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By Robert Rapier on Feb 4, 2014 with 20 responses

Coal Emissions Equal an Athabasca Oil Sands Reserve Every 4 Years

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A Disproportionate Response

I had intended to write an article today outlining some potential solutions to the Midwest’s ethanol predicament, but some recent exchanges on Twitter prompted me to postpone that for a week.

The issue in question involves various comments I have made about the Keystone XL pipeline. I have argued that while Keystone XL has mobilized a lot of passion and energy, its threat is minuscule compared to the world’s growing carbon dioxide emissions from coal. Thus, I believe most of the effort being directed at stopping Keystone XL would be better directed at the world’s coal emissions.

Some took exception to this. Some who are spending their time and energy on Keystone XL argued that Keystone XL really is a big deal, while others noted that a heroic effort is being expended to combat coal consumption. So, I have done a few calculations to illustrate my argument.

The Warming Potential of the Athabasca Oil Sands

You may recall that a paper from the University of British Columbia estimated that burning the entire 170 billion barrel Athabasca reserve could raise global temperatures by 0.03°C. If you could actually burn all the oil in place, the calculated global temperature rise could be as great as 0.50°C. But you have to take into consideration the amount of time this would actually take. Even if Canada’s oil industry grew to 10 million bpd (putting it on par with Saudi Arabia and Russia), it would take slightly over 500 years to produce the 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place. And that’s making the unrealistic assumption that you could produce all the oil in place.

Here is a more defensible assessment. In 2012, Canada produced 3.74 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil. The oil industry there has been increasing production by 3.1% per year over the past decade. At that growth rate, Canada could reach Saudi Arabia’s production level in 2045. If we assume that level of production could be maintained, it would take until 2070 to produce the 170 billion barrel Athabasca oil sands reserve. At that point, the temperature impact is estimated to be 0.03°C — not even measurable against the background noise.

Of course that’s also looking at the entire Athabasca reserve. Keystone XL’s impact would be a tiny fraction of that. But even if we assume the worst case — that Keystone XL is the only option that will enable the growth of the oil sands and that there will be no other routes out — we get a temperature impact so low that isn’t measurable six decades from now.

The Relative Carbon Dioxide Impacts

Now consider the carbon dioxide impact of oil sands versus coal. Per the US Environmental Protection Agency, consumption of a barrel of oil produces 0.43 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Oil sands are more carbon intensive to extract, adding an additional 17% to the overall carbon footprint of the barrel of oil. So let’s assume that consumption of a barrel of oil sands produces 17% more, or 0.50 metric tons of carbon dioxide per barrel. That means consumption of the 170 billion barrels of Athabasca oil sands could result in an additional 85 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere. For just Keystone XL, over the course of 30 years it would carry oil that would generate 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Make no mistake, that’s a lot. But it’s relatively small given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, hence the small temperature impact.

Now, let’s compare coal. Again, using the same EPA reference, burning a metric ton of coal produces 2.56 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In 2012, the world consumed about 7.6 billion metric tons of coal, which means 19.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide was emitted. At that rate, the world’s coal consumption emits as much carbon dioxide as the entire Athabasca oil sands reserve every 4.4 years — and the global rate has been accelerating. Or, in terms of just Keystone XL, the emissions from 30 years of transported crude is equal to a bit over 2 months of global coal emissions.

In other words, during the past few years, while the Keystone XL protesters were marching on the White House, the world dumped an Athabasca-sized amount of carbon dioxide in the air from just coal. That’s why I say that the Keystone XL is a relatively minor issue. While our attention is focused on that, we are being buried in carbon dioxide from coal — and I am trying to call attention to that.

Rapidly Growing Asia Pacific Demand is the Driver

The primary source of new carbon dioxide emissions is the developing Asia Pacific region, which is where the majority of the world’s coal is consumed.

CO2-region

Asia Pacific is on a trajectory for 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2020

Asia Pacific’s energy consumption is on the rise across the board, and the region consumes nearly 70% of the world’s coal, and that number has been growing rapidly as countries in the region industrialize. To me this is the problem that requires immediate, undivided attention, yet it receives a fraction of the coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Disproportionate Threats

This should demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that Keystone’s XL’s threat — even the threat of the entire Athabasca reserve — is insignificant when placed up against coal. That doesn’t mean Keystone XL is undeserving of any attention, but I view this like a triage situation where the biggest threat should have the biggest focus. Coal can single-handedly obliterate the 2°C warming target agreed to under the Copenhagen Accord. Oil sands can’t. But while environmental groups have been fighting a battle to stop Keystone XL, the world has been losing a war against coal.

