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By Robert Rapier on Jul 8, 2013 with 44 responses

Protecting a Drowning Man from Sunburn

Later this week I intend to start a series covering the recently released BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013. However, first I want to follow up on last week’s post The Increasing Irrelevance of the Keystone XL Debate. With few exceptions, the post was well-received by people on both sides of the debate. There was some reasonable debate on the post on my Twitter feed, and much less rancor. I think only one person accused me of being an “enemy combatant” while most recognized that I am sincerely trying to shine a light on a problem that I see as orders of magnitude worse than Keystone XL.

The primary objection to my argument over the irrelevancy of Keystone XL is the same one that has been voiced in the past. It is that the Keystone XL project itself may be relatively insignificant, but add up many Keystone XL projects and you get a big effect. The only problem is that this really isn’t even true.

In last week’s article I referenced 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. That paper contained a graphic that I shared on Twitter, and it got quite a bit of commentary. The graphic shows the relative potential warming contributions of various fossil fuel resources:


Note that the vertical red line on the left represents the limit of how much more carbon dioxide could be emitted before the models indicate that we would reach 2.0°C warming from pre-industrial times. Even if you added up all the world’s conventional and unconventional oil — which would take more than a century to extract and burn — you still don’t quite reach the limit. Of course the counterargument is that these are still contributors, which along with gas and coal can easily push us right past the limit.

True, but look at the relative contributors to the global resource base. Note that the bottom contributor is all of the oil-in-place (OIP) in the Alberta oil sands. It will never be technically or economically possible to extract all of the oil in place. No oil field is ever completely extracted, and oil sands are especially challenging. The actual reserve — that is the part that is economically viable to extract – is only 9.4% of the OIP. That is represented by a barely visible pink line on the unconventional oil bar. Keystone XL is a much smaller subset of that. If we assume that Keystone XL transports the full 830,000 bpd for 30 years, that amounts to only 5% of the tiny pink line representing the reserve, or 0.5% of the OIP line at the bottom.

Now, look again at the line for coal. Note the amount of rationalizing Keystone XL opponents have to do in order to make Keystone’s contribution sound meaningful. There is lots of extrapolating, and emphasis on the potential for burning all of Alberta’s oil sands. Yet all of the extrapolating in the world doesn’t take away from the fact that oil — over the course of the next century or more — will make a relatively insignificant contribution to the global climate. Coal on the other hand can easily obliterate that 2.0°C warming target.

Readers know that I am fond of analogies. I know that by nature they aren’t perfect, but good analogies can help boil complex issues down to simple terms. So let me offer up this one. I live in Hawaii. The tropical sun can be brutal. Spending too much time in the sun without protection will cause severe burns, and it can lead to skin cancer over time. But if I came upon a man who is drowning, I wouldn’t spend my time trying to apply sunscreen because I am worried about the possible sunburn that might eventually kill him from skin cancer in 30 years. I would try to save his life right now. That’s where you focus your resources. You can rationalize that the sunburn is hazardous too, but that’s not going to matter much if the guy drowns.

This is the way I see these Keystone XL protests. You are applying sunscreen to a drowning man. As you rationalize how important this sunscreen could possibly turn out to be (and how it might attract the attention of someone who can save him), time is working against you and the person continues to drown. By the time you finish applying the sunscreen, you may have a well-protected corpse. The sunscreen won’t matter after all if the most pressing focus is not on the most immediate threat.

Now this should not be confused with an argument that we need Keystone XL, because that’s not what it is. Again, I just think Keystone XL is irrelevant either way in the big picture. Personally, I hope we kill off demand to the point that we don’t need Keystone XL’s oil. In fact, my focus is on supply-side solutions, because I don’t think you can just cut off supplies when the demand is high. There are too many other ways for oil to get to market, and as we saw in last weekend’s deadly train derailment of crude oil in Quebec, some of those ways are less safe. I have warned many times about such unintended consequences, which are generally met with rationalizations that rail is simply not an option that could replace Keystone XL.

