A free-market energy blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Climate Impact of Keystone XL? About 0.0001°C/yr

Last month, a group of 15 climate scientists (included the now disgraced Peter Gleick) sent a letter to Congress expressing their displeasure over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. President Obama has weighed in against approval, but Congress wants a green light to allow construction of the 1,700-mile, $7 billion project. Most recently, Bill Clinton weighed in for the pipeline, indicating just how deep the positives of the project are for the U.S. and world oil market.

So why are physical scientists getting political about a market-friendly pipeline to deliver oil from the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to various refinery locations in the Midwestern U.S. and ultimately the Gulf Coast?

The letter (reprinted at the end of this post) states that in addition to the local environmental impacts of oil sand mining (see here and here for a first-person account from Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey of the operation), burning such oil “on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.”

The 15 climate scientists added:

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

What Is the Climate Impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

As a climate scientist myself, I can profess to knowing the same thing that the 15 signatories know about what the impact that carbon contained in fossil fuel reserves will have on the climate. And I can (as can they) calculate how much of an effect the Keystone XL pipeline will probably have on global temperatures. For some reason (hmm?) the 15 climate scientists chose not to include that information in their letter to Congress.

But here it is: The rise in global temperatures resulting from extracting and burning the oil delivered by Keystone XL at full capacity is about 0.0001°C/yr.

Keystone XL by the Numbers

The Keystone XL Pipeline was to deliver about 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to U.S. refineries.

Various estimates have been made of the total carbon dioxide associated with producing and burning a Keystone XL-delivered barrel of oil (or the products derived therefrom, such as gasoline) for energy, and they generally arrive at a number somewhere around 0.62 tons of CO2 per barrel (see here for a derivation of that number).

Multiplying the amount of CO2 per barrel with a production of 800,000 barrels a day, 365 days a year, gets you an annual total CO2 emitted to the atmosphere from oil delivered by the Keystone XL Pipeline of 181 million metric tons.

How much “global warming” does that get you?

In a previous Master Resource article, I calculated, based on observations of CO2 emissions and temperature changes during the past 50 years, that it takes about 1,767,250 million metric tons of CO2 emissions to raise the global temperature 1°C.

In fact, I think I suggested that everyone should jot this number down and pin it to a convenient place for ready reference next time someone was throwing around CO2 emissions reductions expected to result from some regulation.

In this case, instead of using it to calculate the “savings” in global temperature rise from some perspective emissions control regulation, we can use it to calculate how much additional global warming that the oil flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline will produce when burned.

To do so, we take 181 mmtCO2/yr and divide it by 1,767,250 mmtCO2/°C. And we get 0.0001°C/yr, that is, one ten thousandths of a degree Celsius of temperature rise from the Canadian tar sands oil delivered by the Keystone XL pipeline each year.

Obviously, the climate scientists who wrote to Congress must have other concerns than the inconsequential and undetectable global climate change that would directly result from the Keystone XL-delivered oil.

The Camel’s Nose

When it comes to global climate impacts, the Keystone XL pipeline itself has virtually none.

What the climate scientists who wrote the letter to Congress are really worried about is not the Keystone XL pipeline in particular, but what it means for tar sands development in general.

Their fear is that once the tar-sands oil becomes readily available—with the Keystone XL setting a prime example—then the development of the tar sands region of Alberta will happen rapidly and the flow of oil from the region will multiply.

In total, it is estimated that the Alberta tar sands deposit contains about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil. If all that were extracted and burned to create energy for human civilization, it would deliver about 1,047,200 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, producing (via a similar calculation as above), 0.59°C of warming in total.

Another estimate of the climate impact of the total Alberta tar sands oil was recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria in British Columbia (Weaver was also a Lead Author of the “Global Climate Change” chapter of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report). Swart and Weaver only considered the direct CO2 from the use of the oil rather than the additional (and less certain) emissions from extraction and refinement operations (as was included in my analysis) and they also used a lower number than I did for the expected temperature change from a set amount of CO2 emissions. They calculated that the Alberta tar sands had the potential to raise global temparatures by about 0.36°C—a value a bit more than half of my number.

But either way, if you are in favor of trying to keep the global average temperature within 2°C of its pre-industrial value, it isn’t hard to see why an additional 0.59°C (or 0.36°C) of warming would be a big deal (especially considering that the earth has already warmed up about 0.7-0.8°C since the pre-industrial times, not to mention continued warming from CO2 emissions from non-Alberta-oil-sands fossil fuels).

And so the 15 climate scientists writing to Congress want to keep all the tar-sands carbon in the ground, and not risk the Keystone XL pipeline being the camel’s nose under the tent, despite the lack of direct climate impact from the pipeline’s oil itself.

The Future

Most observers of the situation think it incredibly naïve to think that even if the Keystone XL pipeline never comes to pass and all the Alberta tar-sands carbon stays in the ground, that the Canadian carbon won’t simply be replaced by carbon taken out of the ground somewhere else to meet humanity’s growing demand for energy. Or, if the U.S. is not a market for the Canadian tar-sands oil, someone else (hint: China) may very well be and so the Canadian carbon will be mined and released anyway.

