March 14, 2014

Keystone Catch-22: Why Canada needs conservation and carbon limits to fail

A report from Inside Climate News outlines the argument between environmental groups opposing the Keystone pipeline and the U.S. State Department which argues that it makes no difference to climate change impact.  If you accept the conclusion, it says something particularly awful about Canada: we don’t just assume that the world won’t constrain its demand for fossil fuels, we need it to fail to do so.  Development of the the tar sands requires that we hasten the emissions of carbon dioxide and undermine attempts to constrain them.

Here’s the argument in five steps:

(1) Climate experts from around the world have agreed to aim for a binding treaty to be signed in Paris in 2015 that would keep emissions at a level consistent with global warming of no more than 2 degrees Celsius. ..

(2) But in analyzing the Keystone XL’s effects, the State Department never considered the decline in oil use that would occur under an effective global climate treaty….

(3)  If the world acts now to rein in the use of oil and other fossil fuels as part of a global climate deal, demand for those fuels would fall—and so would prices.

(4) With prices lower it would be harder for tar sands oil producers to turn a profit.  Because pipelines are cheaper than rail, projects like Keystone XL would hold the key to tar sands profits.

(5) Rail would be unaffordable if oil prices fall. Only the Keystone XL, and others like it, could enable the higher tar sands output—and the higher emissions that would exacerbate global warming.

While the State Department’s assumptions about energy markets “must be interpreted as analysis centered on a world where curbing climate change is not a priority,” for Canada it is essential that we worsen it.

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  1. Oilsands are marginally worse than other oil extraction methods, maybe 10-20%. Oil is needed for decades to come. It is not replacable due to its enormous energy content, 40 times that of an electric car battery btw, and because it is also used for lubrication or so many products today. No bike would work without oil on its chain, nor could you go jogging as running shoes contain plastics which is oil based, nor could you afford to eat food and half the world would starve as the transportation chain of getting food to the table is entirely oil based: tractors, plows, trucks, boats all run on oil to get your food.

    Even if global warming were true, a much disputed theory still, some countries, like Norway, Denmark, Canada, Russia actually benefit from a warming planet.

    Shipping oil by rail car is also not as safe, so XL opponents actually prefer more accidents ?

    Opposing XL means saying yes to higher food costs and to Middle Eastern human and women’s rights. Is this what we really want to promote ?

    Yes, we should look at alternatives like hydro or solar power and use it if feasible. We could do without plastic bags. Oil will be here, at least to 2100 with or without XL.

  2. There all kinds of problems with this report and its assumptions. First, oil is primarily used for transportation which contributes less than 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. When the greenhouse gasses emitted during fuel production are counted, it only adds a few points. So if fossil fuel use for transportation fell dramatically, which is quite technically possible, it still would only make a small dent in greenhouses gasses. So the assumption that a bona fide attempt to reduce the human production of greenhouse gasses would result in a dramatic fall in oil use and a dramatic fall price just doesn’t hold. First, any bona fide attempt to control greenhouse gas emissions would have to tackle thermal coal use and agricultural methods. Second, even if oil use plateaus or declines, both of which I would allow are possible, that would not necessarily result in a decrease in price. There are still vast petroleum resources on earth, we are not in danger of running out any time soon, but because oil is so important and because we use so much, any hint of peak oil on the horizon will put pressure on prices. And as a corollary of that, the whole peak oil phenomenon appears to be something of a moving target based on the price of oil; we are either looking at peak oil, which drives the price up, or peak oil recedes based on supply increases made available by higher prices.

    None of this means that I support Keystone XL. Actually it seems like a very odd place to ship oil. Texas has its own oil and it is the primary importation point for oil from the Gulf of Mexico – which might increase if Pemex allows foreign investment – and it is an easy access point to import from Venezuela. It does not make sense to me that this is an area that needs increased supply, like shipping coals to Newcastle. This area has plenty of refinery capacity, but if this is a plan to expand quantity and not price, then it is the totally opposite of the strategy that we should be employing. If we are going to dig this stuff up, then we should try for the best price and not expand production based on a lower priced volume market. If we are to build pipelines, it would make more sense to expand the capacity to Vancouver so we aren’t using as much Alaskan oil refined in Washington State.

    1. you got it .. oil has to be shipped east or west (or north) .. and the answer is indeed not more oil to the US via XL .. the federal government should declare a corridor for pipelines to the west coast and one to the east coast and we should be building them now .. far too much BS debates where all the arguments are known. Hardly anyone lives in N-BC and we let a few thousand people hijack a whole nation ?