But even if we pretend that rail can’t facilitate the continued development of the oil sands, look at that graph once more and ask why the focus isn’t on saving the drowning man. I understand you may not feel you know how to help the drowning man, and you might have easy access to sunscreen — but you better find someone in a hurry who can extract him from the water or none of that will matter. Once the guy drowns, nobody is going to care that he is covered in sunscreen.

Link to Original Article: Protecting a Drowning Man from Sunburn

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

  1. By Joe Clarkson on July 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    If one totals all of the OECD contribution to carbon emissions, not even including the emissions we have exported to Asia, they add up to about 40% of world totals. On a per capita basis, OECD emissions are gigantic. One way to reduce those emissions is via economic recession. Indeed, recession and slow growth are responsible for a significant part of recent declines in US emissions.

    Since oil is critical for the smooth functioning of OECD economies, particularly in North America, anything that reduces oil supply or increases its cost will dampen economic activity and thereby reduce carbon emissions. If trade with Asia suffers as a result there will be the added benefit of reduced demand for coal in China.

    Regardless of the minimal contribution of oil sand liquids consumption to carbon emissions, any disruption to production or increase in expense will help reduce economic activity, the knock-on effects of which will multiply the reduction of carbon emitted.

    Anything that will slow down the global economic juggernaut, including stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, is truly relevant to saving the drowning man. Opposing the Keystone XL is not applying sunscreen, it’s a gentle tug toward the safety of the shore.

    • By Russ Finley on July 8, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Reducing carbon emissions by increasing unemployment and poverty probably should not be part of the solution set. Not sure it will get many votes, particularly from the unemployed and impoverished ; ) Hopefully we can be more creative than that.

      Admittedly, rapid economic growth is a double-edged sword. It builds dams in the Amazon and Africa, creates a demand for ivory and rhino horns, places windmills where they shouldn’t be, palm oil plantations in orangutan habitat and on and on and on.

      I’d prefer solutions that rope off what remains of intact ecosystems as just one of the rules of the capitalist game, as has been done (so far) with the ANWR. We will run out of these non-renewable resources eventually. It would be wise to find replacements before they run out and before the biodiversity that sits on top of them is driven to extinction. Shortages tend to stimulate creative entrepreneurship to find better replacements. Sudden shortages are what wreak economic havoc.

      • By Joe Clarkson on July 9, 2013 at 2:21 am

        The way our global economy currently operates, any reduction in carbon emissions will surely result in “increasing unemployment and poverty”. As someone who spent much of his adult life in the field of renewable energy engineering and development, I have a great deal of sympathy for the hope that more “creative” solutions can be found. While that once may have been true (say 30-40 years ago), too much time has been wasted.

        I firmly believe that at this late date our only hope of avoiding devastating climate warming is economic collapse. If that should come to pass, as we must hope it will, unemployment and poverty would segue rapidly into starvation and massive loss of life. As horrible as that sounds we need to keep in mind that the earlier collapse comes, the less massive the loss of life and the greater the chance that the survivors will be able to have a decent life on a more livable planet. .

    • By tennie davis on July 9, 2013 at 1:36 am

      Joe, let me condense your “co2/plant food is evil” rant, to a simple, straightforward plan of action.
      Why not just simply ban all economic activity?
      This would have the desired effect of establishing your stone age utopia! Maybe some fresh new form of authoritarianism could accomplish this grand scheme! hmmm… I know! how about a worldwide enforced sin tax on carbon?
      On a less sarcastic note, the main thing I’ve noticed from discussions like these, is the religious symbolism of so-called environmentalism. When eco-zealots have no logical solutions they resort to demonizing any fossil fuel (and the prosperity that it creates)
      Also, what’s really weird is, they don’t like nuclear energy either. Nuclear energy could help save them from the hell-fires of carbon sinfulness, yet they dismiss it offhand because “nuclear sounds scary” or whatever.
      Nutty religion indeed.

      • By gregfullmoon on July 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm

        Hey Tennie, that sounds like a rant in itself..

        The reason Environmentalists exist is because Capital cannot constrain itself. This thesis is bourne out in the cyclic deprivations of the financiers who have bought off the people’s regulators their governments.

        In the field of the biosphere similar ruthlessness is evident wherever capital has assembled its factories, drilled and mined, researched and developed. Capital both public and private.