Disproportionate Visibility

The only outstanding item is whether Keystone XL does receive the bulk of the attention despite being a minor part of a much bigger problem. Some people vigorously protested my assessment, and suggested that this maligns many efforts going on to reduce coal consumption.

I don’t doubt that. I consider myself to be part of that effort. But how does one quantify this? It’s pretty subjective. But in the media, including in social media where environmental NGOs are very active, discussions of Keystone XL dominate. It is getting the lion’s share of the attention, partially because Keystone’s threat is being so grossly exaggerated. If people were as panicked over coal consumption as they are over Keystone XL, it would be a good start, but it deserves 100 times the attention of Keystone XL. It seems to me that Keystone XL has the laser-focus of environmental groups everywhere in a way that global coal consumption does not.

Rally the Troops for a Skirmish

Others will argue that the Keystone XL is part of a movement that will move on to bigger and better things, or that it is an easy symbol around which to rally forces. To that, I simply say that the clock is ticking. Don’t rally around a minor threat just because it happens to be the battle you think you can win. If you have a threat that can kill you, and one that can hurt you, my immediate concern is for the one that can kill me. Even if I succeed in rallying attention to the one that can hurt me, I may still die in the process.

Link to Original Article: Coal Emissions Equal an Athabasca Oil Sands Reserve Every 4.4 Years

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

  1. By Optimist on February 4, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Well written, RR. One can only wonder if the State Department read this blog: “A new State Department report on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline finds that the project would have a minimal impact on the environment, an assessment likely to increase pressure on the White House to approve it. But the report sets no deadline for doing so. ” – http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/31/22524683-report-keystone-pipeline-would-have-minimal-environmental-impact

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  2. By Derek on February 4, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    It’s true that the GWP of the oil sands pales in comparison to global coal consumption, but there are some intangibles that have resulted/could result from the KXL debate:

    1. More people have been educated about the concept of carbon intensity

    2. People are becoming aware of the idea that we’re chasing after more expensive, lower-grade fuels to keep car culture going

    3. The issue puts pressure on the Canadian producers to run a cleaner operation (i.e. wildlife protection, land reclamation)

    4. It’s a test of executive rules on approving international fossil fuel trade. It’s an opportunity to use this event to steer future decisions. A victory at one segment of KXL could mean later victories against other pipelines.

    5. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we can start taking action to limit fossil fuel imports and ultimately overall consumption. It’s sort of like nuclear disarmament – one of the sides has to offer to scrap missiles first.

    6. It’s an opportunity to stop what would have been an inevitable march on to more carbon intensive liquid fuels. “Hey, if you thought tar sands were bad, wait till you hear about the oil shales (kerogen)!”

    7. The issue has included contamination of water sources in the US. The Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River is directly linked to the syncrude coming down from Canada.

    Also, while we can and have set limits on coal plants in the US, it’s much more difficult to politically control global coal consumption. KXL is an issue we can win at home. As I stated earlier, denying ourselves syncrude can also help in climate negotiations.

    A good analogy would be the 2007/2008 Republican push to “drill, baby, drill!” The issue centered around opening public lands to drilling, even though those lands didn’t account for much oil in the grand scheme of things. Yet, the issue was a rallying cry for the industry and helped start the push for US energy independence through brute (drilling) force rather than conservation.

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    • By trevormarr on February 4, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      A good analogy would be to call you hypocritical.

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      • By Derek on February 4, 2014 at 8:54 pm

        I’m not sure how my comment demonstrates me preaching one thing while practicing another.

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    • By Optimist on February 4, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      “2. People are becoming aware of the idea that we’re chasing after more expensive, lower-grade fuels to keep car culture going.”

      Trust the free market. If the problem is real, it will be obvious at the pump.

      “4. It’s a test of executive rules on approving international fossil fuel trade. It’s an opportunity to use this event to steer future decisions. A victory at one segment of KXL could mean later victories against other pipelines.”
      Executive rules make a poor substitute for sensible energy policy. And don’t forget, sooner or later the other guys will win back the WH, and extend the executive privileges…

      “5. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we can start taking action to limit fossil fuel imports and ultimately overall consumption. It’s sort of like nuclear disarmament – one of the sides has to offer to scrap missiles first.”
      None of the above. The oil sands will keep coming by rail if KXL is not built. Minus a few dirty and dangerous spills. Hardly going to affect consumption.