It is interesting to me, that even in this time when it is en vogue to be “saving the planet” by seeking the mitigation of climate change through the limitation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that the big new energy sources that are being “discovered” and exploited are primarily the result of technological advances in producing fossil fuels (e.g., tar sands, shale gas) rather than in renewable energy sources.

Which goes to show the strength of the market, not to mention the silent majority who power it by wanting plentiful and reliable energy, with which they not only can deal with any climate changes, but also much more importantly, improve their standard of living.

A New Strategy?

The 15 climate scientists and their supporters are swimming against the tide by trying to slow down the market expansion of the world’s energy supply. They ought to change their strategy from one focused on playing defense to one focused on offense.

Instead of trying to force change by limiting the expansion of certain types of fuels—a strategy in which they risk being rolled over if alternative energy methods are not developed in time to keep up with demand—they should lend their support to the development of the new energy technologies to provide plentiful and reliable energy and which can outcompete fossil fuels.

To me success is better gained through offering a better product, rather than outlawing an existing one—especially when the existing one is the primary fuel being used to power the world.

……………………………………………

Letter to Congress

Feb 13, 2012

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell, and Representatives Boehner and Pelosi,

We are researchers at work on the science of climate change and allied fields. Last summer, we called on President Obama to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s tar sands. We were gratified to see that he did so, and since some in Congress are seeking to revive this plan, we wanted to restate the case against it.

The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, one that it does not make sense to exploit. It takes a lot of energy and water to extract and refine this resource into useable fuel, and the mining is environmentally destructive. Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control. It makes no sense to build a pipeline that would dramatically increase exploitation of this resource.

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

We can say categorically that this pipeline is not in the nation’s, or the planet’s best interest.

Sincerely,

James Hansen, Research Scientist, The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
John Abraham, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, University of St. Thomas
Jason Box, Associate Professor, Department of Geography Atmospheric Sciences Program, Researcher at Byrd Polar Research Center, The Ohio State University
Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security
Richard A. Houghton, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center
Ralph Keeling, Director, Scripps CO2 Program Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs Climate Institute
Michael E. Mann, Professor of Meteorology Director, Earth System Science Center, The Pennsylvania State University
James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University
Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences, Princeton University
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences, The University of Chicago
Steve Running, Professor of Ecology, Director of Numerical Terradynamics Simulation Group, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana
Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
George M. Woodwell, Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center

15 comments

1 Jon Kent Martin { 03.05.12 at 11:22 am }

No problems with enviornment in this. Let the oil flow!

2 klem { 03.05.12 at 2:41 pm }

I can’t believe I just read a climate scientist actually say that the XL pipeline is insignificant. That goes against the environmentalists who protested the pipleline. This climate scientist is a blasphemer.

What most people don’t know is the XL pipeline already crosses from Canada to the USA, it has been delivering oil to Illinois for 2 years now.

3 Lionell Griffith { 03.05.12 at 4:21 pm }

Panic! At that rate we will be over the 2 degree limit in ONLY 2000 years. Help…help the sky is about to burn!

Oh wait. We are to destroy technological civilization and extinguish the lives of 99.9+% of the existing population of earth to avoid what might or might not happen in 2000 years? Does that sound rational or insane? Don’t answer. You know it is insane. The real question is why are we falling for this madness?

4 The Climate Impact of Keystone XL? About 0.0001°C/yr | JunkScience.com { 03.06.12 at 12:32 am }

[...] letter (reprinted at the end of this post) states that in addition to the local environmental impacts of oil sand mining [...]

5 Peter Gleick Shows The Environmental Movement How To Get Its Hands Dirty | PricelessEarth.org { 03.07.12 at 10:22 am }

[...] actual warming that would be caused, according to this article, is about 0.0001°C per year from the Keystone XL pipeline itself. That may not sound like a big [...]

6 rbradley { 03.07.12 at 12:13 pm }

Chip’s analysis above is for an incremental expansion of 800,000 B/D. It appears that the existing in-service pipeline capacity of 435,000 B/D would be increased by 155,000 B/D and then increased by another 510,000 B/D (see here). So the resulting incremental increase of 665,000 B/D, about 17% lower than what Chip ran, would reduce related CO2 emissions and the temperature effects that much lower.

7 Chip Knappenberger { 03.07.12 at 12:50 pm }

Thanks, Rob.

Throughout my analysis I tried to err on the conservative side in my estimates of key quantities.

According to the TransCanada website, the current delivery capacity is 590,000 B/D, and once the expansion is complete to the Gulf Coast, that number would become to 1.3 million B/D–an increase of 710,000 B/D.

And I saw an estimate that the increase could be upwards of 800,000 B/D.

But whether the increase is 665,000 or 800,000 B/D, you still need a pretty sharp pencil and a lot of decimal places to even calculate the climate impact. And just because you can calculate one on paper, doesn’t mean that it is detectable in the real world (over practical timeframes).

