Consumer is the problem.

    • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Your quote:

      “They take more processing, they require more greater energy to extract and distribute, they are 82% dirtier polluters than comparable crude oil, and they are the dirtiest source of diesel emissions.”

      While I do not agree with the general assertion [82% dirtier] you attribute to the Alberta-Saskatchewan oil sands, “tar sands” if you will, what if that were not the case?

      Technology improvements are driving down the energy inputs or “intensity” over time. Right now, there are some new surface mining projects that will be significantly lower in GHG emissions than many oil sources from elsewhere on the globe…the heavy oil of California for instance. In the case of the other method of extraction, Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), they are lowering the SOR – steam oil ratio to as little as 25% of previous levels, using solvents and other underground techniques to gain energy efficiency.
      For example, there is a refinery under construction right now in Alberta that will capture their CO2 emissions and transport it to depleted oil wells by pipeline and sequester this carbon (we trust). If this is true, then what happens to the carbon footprint if other new technologies, such as using wind energy to elec-thermally finesse the bitumen out of the ground by heating it with renewable energy? It would also be a tremendous load sink for intermittent renewables because this energy load for heating the bitumen is only required when the electrical grid has excess and very low cost grid power available…
      Then, once this near zero carbon bitumen feedstock is fed to the latest zero bitumen refinery by 2016-17 or so, outputting ultra low sulfur diesel that could be transported to Pacific tidewater on the proposed rail link to Valdez Alaska?
      If this new state-of-art railway is also zero emissions by way of electric drive locomotives fed largely from hydro and wind resources on the grid, what then?
      Does that mean if this diesel is burnt-up in ICE trucks in California for example…would that mean this would be the Lowest Carbon Fossil fuel in the world?

  5. By guess on July 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    It’s not putting your PERSONAL drinking water at risk. When you stand in front of XL opposition and drink a glass of their fracking fluid I may change my mind. Until then, YOU ARE AN ENEMY COMBATANT.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 3, 2013 at 4:39 pm

      Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper did in fact drink fracking fluid to prove a point. But you are mixing some things up. Keystone XL has nothing to do with fracking. So you should really try to understand a bit more about the issue before making an enemies list. The problem in this whole debate is that people keep going off half-cocked.

  6. By Edward Kerr on July 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    As usual a well thought out and argued position. Ironically, as a “climate concern” person, I have to agree with your assertion that the argument borders on being frivolous. Your “ingrown toenail” analogy hits it on the head. Continued use of fossil fuels will ultimately lead to mankind’s extinction. Some argue that that is closer than anyone might imagine.
    I’m well aware that my opposition to the KXL is symbolic. Obama knows that he is going to OK it’s construction and his careful wording in his speech points that truth out. Like many others I am also concerned about large spills as they will surely happen.
    Bottom line for me is that even if climate issues are a scarecrow we simply have to find carbon neutral answers to the “peak oil” issue. To see that little is being done to achieve that end is depressing, to say the least. Wasting precious resources without a long term plan is, to my way of thinking, simply stupid.

    Replace that mower yet?

  7. By ben on July 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Are these folks really serious in their (“largely symbolic”) arguments against Keystone or is this simply another case of ideological posturing over substance?


  8. By Red_State_Eddie on July 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    In the words of Spock, fascinating…

    So if pushed into a corner for a definitive yay or nay, it sounds like you’re saying KXL is not needed, simply because the rail transport capability can satisfy the production output for the foreseeable future – not because of some negative environmental impact.

    Q: Would any of this change the dynamic towards building more refineries in the US to handle a greater load of crude oil coming out of Canada? It would seem that if we have a glut in crude production, at some point, there has to be a ramp up in refinery processing to handle that glut, esp if it’s not a temporary blip but a more permanent increase.

    Side note: How does Asian-Pacific coal consumption compare to US coal consumption using that chart you gave in the article?