      “6. It’s an opportunity to stop what would have been an inevitable march on to more carbon intensive liquid fuels. “Hey, if you thought tar sands were bad, wait till you hear about the oil shales (kerogen)!”

      Keep dreaming…

      “…helped start the push for US energy independence through brute (drilling) force rather than conservation.”

      The push for fracking (and energy-independence) came from $100/bbl.

      And it ain’t going away any time soon, either.

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  3. By trevormarr on February 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Bang on!!! this has been my argument as well! It is hypocritical to demonize the Canadian oilsands, we are a very responsible industry with great efforts to control emissions and the bad press from obvious enviro ‘never happy’ foreign oil supporters are lost in their obsession to the point that they will cripple the economy of both governments and citizens with ineffective mantras.

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  4. By ben on February 5, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Gee whiz, I’m tempted to offer in response to Rapier’s handiwork: Point, game, set and match. Ah, but that would presume that rules actually govern in the playing of the game. Alas, politics too often revolves around the suspension of rules (and reality) for the sake of expedient interests capable of carrying the day based on a deftness in coaxing the mob and/or winking at principle. Experience reminds us that past is prologue in so many of these public policy debates.

    As for this lovely fellow, Derek, who seems quite well-intentioned, it’s difficult to offer a response to his (wish) list other than to acknowledge that he is quite wrong.

    My goodness, if one should only focus on #5 with its rumination of how
    KXL’s edgy symbolism (go ahead and export your tar sands without us) somehow translates into meaningful reductions impacting “ultimately overall consumption” is about as insightful as that of nuclear disarmament “where one side has to offer to scrap missiles first.” Wow, aren’t we grateful to know that Derek will never be a national security adviser or a weapons negotiator! Sort of scary to think that an impulse to be conscientious can blind one’s judgement to be wise. As someone familiar with international relations, disarmament has never turned on unilateralism. Quite the contrary, it has always been a reciprocal proposition with sound judgments requiring some level of trust, but never absent actionable verification.

    Like it or not, Rapier once again lays out the facts of the case. It strikes me that Enviros (with whom I share many convictions) risk an experience not unlike that of King Pyrrhus of Epirus in the wake of the Battle of Heraclea and Asculum
    (280/279 BC):

    “…as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.” – Plutarch

    Put another way on the same theme:

    “If minority groups hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remit: ‘Another such victory and I am undone.’ ”

    - Justice Hugo Black (1952) citing King Pyrrhus

    Thanks, again, Sgt. Friday, for imposing upon us “just the facts.”

    Ben

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  5. By Forrest on February 5, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Environmental activist an invention of Western society. We perpetuate and indulge in the luxury per our wealth, politics, and narcissism. The heavy lifting required to improve environment is over seas, but that’s hard and dirty work. No, better to make a show on comfy U.S. soil. Easy to get acclaim and awarded virtue over here when empowered per politics. The analysis of Keystone XL pipeline construction and operation resulting in minimal impact to environment, won’t deter them as they are currently within the media focus. They are not in it for the environment, but for attention. Seems easy for this group to gain respect and power per the typical MO. Interesting that our freedoms abused in such wasteful ways. Doesn’t cost them to block construction plans. They are not accountable for being irresponsible. They can gain much and risk nothing. That foolishness won’t occur in Asia Pacific countries that make high demands for the countries investments. I was listening to a radio show on Keystone XL pipeline right after the environmental impact statement came out. The claim was only 1,500 jobs created for maximum of two years, Canadians don’t want the pipeline as their gas prices would increase, no jobs per the U.S. refinery as the refinery would just drop Venezuela crude oil, oil would be exported thus benefit the U.S. little. They acknowledge the pipeline would result in better safety, less spills, and the tar sands will continue to developed if no U.S. pipeline. They merely want the attention per the fight and make the industry think twice upon similar projects. They don’t mention the desire to cost consumers more money for their transportation needs. The summary of the thinking, “Just because we can build the pipeline doesn’t mean we should. The President can make a stand and show the world how progressive leadership can make a difference.” So, developing a large crude oil reserve in North America and cooperating with Canada to share in the new found fortunes just a dumb thing to do? What am I missing?

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  6. By stevefunk on February 5, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    If you used the same units for coal and oil, the Athabasca looks relatively worse. There are a little more than 7 barrels of oil per metric ton http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=94&pid=57&aid=32
    At that rate, the Athabasca oil would produce 3.5+ metric tons of CO2 per metric ton of oil, as opposed to 2.56 metric tons CO2 per metric ton of coal. That doesn’t sound right. Coal should produce a little more CO2 than oil, but those are your figures.