        Granted I like all in the West have benefit in the many toys and trinkets, the greater connectivity, and the improved longevity.

        However all these benefits can be procured in a less antagonistic manner.

        The USA vehicular industry has displayed a historic disdain for fuel efficient vehicles. World War 2 Tanks in the African desert drove hundreds of kilometres on small amounts of fuel, account pre-vapourization of petrol. There is an account about of GM producing such a Cadillac.

        The Tar Sands extraction is a crime against the Earth we exist upon. Any spurious rationale about relative merit in Climate Change is proof of the nihilist material paradigm our Modern Mainstream Science has arrived at.

        As for nuclear energy, sure why not load the place up with more radioactivity? There was a fork in the road many decades ago where Thorium based reactors could have been developed and proliferated. The World chose to continue down the path of Uranium fission. We suffer the incredible dilemma of an timeline stretching toward infinity of nuclear waste storage. What solution do the nuclear technologists or yourself herein offer.

        This industry is cover for the Nuclear weapons industry. The non-thorium choice illustrates my thesis. Further on this point;

        The military could use tungsten penetrators in its armaments. In the USA/West it’s elected to use U238 (sometimes polluted with plutonium and other radioactive nucleotides) as the heavy element in the weapon. The effect of this is that each and every war theatre and penetrator weapons testing site since Kosovo, is polluted with U238 particles rendered to fine dust, mobile, and sufficiently minute to enter the biological organism, causing tissue and genetic damage. Smart science there. What is the motive? Share your illuminations oh wise man..

        The path to peace is built of love. This is a simple statement and could be construed as woo! One doesn’t fight fire with fire other than as a back burn to remove fuel. One pours cooling waters on it.

        Science, the Technologists and Capital have forced their solutions upon a stressed World for a long time. GMOs another perverse offering.

        Various interventions and mitigation have surfaced from the sea of humanity. Democracy and regulation were attempts to constrain the beast, however the beast continually throws off the shackles, disdaining the people’s desire to build a just and equitable World.

        I think more of same materialist thinking is no real solution.

        Wise application of our technology will assist, the issue is the Wisdom that drives the application. My thesis suggests Wisdom has been lacking in our recent history and thus it is time to change course.

        The millions of Scientists present and past have between them created the tech-whiz to move to a progressive energy dynamic which is life enhancing in the long term. The shift requires an complete change in our social and economic relations. Any change will threaten established Power Centres. This is the blockage.

        Until this central question is resolved in favour of life and humanity we face the perennial crisis of scarcity. Scarcity breeds competition and paranoia, security, and military, thus war.

        On war the West’s economies where transformed a short space of time in the early 1940′s to war footing. The industrial transformation and output relative to the immediate past period was staggering.

        So the new vision and shared ideal, one where all interests are upheld?? The people, along with Sciences, Philosophies, Culture and most importantly the Environment that sustains the living matrix.

        Thus the solution is in cooperation, building relations of mutual advantage and allowing people to find local, regional and national solutions to problems that confound them. I’d free Science to pursue pure research unfettered by Corporate agendas.

        Transparency and the Open Society are Key.

        Ruminations from a non academic…

        blessed be.

  2. By addoeh on July 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    It seems the railroad companies are investing a lot of money in expanding their train traffic in the Bakken, according to the article below. If need be, I’m pretty sure oil companies would pay good money to build more railroads.–26587

  3. By Jabs on July 9, 2013 at 6:20 am

    Hi Robert,

    Do you know if the CO2 emissions numbers include the emissions required for extraction/processing?

    Any ideas on how to reduce coal use? After reading the transcript of Obama’s climate plan speech, it appears the US already has the message to some degree. To me, a revenue-neutral carbon tax seems like the most straightforward way to account for the externalities associated with GHG emissions.

    • By Ed_Reid on July 9, 2013 at 10:22 am

      What do you believe is the likelihood of a revenue neutral tax of any kind emerging from the US Congress? History would suggest that the likelihood approaches zero asymptotically.

      At what level would a carbon tax “account for the externalities associated with GHG emissions”? Would that account for the net exteranlities, or only the negative externalities?