    • By Robert Rapier on July 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      “So if pushed into a corner for a definitive yay or nay, it sounds like you’re saying KXL is not needed…”

      Well, “needed” depends on who you talk to. It would be a cheaper option for producers, so they feel that they need it. I can promise you the rail industry would tell you it isn’t needed. History has shown what they can do when the price is right. My point is that it is essentially irrelevant as far as the global climate goes.

      “Would any of this change the dynamic towards building more refineries in the US to handle a greater load of crude oil coming out of Canada?”

      That’s already happening. Projects are going in across the Midwest to handle a heavier crude slate.

      “How does Asian-Pacific coal consumption compare to US coal consumption using that chart you gave in the article?”

      I have shown this before graphically, but the US share of global coal consumption is under 12% and falling, and Asia Pacific’s is 70% and rising.

      • By Red_State_Eddie on July 5, 2013 at 8:48 am

        Thanks. Very knowledgeable article.

  9. By opit on July 5, 2013 at 10:20 pm


    Your comments on the ease of polluting the aquifer are interesting. Certainly many stories I have seen would indicate that pollution is in fact often poorly tracked because testing is always limited to a few substances. But I will admit I am often more concerned about pesticides and hydrofracking, if only because of seemingly cavalier treatment of risk in permanently breaking up the integrity of rock formations.

    It has become almost de rigeur to argue around carbon pollution. Yet there is an unacknowledged grand skepticism that it is of any real importance on a planet which absorbed massive amounts into the earth in the past and continues not to reflect man’s inputs into the air today. For a substance which we exhale it seems quite a bit of excitement. But contrary opinion is hard to find in Search as though it was institutionally ignored by the spiders. When combined with message control open discussion is not practical – yet remains a necessity of scientific method and solid appraisal.

    Skeptical Science : “Drown them out”

  10. By tennie davis on July 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Robert, good post, after reading about the train derailment in Quebec, pipelines are looking more environmentally friendly, safer, and economically viable.
    Now the global warming alarmist have a good argument for taxing trains out of existence.

    • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

      Dear tennis davis: That rogue train gone wild accident in Lac Megantic PQ is terrible news for the rail industry and a tragic event as it appears that many people may have perished, along with the loss of a good portion of this small communities’ downtown area..

      It should be a wake-up call for safer ways of moving oil on rail or even a completely new technology such as Levx mag-lev, whereby this sort of accident would never happen.

      As for taxing rail out of existence on account of “climate change” or AGW, I would argue that this would be counter productive if lowering GHG emissions were the goal.

      There are many advocates (besides Alan Drake) for getting truck traffic off the crumbling US Interstate highway system and back onto the rail system that was, unfortunately, dis-mantled over the past 30-40 years is a goal worth pursuing..

      However, I would agree that that the hidebound North American rail regulatory has limited innovation of freight rail operations in particular.

      Archaic Air Brake systems are still used by even by the most modern and profitable Class One operators. These air brake systems may have had a role to play in the runaway train with no one onboard to release the brake pressure so the default situation was full brake application…and a trainset of 70 + railcars full of oil could NOT move, even with a driver-less locomotive “gone wild” as early reports indicate may have occurred….
      Disclaimer: I am also a keen “return to rail” advocate with a definite bias towards hauling oil products by rail, instead of the high energy inputs required by high pressure 2,000 + psi pipelines, operating out of sight, where rust never sleeps…
      However, I will agree that there will be more accidents such as the one in Quebec, until the rail operators introduce modern train control, centralized command, Euro electro-servo brake systems, and also mandate safer design railcars for hazardous flammable products such as volatile petroleum products…
      It may be a factoid lost to most people…even myself until I just thought of it now,…if it is correct that this runaway train carried light sweet crude oil and not heavy bitumen or WCS (dirty oil to some) from Alberta’s (Tar) oil sands then it is conceivable that the railcar cargo may never have ignited…
      However, at this early stage, with few facts at hand until the TSB investigation is completed, this is pure speculation and small comfort to those who have lost loved ones…

      • By Russ Finley on July 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm

        Some really good points, Doubletrackback.