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    • By Geoffrey Styles on February 6, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Perhaps I can help clear up the apparent contadiction. Using the figures on the EPA site Robert referenced, we see that while a tonne of oil emits about 36% more CO2 than a tonne of coal, it also contains 56% times more energy. With its high energy density we use a lot less oil of any type than coal for the same output, and hence emit less CO2 per unit of work.

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      • By Robert Rapier on February 6, 2014 at 10:11 am

        I was traveling all day yesterday, but meant to address this and forget. Yes, the issue is “tons of coal” versus “tons of oil equivalent.” I noticed that when I was looking at the number in the BP Statistical Review, so you have to be careful which units of coal you are using.

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  7. By Ken Meyercord on February 5, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Consider whether the environmental movement isn’t just being used by the powers-that-be in their haggling with the Canadians over how much we are going to pay for their oil, who’s going to finance the pipeline, and how the profits will be split. Hence all the hoopla.

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  8. By Joe Clarkson on February 5, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Aloha Robert,

    Your analysis of the relative importance of Canadian oil sands vs Asian coal consumption is correct, but it sidesteps one important point. A typical US environmental activist has absolutely no chance of impacting coal consumption in China or anywhere else in Asia. Therefore, even if one devoted 1000 times the political effort applied against KXL to coal in Asia, it would be totally wasted effort. If one is working to diminish carbon emissions, one must make efforts that can actually have some effect.

    The same concept applies even to coal consumption in the US. It is virtually impossible to shut down existing coal mines and coal burning infrastructure. They are “grandfathered in”. But a new pipeline, while of only minor importance overall, might actually be stopped. Perhaps that is why Bill Mckibben and others concentrate on KXL. Their opposition just might have an effect.

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    • By Charles on February 26, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      @Joe: “A typical US environmental activist has absolutely no chance of impacting coal consumption in China or anywhere else in Asia.” “…existing coal mines and coal burning infrastructure. They are “grandfathered in”.”

      When I look at the chart above, isn’t this the obvious conclusion that 360.org does not want to admit or even talk about: “A typical US environmental activist has absolutely no chance of (significantly) impacting carbon emissions?”

      All activists have to understand and accept the numbers in Robert’s post. Only then will we be in a position to take useful action.

      Is there any reason to think we’ll ever cut carbon emissions?
      http://www.vancouverobserver.com/blogs/climatesnapshot/climate-failure-kyoto-doha-one-simple-chart

      Our future climate is a lot worse than 360.org and followers think. Only when they admit that will they have the motivation to take substantive action.

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  9. By ben on February 6, 2014 at 10:10 am

    I think Forrest is sort of lost in the woods. Environmentalism may be an invention of the Western society (though I know thoughtful people who’ll argue the point), but that should reap more approval than disdain. One need not look very far back in our history to recall our fouling of the air, water and land. Thanks to a new generation of more environmentally-conscious citizens working in cooperation with forward-looking officials with the guts to stick up for sensibly-minded legislative reforms (the late Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine comes to mind), we have much-improved air for the breathing, water for the drinking and land for sustaining our livelihoods. Who prefers to turn back the clock while continuing on the old path? I certainly hope we are honest and sensibly-minded enough to answer that one.

    What some find objectionable is a resort to emotionalism in lieu of sound reasoning by movement-types who place debating points on ideology above sound reasoning. Many of the arguments surrounding Keystone have a lot to do with a “Just Say No” approach to every form of fossil fuel energy and any energy development initiatives that fail to conform to a wishful vision that more nearly fits a 19th century agrarian ideal than the reality of a modern America on the verge of a post-Industrial Age.

    We’d do well to better understand how technology is changing the face of energy development and consumption. We are in the process of paddling out to a huge wave of innovation that will be transforming the way we live, work, study,
    compete, collaborate and play and in ways not fully appreciated. As we experience this transformation, we might keep in mind that current debates about old practices will become increasingly moot, as lemons-into-lemonade actually gives way to a whole new drink altogether. I’m not simply saying trust technology, so much as look to a new generation of environmentally conscious, problem-solving, researcher-entrepreneurs who are equipped with modern tools of their trades and who are eager to take on the challenges at hand and ahead. That and some old-fashion grit may move us to a better place than all the bellyaching.