    • By Robert Rapier on July 9, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      “Do you know if the CO2 emissions numbers include the emissions required for extraction/processing?”

      That’s just the emissions embodied in the various resources. Does not include what’s required for extracting for coal or oil sands. But that’s very small compared to the carbon embodied in the resource itself.

      • By Jabs on July 10, 2013 at 5:05 am

        Thanks for the detail, Robert.

        Ed, I said the most straightforward solution, not the most likely to pass through US Congress. Making it more expensive to release GHGs will result in companies and consumers seeking ways to reduce their GHG emissions. So, my answer to your question is a tax at a level that will affect company and consumer decisions. Your question is a bit disingenuous because obviously (and you most likely know this already) it would take some analysis to find the appropriate level.

        • By Ed_Reid on July 10, 2013 at 1:41 pm

          I asked the question because I have seen tax rates from $20-300 per TCE. It is very easy to advocate a carbon tax. It is much harder to identify the correct tax rate. This discussion has been going on for years, with no resolution. There is still no single position on the level of reduction required globally to avoid the CAGW catastrophe.

          “You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”, Yogi Berra, American philosopher.

      • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 10:37 am

        Yes, the embedded emissions are 5-10% of the direct emissions for conventional fuels, while for tar sands they are a bit bigger (roughly 15%) because of the higher energy inputs for extraction and processing.

    • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 10:35 am

      A tax on carbon is a good idea, but we need to do other things as well. For example, we need to stop exporting coal, which just drives the global price down and encourages its use elsewhere ( It doesn’t matter where on earth the coal is burned, so exporting it is just crazy (and selling it below cost from public lands so that it can be exported is doubly insane: Renewable portfolio standards are also a good idea. And taxing or regulating the other emissions from coal, which are substantial and costly to society, would quickly drive coal use down. Even the lowest non-CO2 externalities from Epstein et al. 2011 add up to 8 cents/kWh, and Muller et al. find that coal and oil electricity generation generate negative net value added for the economy. So there are lots of good reasons to reduce use of coal fired electricity beyond climate–it isn’t cost effective from society’s perspective to generate electricity from coal. For a bit more elaboration on the need for a societal perspective, see

      Epstein, Paul R., Jonathan J. Buonocore, Kevin Eckerle, Michael Hendryx, Benjamin M. Stout Iii, Richard Heinberg, Richard W. Clapp, Beverly May, Nancy L. Reinhart, Melissa M. Ahern, Samir K. Doshi, and Leslie Glustrom. 2011. “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. vol. 1219, no. 1. February 17. pp. 73-98. []

      Muller, Nicholas Z., Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. 2011. “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy.” American Economic Review vol. 101, no. 5. August. pp. 1649–1675. []

  4. By lansell on July 9, 2013 at 9:44 am

    What about non-climate change related environmental issues that oil sands development poses? There are many. We should also be focusing on demand-side solutions as well, rather than leaving everything up to “how much can we get” and “from where.”

    • By Ed_Reid on July 9, 2013 at 10:28 am

      It would be very handy if both supply side and demand side solutions were available before the current supply side was intentionally disrupted.

    • By Robert Rapier on July 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      “What about non-climate change related environmental issues that oil sands development poses?”

      That’s an entirely different argument, and not one that I am making here. If someone says “Well, we shouldn’t be extracting oil sands because of X, Y, and Z” — then those arguments stand on their own merits. I am simply pointing out that for people worried about climate change, the focus on Keystone XL is to worry about a nuisance while overlooking an emergency.

  5. By Joe R on July 9, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    To Joe Clarkson -

    While I couldn’t disagree with you more, I thank you for your honesty. So many people who share your perspective attempt to hide the logical extension of their views in order that the “proletariat” will not object.

    Even if it were true that human activities were increasing global temperatures and climate change I place more value on the human race and its prosperity than I do on the results of climate change since they are largely benign.

    • By AlanfromBigEasy on July 11, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      The implications of Climate Chaos, where a metastable system transitions to an increasing unstable one, will be devastating to our built society, as well as farming. We have made assumptions about what the weather will be like – and those assumptions will be false in the future.