-Chip

8 Kermit { 03.09.12 at 4:27 pm }

What is the level of CO2 emitted by the voyages of ships from Venezuela to the Gulf Coast (including 2 tugs to escort and assist in docking and sailing)? That is the TYPE of crude oil which Canadian Syncrude would replace.

9 Peter Wangsness { 03.09.12 at 5:05 pm }

What is interesting in this article and the 15 is that the alternative is not that the oil stays in the ground, but that is sent overseas (China etc.) by ship. That has to be less efficient (more fuel used) than an efficient transport system such as a pipeline. Whether you believe there is an effect on the climate or not, a pipeline must have less of an effect than ships or trucks.

10 Peter Gleick Shows The Environmental Movement How To Get Its Hands Dirty ‹ PricelessEarth.org { 04.08.12 at 5:36 pm }

[...] actual warming that would be caused, according to this article, is about 0.0001°C per year from the Keystone XL pipeline itself. That may not sound like a big [...]

11 Paul M. Suckow { 08.10.12 at 7:29 pm }

I found Chip Knappenberger’s article above technically admirable yet extremely cavaliar about an unanticipated additional equilibrium rise of 0.36°C to 0.59°C that would be directly attributable to fully developed Canadian tar sands. If you’ve been following recent work in paleoclimate science, you’d worry that even 0.1°C may be scant headroom. A fractional degree was all the difference between the world we know we are entering, based on past emissions and committed conventional fossil reserves, and the world at the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago, a trillion GT spike in GHG similar to what we are experiencing now but stretched over a far longer geological timeframe. Sea level then rose 19 feet higher in Florida, for example.

“In total, it is estimated that the Alberta tar sands deposit contains about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil. If all that were extracted and burned to create energy for human civilization, it would deliver about 1,047,200 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, producing (via a similar calculation as above), 0.59°C of warming in total”. It might have been better to reconfirm for readers that those are all indeed huge numbers.

We know better than to burn the precious fossil organics we’ve got left. Why can’t we get some advanced closed loop petrochemical processing (and cogenerating) plants going now that make waste itself a concept relegated to yesteryear? Oil’s got a great future ahead, but not primarily in producing combustion waste dumped to the ocean or atmosphere. Unconventionals from shale and tar may appear to be the only big plays left. But that’s only possible by performing some nifty technical tricks (which could also return to haunt fresh groundwater supplies).

Widely burning unconventional gas and crude represents not market expansion but an overextention well past prime…with clear potential to violate the responsibility each generation holds in trust for succeeding generations.

Here is the only way I can see supporting big pipes to the Canadian Tar Sands: http://paulsuckow.blogspot.com/2012/08/fight-or-switch_10.html

12 Climate Impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline from the Cato Institute and appears somebody has some very bad data or maybe from another land like Oz. « Pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie { 01.08.13 at 8:36 pm }

[...] I did the analysis last year, shortly after President Obama rejected the first application. I found that the burning of the 800,000 barrels oil delivered annually by the pipeline would result in a warming of the average global temperature by 0.0001°C/yr (full details here). [...]

13 Doug { 01.09.13 at 2:21 pm }

try this caluclation….800,000 (capacity per day) x 365 (days in a year)x 0.62 (life cycle CO2 emmissions associated with a barrel of oil) = 181,040,000. Now that annual amount is equivalent to nearly 25% of Canada’s annual GHG emissions. And what of the other pipelines being proposed that will facilitate export to Asia? Another million bpd of new capacity? Lets see, that is now 400+ million tons per year…more than half of Canada’s existing aggregate….is this a meaningless number? I think not. The simple fact is that expanding this industry keeps us on the same path going in the wrong direction. What has the US committed to do with its annual combustion of liquid fuels? I am pretty sure that its comitment is to a rather dramatic drop from current levels. You and we (I am a Canadian) have committed to reducing our consumption not to increasing it and to do so in a dramatice way. How does building this pipeline or the others for that matter that facilitate the growth in capacity of the tar sands development help us do that?

14 On Global Warming, Keystone Pipeline and Bernie Sanders | Order From Chaos { 07.20.13 at 11:41 am }

[...] construction of the pipeline, actually serve to reduce warming by any meaningful amount?  As this post shows, the “benefit” from this would be in reducing the temperature increase by [...]

15 jan freed { 08.12.13 at 11:01 pm }

Your calculations in the impact of Keystone ignore two critical factors:
a. to get the oil the sludge must be refined. This added energy requirement means added CO2. This is one reason why Keystone is worse. I read about a 17% higher impact than other forms of oil.
b. Canadian Boreal forests the area of Florida would be savaged to get the sludge. Forests when not ravaged sequester CO2, lots of it.
c. The sludge is especially prone to leak . There have been numerous leaks so far, highly unpleasant in drinking water.
d. We should be encouraging job forming green energy which has none of the above dangers.

Leave a Comment