    In the interim, we might want to avoid tossing the baby with the bathwater, as some would have us do. We must necessarily acknowledge that the developing world has economic aspirations and sovereign rights that protect their national prerogatives. These aspirations must be respected even as we aim to influence
    collective judgments about what may be better, if not best, in the interest of sustainable growth, the advancement of freedom and our collective security.
    Mush easier said than done, eh.

    Thanks for ETI’s contributors in their striving to achieve such a balance.

    Ben

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  10. By Forrest on February 6, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Environmental activist an invention of Western society. Environmental concern something we all share. Government not that a wonderful upon the environment. Their agencies do most of the polluting nowadays. Wonderful politicians just manipulating the constituency to reap popularity reward and talking points. Easy for them to force others to spend their hard earned money for their political needs. The private sector has done the lion share of work and can only do so when enjoying enough wealth to make it happen. Environmentalism will end tomorrow if the economy busts per irresponsible political spending. It’s a foolish to award politicians such fame and even worse if these politicians claim fame for citizen accomplishment. It’s a false narrative to depict history of improvements of sewage, water, waste, pollutants, water ways, and air quality per federal regulations as these regulations merely reflect the state of technology, education, information and willingness of citizenry to spend resources to change. This nonsense of thinking to build regulations and set back and magically they will come is Hollywood fiction as this action is fraught with recklessness job killing and economy wasting per ideology. Most good regulations occur per conventional wisdom of new processes, sensors, technology improvements, etc that become available. Politicians merely step in front of the marching band to gain attention and harvest congrats. Sure they may stomp their feet and threaten per their authority to ruin and tax, but the job has to be economic and technologically feasible. Otherwise is just coercive force to crush the private sector, such as the “great” regulations strangling coal power. But, again if our great industrial strength with Yankee spirit ever can jump over that hurdle…once again politicians will convince the public is was their wise governance. Government should not be in the business of regulation per all the corruption and special interest corrosion. Better non political ways to go about coordinating, revising, updating, streamlining most progressive regs. Non compete government employees with a pant load of union thinking just not up to the task.

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  11. By ben on February 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    After such an inchoate ramble by Forrest, I’ll simply add this minor modification to my observation: Let’s just make it “is lost in the woods.” While I’d like to give credit for acknowledging the indispensable role of the private sector in providing solutions for humanity’s needs, I fear he under-appreciates the role that regulation necessarily plays in sustaining republican principles of limited self-government under the rule of law. Gosh, one is almost lead to believe that the government is essentially alien to the enterprise of preserving freedom among contending and, sometimes, hostile interests jockeying within a matrix of individual and collective choices.

    Fortunately, I don’t believe Forrest’s views here are those held by most ETI readers who concede that we must harness the creative, problem-solving capacity of free enterprise and market forces even as we safeguard an appropriate role for good governance. The sensible calibration of regulations that take into account cost-benefit analysis while showing the verifiable returns for the cost imposed on private initiative should remain the discipline. Regrettably, politicians and their allies in the self-perpetuating bureaucracy of capitals, instinctively seek
    to embrace too much credit while deflecting blame for their policy improvisations.
    Those of us not in government might do well to ensure an occasional recalibration
    of the policymaker’s self-esteem.

    “Few have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events…It is from numberless acts of courage that human history is shaped.” – Robert Kennedy

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  12. By bccarver on February 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

    the xl pipeline will not reduce the amount of coal used.

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  13. By Optimist on February 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    So, you’re saying Forrest is lost in the woods? Gotta love it!

    Of course, this is pure propaganda: “… such as the “great” regulations strangling coal power.” Regardless of what Washington thinks of coal, coal is getting crushed in the free market, by fracking gas (careful how you say it).

    What the lost one has forgotten is that without government, there is no free market – just big business bullying everyone else. Much like what is happening today, with the do-nothing Congress proudly engaged in childish arguments (“Is!” “NOT!”), much to the delight of a few radical billionaires.

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  14. By Tom Street on February 19, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    The amount of time spent protesting and otherwise trying to stop the pipeline is a sunk cost, even though it may have been misguided. I am against it but agree that coal is a much bigger problems. And then we have to look at all the activities that drive our need for both oil and coal. I think the key focus with respect to coal should be the mining of coal, especially public land for export elsewhere, primarily China. Stop the export of coal and continue to work on stopping any more coal plants and closing down existing plants.

    But I understand that Keystone is one very concrete symbol that people can rally around. I just wish Obama would make a decision so that those devoted to the pipeline can move on to coal.

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