        I spent a few minutes on Google to find these videos of ethanol truck and train accidents:

        Critics of a given energy industry tend use accidents as a reason to shut down an industry. I’m not a fan of corn ethanol but accidents are a pretty dumb argument to use against it, considering that all industries have accidents. Witness the 777 that just crashed. Accidents should provide an impetus to improve safety, regardless of the industry.

        • By doubletrackback on July 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm

          I agree Russ: I was going to add that the recent 777 crash may point to the notion that the Glide Path system was down at the time of this aircraft approach, whereby pilot inexperience became potentially a factor, due to lack of typical and normal landing procedure where the computer lands the plane unless something “goes wrong” and then with extreme fully heightened awareness, the hopefully, experienced-at-landings pilot takes over.
          While completely speculative at this time, human error may turn out to be an issue in this too-low approach, with no pilot feedback from the Glide Path system warning signals where the plane just put down too early….way too early.
          In the same fashion, this Quebec rogue trainset, which was apparently “parked” for a crew change, if it had been controlled by a central command control centre, would never have given the locomotive the go ahead or ability to start down the track without a human onboard as backup…
          But again, the TSB report will determine all the factors that led to this tragic disaster and ways to mitigate or eliminate this sort of failure from ever happening again.

      • By tennie davis on July 8, 2013 at 2:52 am

        Doubletrackback, good thoughts, thank you for the link. cheers.

  11. By Benjamin Cole on July 7, 2013 at 12:14 am

    I do find i remarkable that ranchers have zero property rights when it comes to the private XL pipeline. In other words, private property is being seized for the benefit of private enterprise–XL has won the power of eminent domain.

    If the pipeline should be built, it should be a public endeavor.

  12. By Tom G. on July 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Maybe its just my computer but something seems broken. In the past when I clicked on someone’s name in the “COMMENT” column, Disqus would take me to that comment. Now all that seems to happen is that it takes me to the top of all of the comments. This makes me scroll down through all of the comments; looking at the “hours ago”; until I find the most recent comment. Is anyone else having this issue?

    • By Robert Rapier on July 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Tom, my seems to be working as it is supposed to. Are you logged into Disqus? I am; not sure if that makes a difference.

      • By Tom G. on July 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm

        Seem to be logged in to Disqus. Also made a couple of other changes but it still seems to be taking me to the top of comment area. I will look in a couple of other areas. Thank you Robert.

  13. By Andy Skuce on July 7, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I made a similar argument but came to the opposite conclusion here:

    I agree that nixing KXL will not save the planet all by itself, but, then again, the same applies to disallowing any single project. However, if KXL is not built, this will be a major setback to the development of the oilsands, not just for limiting capacity, but more importantly, by delaying capital investment. Sending the message to the producers that their only export market does not want their product will send shivers through the corporate boardrooms.

    Of course, the only long-term way to keep the bitumen in the ground is to reduce oil demand. This can only be achieved through carbon pricing. Because oilsands are the most carbon-intensive form of oil and is among the most expensive to produce, this industry will be the first to suffer when carbon pricing demand reduction takes effect.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      Andy, check out the graphic I posted down the page. Even if you add up all the oil sands projects, they are still trivial relative to coal. My point is that the focus is on the wrong problem. That becomes starkly obvious in looking at that graphic. If you add up all the conventional oil, unconventional oil, and oil sands you can say “Yeah, that could push us slightly past the target.” If you look at coal, that target is obliterated. So you have one situation that is a possible risk down the road, and one that is a clear and immediate danger. Where should you focus your resources?

      • By Andy Skuce on July 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm

        Robert, I think that graphic is misleading since it compares oilsands against global coal and gas resources, including every thin coal seam and all of the methane hydrate resources, which are many decades, if ever, away from economic viability.

        I prefer to show the potential in terms of influence for the rest of this century, as In figure 4 of this article:

        Bitumen is still a small part of the overall emissions picture but its not negligible as the Swart and Weaver figure apparently shows.