      And then sea level rise will take out most of our large cities and heavily populated areas, plus enormous areas of productive farmland.

      It is quite likely that our economy and society will not be able to adapt to the accelerating changes, especially as other stresses (such as oil) become greater.

  6. By Floyd Earl Smith on July 9, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Hi Robert, while I oppose the Keystone XL pipeline energetically, I appreciate the way you make your argument. Facts and perspective too, clearly differentiated from each other! Which makes it easy for me to clearly spell out where I differ with you.

    What you don’t take into account is that, in order to stay under that red line in total, we need to cut way, way back all across the board. Think of it this way: which sources will you keep, to stay under the red line? To answer that, you have to look at a wide range of factors, especially energy provided vs. GHGs emitted. But also environmental damage, development momentum, and more. There’s just no way Alberta oil-sands (OIP) meets those criteria. (And no, neither does coal.)

    • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 12:55 am

      “What you don’t take into account is that, in order to stay under that red line in total, we need to cut way, way back all across the board.”

      Actually what I am doing is looking at that red line, and saying “Oil needs help to get us to the red line, but coal can obliterate the line all by its self. It can get us to nearly 10x the line. So which one should be the focus?”

      • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 10:20 am


        As Floyd indicated, we need to cut back fossil fuel use across the board, and since we have a fixed amount we can emit and stay under the 2 C warming limit, then any fossil fuel use (particularly that with higher emissions than natural gas) eats up the budget faster than alternatives (for more elaboration of this argument, see my book Cold Cash, Cool Climate ).

        Fighting Keystone does not (and should not) preclude fighting coal export terminals and domestic coal use. Both need to happen–in fact, we need to fight the construction of any new fossil infrastructure of any kind from here on in, because the more we build now the more we’ll have to shut down later, and it’s easier to stop building infrastructure than to shut it down after it’s generating profits.

        So while I appreciate the graph (which is similar to my Fig 8, here: you seem to be assuming that it’s either fighting Keystone or fighting coal use. It’s not either, it’s both!

        It’s the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t focus on reducing coal use in the US because coal use in Asia is growing much faster. We need to get our own house in order at the same time as we work to help developing countries use less coal. We need to do both!


        • By Moiety on July 10, 2013 at 10:38 am

          Ture however the point being madei s far more effort goes into fighting keystone than say fighting coal. Even here in the UK the fight against keystone gets from page environmental news but action against coal is rarely up there.
          So while both campaigns are needed in the 24 hour clock, coal should be taking 23 hours of our time. Instead it seems like keystone is taking that amount.

          • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 10:40 am

            But the answer is to ramp up efforts on coal, not to ramp back efforts on Keystone. We need to fight on all fronts, and I agree that the environmental community should be more focused on coal, but that’s not an argument for giving Keystone a pass.

          • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 6:43 pm

            “So while both campaigns are needed in the 24 hour clock, coal should be taking 23 hours of our time. Instead it seems like keystone is taking that amount.”


        • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 6:42 pm

          “Fighting Keystone does not (and should not) preclude fighting coal export terminals and domestic coal use.”

          That’s not really my point, and Moiety in reply hits the nail on the head. Keystone is totally insignificant relative to coal, yet gets all the press coverage. Look at the red line again, and imagine that you are talking about how Keystone could help a tiny bit to stay below that line. Now look at coal again, and realize that it has no respect at all for that line; that it can single-handedly blow right past it. Meanwhile, you are talking about more than 50 years before all of the oil sands could possibly even have any sort of effect on climate, and it’s still debatable that there would be a measurable impact 50 years out.

          So if a person is worried about climate change, their efforts should be prioritized to put at least 10x the efforts into highlighting the coal threat as they are to fighting Keystone. Anything else is putting sunscreen on a man that will soon be dead.

          • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm

            As I stated above, your argument is the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t focus on reducing coal use in the US because coal use in Asia is growing much faster there. We need to get our own house in order at the same time as we work to help developing countries use less coal. We need to do both!