        Since you ask, I am focussing my resources on: a) lobbying for stopping oilsands pipelines, more because that is an achievable short-term goal rather than a definitive solution and; b) lobbying for revenue-neutral carbon taxes, which are effective, market-friendly and politically popular, at least in British Columbia.

        • By Andy Skuce on July 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm
        • By Robert Rapier on July 7, 2013 at 6:03 pm

          “Robert, I think that graphic is misleading since it compares oilsands against global coal and gas resources, including every thin coal seam and all of the methane hydrate resources, which are many decades, if ever, away from economic viability.”

          But look at the first graphic in my post, where I calculated what is actually happening right now. Coal still dwarfs Canadian oil production in both magnitude of contribution, and in annual growth. Thus my argument is that time is being lost by focusing a “problem” instead of an emergency. Those who use the “power of political movements” argument to warrant the time and effort being spent on oil sands have to recognize that the clock is ticking as these political movements are ongoing.

          On the carbon tax, I have argued in favor of shifting income taxes to carbon taxes. This would have huge benefits in my opinion.

          • By Andy Skuce on July 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm

            I agree that global coal emissions growth is much more important than that from the oilsands. Given that much of that growth comes from China and India, do you really think that if N American anti-Keystone activists took your advice and switched their protests from Washington and Ottawa to Beijing and New Delhi that that the coal consumption curve would start to bend downwards?

            As Dave Roberts tweeted: “drop achievable campaign, switch to something impossible”.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm

              What difference does it make if you win a battle and lose the war? If the coal consumption curve doesn’t start to bend, then all is lost, regardless of the oil sands.

              If Bill McKibben was organizing his protests in front of the Chinese embassy, he would bring attention to this issue. As it stands, the average person would rate Keystone a more significant issue, when it isn’t even close. Need to start by raising awareness, and it needs to be done yesterday.

            • By ben on July 7, 2013 at 9:20 pm

              I’m doubtful a loss (for opponents) over Keystone will have much impact over coal consumption in Asia though I’m more doubtful a victory will have a beneficial effect. Why? Because denying the export of Alberta’s oil sands production to the US will enhance the likelihood of its much further transport (probably to Asia). That will add to the carbon footprint even as it lends added impetus to Asian investment in NA heavy oil production rather than closer to home and directed to less carbon-intensive forms of energy.
              Maybe this orientation is all wrong. I might hope so. Yet, I believe Rapier is quite right in arguing that we very much need to keep our eye on the donut and not on the hole. We have a window of opportunity during the current period of systemic deleveraging that the Fed and other central banks are trying to manage via QE and a determined strategy of financial repression that rewards borrowers at the expense of lenders to achieve debt liquidation, but at the expense of interest rate volatility that risks the baby with the bathwater.
              We are caught in a period of “February sap collection” economic growth and all my friends know that you might as well stick near the wood stove with a good book until the calendar says it’s time to put out the buckets. Let there be little doubt, the time isn’t here and if energy prices don’t accommodate some additional relief, well, we may be in for how Northern New Englanders describe their seasons: “six months of winter and six months of rough sledding.”)
              Ben (In the Green Mountains they call me an optimist:)

  14. By jmogs on July 9, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Apparently you don’t think folks can walk and chew gum at the same time… You know, in addition to the high profile fight against Keystone XL, there are numerous campaigns against coal (local, regional, national) from the enviros you seem to have such disdain for… They are long-standing and have helped shut some of the worst plants in US and prevented a rush to build many more from coming to fruition in recent years.

    We are in an all-hands on deck moment. If we are going to deal with climate, it will be on many, many fronts. That includes fighting coal and tar sands expansion, while also pushing for a leveling of the playing field that allows for proliferation of energy efficiency and renewables.