            So who are you trying to convince of this? To me it’s obvious we need to do both. Who believes we don’t? I agree that more effort is needed on reducing coal use, but the answer is to increase effort on reducing coal use, not to reduce effort on stopping Keystone.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm

              “So who are you trying to convince of this? To me it’s obvious we need to do both.”

              OK, how much effort have you spent personally on educating people about the severity of the coal situation relative to Keystone XL? How about Bill McKibben? How many protests has he led to bring attention to the far worse threat?

              This is a triage situation. To say “we must do everything” fails to acknowledge that. There isn’t infinite time nor are there infinite resources. So where to allocate the time/resources for the largest impact? Just a tiny fraction of coal’s potential will put the goal out of reach. The threats a disproportionate in coal’s favor, and all the press is disproportionate in Keystone’s direction.

              As far as reducing coal consumption in the US, sure that should be done. The US share is under 12% and declining. Asia Pacific’s is 70% and rising. We can worry all day about getting our own house in order, and as we are taking care of that the problem will continue to get much worse. It is simply the nature of what’s being burned and where it’s being burned.

            • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 7:09 pm

              I’ve actually spent a lot of time explaining this situation to others, and as I point out in many blog costs and in Cold Cash, Cool Climate, the coal reserves are by far the largest ones (I did independent analysis using unpublished (at the time) numbers from the IIASA global energy assessment to show why constraints on fossil fuel availability were unlikely to prevent us from heading to 5 C above preindustrial times by 2100). See Chapter 2 (Fig 2-13) and Appendix A of Cold Cash Cool Climate for details.

              I can’t speak for Bill McKibben or others, but it seems to me that he’s your audience. I suspect he understands this point but he’s made a tactical decision to focus on Keystone so he can build a political movement around stopping it. This may or may not be a wise move, but it looks to me like that’s what’s going on here.

              It also sounds like you are complaining about the lack of attention to the broader threat and the need for constraints on coal use, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that we need to focus on coal, but there’s no reason why we can’t do both, so I don’t agree that this is triage in the classic sense. We need to fight the construction of all fossil fuel infrastructure from here on in. We won’t win every battle, but we need to try, and we need to stop new infrastructure and start retiring existing infrastructure in the next 5-10 years.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 7:20 pm

              “constraints on fossil fuel availability were unlikely to prevent us from heading to 5 C above preindustrial times by 2100″

              That’s the elephant in the room nobody is discussing. The 2 degree C goal is really a joke. If people realized that there is no way we are going to keep under 2 degrees — and then recognize why we aren’t going to stay under 2 degrees — then Keystone XL seems like even more of a distraction.

              “there’s no reason why we can’t do both”

              There’s a reason I can’t have three #1 priorities. Any climate change advocate who understands the nature of this problem and isn’t devoting most of their time to dealing with the most serious problem is applying the sunscreen. That will be great in 50 years if the victim survives. But we better find some people who can start urgently trying to pull the guy out of the water.

            • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 7:37 pm

              I never said Keystone should be our #1 priority, but given that we need to decide on the pipeline one way or another, I concluded after careful study and lots of discussions that blocking it would (on net) have beneficial effects. There’s a whole series of things we should be doing, including stopping Keystone, and I just don’t see why they should be mutually exclusive. We may just have to agree to disagree on this one.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 10, 2013 at 8:06 pm

              “There’s a whole series of things we should be doing, including stopping Keystone, and I just don’t see why they should be mutually exclusive.”

              Here is my position in a nutshell. It is hard for me to conceive of any scenario in which stopping Keystone XL makes any measurable difference in the global temperature 60 years from now. Even the entirety of the oil sands isn’t going to make a measurable difference. You can see that from the graphic. The only thing that would register is all of the oil in place, and it would take 500 years to develop that. So to me, Keystone is totally irrelevant with respect to truly impacting this problem.

              Coal isn’t. Coal’s potential is so far beyond that of Keystone XL, or all the oil sands, or even all the oil period that it matters a lot. So I look at it as spending a bit of time on Problem A, which won’t have a measurable impact, and a bit of time on Problem B, which will have 100 times the impact. Personally, for me, I would spend zero time on Problem A unless I had done everything I could possibly do on Problem B and still had some idle time to spare.