    But THAT requires political capital. That requires folks pushing decision makers who are otherwise getting plenty of push to approve all the pipelines and all the dirty energy projects. Right now, people have joined the Keystone fight because it is a simple choice: does it make sense to approve a project which empowers the industry to triple production of the dirtiest oil on the planet in the coming two decades? People fighting KXL will engage in the other fights to come. They’ve been on the sidelines for four years since the climate bill. Do you see another issue that will keep them off the sidelines right now? That is a key question asked by one of your commenters that was unanswered—Mr. Rapier, if folks should stop fighting KXL, what would you have them do to affect change right now? Sitting on our hands doesn’t work.

    Heads. Out. Of. Weeds. Please. We have to run the numbers. We have to have good policy. But we also have to get people to care.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 9, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      “You know, in addition to the high profile fight against Keystone XL, there are numerous campaigns against coal (local, regional, national) from the enviros you seem to have such disdain for…”

      First, the coal problem that’s going to kill us is international. Asia Pacific has 70% of global coal consumption and climbing. (Most of that comes from usage in China and India, and is being supplied by China, Australia, and Indonesia).

      It isn’t that I have disdain for environmentalists, it is that they are so often uninformed or misinformed about what really matters. Stopping Keystone XL will make zero difference if Asia Pacific’s coal usage continues to climb. So to utilize your resources on a problem that doesn’t really matter while failing to mobilize an army to educate people and then spring into action over the one that REALLY does is irresponsible.

      • By jmogs on July 10, 2013 at 12:09 am

        You are talking about American groups with limited to ability to impose change on Asian Pacific coal consumption–aside from campaigns like the one underway to stop a new Pacific Northwest coal terminal that would exacerbate the problem.

        On the US side, and we are still the 2nd biggest emitter on the planet, many of the groups you critique have been essential in setting up energy efficiency and renewable energy portfolios at the state level. They have largely protected those gains under constant attack in Statehouses across the country. And they are rallying folks to give the President cover to do whatever he can (which is a lot) while Congress dithers (on climate and every other pressing issue facing the nation). The groups manage lots of campaigns at the same time… So, again, what would YOU suggest doing?

        • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

          “You are talking about American groups with limited to ability to impose change on Asian Pacific coal consumption”

          If Bill McKibben is getting arrested in front of the Chinese Embassy instead of the White House, he might not get quite as much press coverage, but he will be calling attention to a problem that is much more severe. So step one is for people who are concerned about Keystone’s contribution to put about 100X the concern into Asian coal consumption. But that concern isn’t there because everyone has been conditioned to believe that Keystone XL is more than it is.

          “many of the groups you critique…”

          I am not critiquing anyone with such a broad brush. I wouldn’t say “The NRDC never did anything right.” I am critiquing on specific issues. And many of these issues you mention are issues that I myself have worked on.

          “So, again, what would YOU suggest doing?”

          We talk solutions here a lot, but two things: Obviously there needs to be more awareness and then political pressure over the coal issue, but more importantly there needs to be more emphasis on demand side solutions. Once you understand why China’s coal consumption is rising, that problem does become daunting.

          • By jmogs on July 10, 2013 at 5:35 pm

            Thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree that there needs to be more attention to demand side… As for pressure on the coal/climate issue, I think that might be part of what you are missing: KXL has gotten people off the sidelines on a climate issue. They felt disempowered, but this issue has created a rallying point that is going to have significant impact on a much broader suite of climate and water issues.

            David Roberts, who originally wasn’t bought into the KXL issue, did a great series of posts germaine to this discussion about the difference between the advocate mind and the wonk mind. Worth a read because to win this fight, we need to use both to the fullest:

  15. By Geoffrey Styles on July 10, 2013 at 11:25 am


    A very cogent post. However, having written extensively on this topic myself and sifted through much of the rationale of those opposed to KXL, I have to conclude it’s just not about the numbers. If it was, the debate would have moved on to more productive, higher-leverage issues as you suggest. It seems quite clear that those who do understand the numbers and still insist on making KXL the centerpiece of emissions activism have made a conscious decision to take a largely irrelevant but conveniently concrete issue and attempt to use it to galvanize a wider anti-fossil fuel movement.

Register or log in now to save your comments and get priority moderation!