            • By Jonathan Koomey on July 10, 2013 at 11:53 pm

              I don’t think you can separate Keystone from the other pipelines that the oil industry wants to build to the tar sands–stopping Keystone is the first step to stopping all of them. I think a plausible case can be made that tens of megatons of carbon dioxide emissions can be avoided by slowing down exploitation of the tar sands in the next 5 years, by which time climate damages will be so obvious that people will be demanding urgent action. That’s enough impact for me to justify a focus on stopping the pipeline. I totally agree that ten or 100 times more effort should be focused on coal, but I think that’s additional to efforts on Keystone. As I said, this is just like your argument about coal use in Asia. Just because coal use in the US is lower than in Asia doesn’t mean we should be ignoring coal use in the US. If that’s true there, it’s true for the pipelines to Alberta as well.

            • By Robert Rapier on July 11, 2013 at 12:47 am

              “I don’t think you can separate Keystone from the other pipelines that the oil industry wants to build to the tar sands”

              If I grant you the entire oil sands reserve, 50 years from now you are still squinting to try to make out the effect from the noise. That’s the thing. You have to build a case. You have to connect dots. Make assumptions. Pretend the trains can’t step in and carry the oil anyway.

              You don’t have to do any of that with coal.

              “Just because coal use in the US is lower than in Asia doesn’t mean we should be ignoring coal use in the US.”

              I don’t say we should ignore it, but Asian coal is ~7x US coal, and growing. So if you focus your efforts on US coal, you might not understand why global emissions continue to accelerate. Spending a lot of time on little problems when there is a big problem that can trump all the little problems is a recipe for failure.

              I understand the whole argument of working on the problems you think you can solve. But when there are bigger problems that will render your solved problem moot, then you really need to figure out how to tackle the bigger problem.

            • By TimC on July 11, 2013 at 4:10 pm

              “…50 years from now you are still squinting to try to make out the effect from the noise.”

              We can’t tell any man-made climatic effects from the noise now, and we won’t be able to in 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years. That’s what makes Climate Change the perfect scam. It’s an effective apocalyptic crisis that alarms people into giving up money, and yet no climate engineer will ever be expected to deliver any sort of measurable result, ever.

            • By Moiety on July 11, 2013 at 4:24 am

              “There’s a reason I can’t have three #1 priorities.”
              This gets lost on many environmentalists (and engineers). That kind of line is one of the major hurdles where I think the environmental movement fell down.

  7. By NicholB on July 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    The graph above shows that we cannot use all those fossil fuels, and must leave a great part in the earth. If we then need to decide which parts we will keep using, and which parts we will stop, it seems to me that is makes sense to skip the new ‘unconventional’ sources, for which large new investment and new infrastructure are needed. And that certainly counts also for developing new coal areas, with their transport lines.

    .. and of course, there is the separate logic of what excites people. The logic of activism. The logic that incites people to choose for a transition of the energy system. In germany nuclear power is being turned off maybe quicker than quite necessary. It helps germany focus more on buildiing up the new energy system based on renewables, and efficiency. In the USA it is necessary to fight the oil and gas industry with their strong lobby. Maybe that is best done in an oblique way by first attacking a ‘foreign’ source? These things cannot always be planned, this is what is happening, and with popular support.

    • By Ed_Reid on July 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Please note that the vertical red line on the above graph is drawn based on GCMs; probably on the mean of the ensemble of GCMs currently considered by the IPCC. Those models have demonstrated limited skill; and, even the least catastrophic of those models is currently over-predicting the global average surface temperature anomaly and even further over-predicting the underlying temperature data.. In the simple graph above, there is no error range around the line. That suggests a degree of certainty which does not exist.

      That is not to suggest that there is not enough coal available on the earth to “blow by” a 2oC temperature anomaly “wish”. The “we” who “must leave a great part in the earth” includes China, India and several nations in Africa, which together possess the capability to “blow by” the red line without our assistance and in spite of our efforts to avoid that result.

      • By NicholB on July 10, 2013 at 7:18 pm

        That is why it isn’t even enough if we start to reduce our own burning or mining of fossil fuels. We need to start putting pressure on others to do the same. We’ll need to have import tariffs to tax the embedded carbon of imported products, if that carbon was not taxed at origin. Those kinds of things.

        Check the history of abolitionism. Britain abolished slave trade in 1807, but then started a campaign of treaties and deals with other countries to also stop. They had the navy cruising West Africa to catch the slave ships. Then in 1843 slavery itself was abolished, in the commonwealth. But it was followed by an everlasting campaign to pressure other countries, one by one, to do the same.

        At the moment, Europe is trying to play the role that Britain did for abolitionism. But Europe isn’t the world leading power. It would make a radical difference if the USA would join. And China, and India.

  8. By Joe R on July 10, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Note to those who are reading this blog and have not yet drunk the cool aid…….read Joe Clarkson’s posts…..that’s what these people are proposing……..

    • By Joe Clarkson on July 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      Aloha Joe R-

      As Randy Udall noted in 2006, “We’re living like gods right now. And our challenge is to figure out how to return to earth, how to become mortal again.” He was referring to our profligate use of energy, particularly fossil fuels, and all the “wonders” it brings to modern society.

      We who live in the developed world haven’t ever made any serious effort to return to earth gently, so the fall will be long and hard.

      This means that regardless of its effect on the climate, the human race is so far into overshoot that resource depletion will inevitably cause the hard fall of economic collapse. Unless you are very old, you will probably live to see at least the beginning phases.

      Since I do believe that anthroprogenic climate change has the potential to greatly diminish the habitability of the world, and since economic collapse is inevitable, why not hold on to the grim hope that it happen sooner rather than later?

      As far as drinking “the cool aid” goes; I’ve only had a sip. I’m only a moderate doomer. You should check out some Near Term Extinction sites, such as Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last. Those people are gulping it down.

      • By Joe R on July 11, 2013 at 6:45 am

        Hi Joe -

        Please shout your positions at the top of your lungs and don’t listen to your colleagues when they tell you that while they agree with you, the “people” can’t handle the truth.

        Definitely don’t listen to the neanderthals who don’t feel guilty about the wealth accumulated in the developing countries since capitalism is all about increasing the size of the pie rather than focusing exclusively on how it is divided. This theory is all part of a corporate conspiracy promulgated by those in power. As we all know these folks convene meetings regularly to determine the best means to subjugate the people so you can’t trust anything they say…….

      • By Grateful on July 13, 2013 at 11:28 am

        Did you read what Robert wrote?

        “That’s the elephant in the room nobody is discussing. The 2 degree C
        goal is really a joke. If people realized that there is no way we are
        going to keep under 2 degrees — and then recognize why we aren’t going
        to stay under 2 degrees — then Keystone XL seems like even more of a

        What do you think are the consequences of not staying under 2 degrees? If there is “no way,” maybe we’ll stay under 3 degrees? 4? Do you have to courage to investigate the consequences of going over 2+ degrees? Sorry if reality makes you a little uncomfortable, but the reason we have this problem in the first place is because everyone on this planet is living in his own little magical land of make believe.

  9. By Oldfarmermac on August 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    The entire Keystone debate is an irrelevant tempest in a teacup, in essence no more than an academic debate.

    If the keystone doesn’t get built, the Canadians will build a pipeline either east or west to the sea, and perhaps one in both directions.

    The most that the opposition to it will accomplish is to focus some much needed attention on critical energy and pollution issues.

    It won’t even slow down the burning of the oil to any noticeable extent if it is not built.

    I would oppose the building of it myself, except for two good reasons, the first being the aforesaid one that the tar sands oil will be burnt anyway.

    The second one is that history is not over.

    It is very much in the strategic interests of the US that the line come thru (my) this country.

    There will almost inevitably come a time when hot wars will be fought over the remaining available oil.

    When that time comes, our supply will be much better assured than otherwise.

    For what it is worth, I do as a matter of principle support a programs geared toward reducing the use of fossil fuels both domestically and world wide.

    But speaking as a realist, I recognize that some battles aren’t worth the cost .

    This is one of them.

    Our attention should be focused on conservation , efficiency , and reduction of all fossil fuel use- especially coal.

    Hats off to RR

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