Louder than Words

WARNING: My own personal political opinions ahead.

I’ll take a break from my usual science-based posts, to comment on something I rarely even mention: what are we, as a society, going to do about man-made climate change?

In his State of the Union address, president Obama talked about climate change and about how we can no longer let deniers paralyze us. That’s great. I’m glad he said that, I think it was even necessary. Secretary of State John Kerry has also made it clear that climate change is an important issue. So far, so good.

Then, the state department releases it’s supposed “environmental impact” statement about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Result: KXL is now one big step closer to reality.

James Hansen has already mentioned the likely climate impact of exploiting the tar sands oil. I believe he used the expression “game over.”

Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, thanks for the lip service.

32 responses to “Louder than Words

  1. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment.

    Americans (and everyone else in the world) will not give up their petroleum fueled vehicles until they are presented with an acceptable alternative.

    We are stuck with oil until we develop better EV batteries or affordable hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (with the hydrogen generated using renewable energy).

    The President cannot stop oil use. Doing so would crash the economy.

    What the President can do, and has been doing, is to increase ICEV efficiency, work to minimize oil spills and promote EVs.

    As long as we are going to burn oil, best to burn locally produced oil where environmental regulations are tighter than oil from places where the environment it tonally trashed by oil companies

    • Bob, why not start by being honest with yourself. Yes, people will give up their cars when they have a reasonable alternative, so all we have to do is present them with a reasonable alternative. And in the interim, we can present them with and encourage them to use lower carbon options. We already have technology to make significant inroads toward a zero carbon economy. All we have to do is see that people pay the full cost of carbon.

      • I’m fine with a price on carbon.

        Now, tell us how we get a carbon price passed through the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

        President Obama does not have the power to place a cost on carbon. That is something that has to come from Congress.

        IMO we need to be careful to not dump on the carpenter for not building our new house when we have failed to deliver the lumber he needs,

      • Elect sane Repubicans or Democrats.

      • In the absence of legislative action, all Obama has is regulatory authority. Regulatory authority is sufficiently capricious that after a few years of letting EPA have its way, industry may beg for a price on carbon simply to reduce the uncertainty. In the end, business wants to make money. If they can make as much or more money in a truly rational market, they’ll stop opposing a rational market.

      • Eli – I’d love to see voters elect senators and representatives that were willing to do something to stop climate change but I don’t think we’re there yet. People are going to have to suffer some more before it’s clear to them that we must act.

        snark – Again, PBO can’t afford to crash the economy. For one thing, that would insure a right wing Republican president in 2016 and a total undoing of whatever was done now with presidential action. We’ve got to give people acceptable substitutes.

        We now get about 5% of our electricity from wind and solar. No one complains about the quality of their electricity and wind/solar have not driven up the cost of electricity.

    • Oil from tar sands is exactly one of the dirtiest oils with a ridiculously low EROI. It will do nothing to keep our current economy stable it just makes a few people richer….

      There are alternatives to oil, they are just blocked, since they are “more democratic” and not some few get rich, but all people get the energy.

  2. Tragic, disastrous, and evil.

    I repeat what I wrote last night about this, and welcome any corrections or resources.

    Building infrastructure for the most toxic and inefficient sources of fossil fuel is a dangerous game. It enables the future, where we head off the cliff of greenhouse chaos – which we are beginning to see is a serious matter. Trying to phrase this as a current practicality ignores the evil nature of building a future on continued exploitation of extreme fuels to the last drop.

    In addition, everyone ignores the local consequences, which are severe. People are sick and dying, and the environment is being poisoned over a large swathe of Alberta. There were some pretty serious floods up there, and I don’t believe they have the infrastructure to deal with the dangers as climate chaos ramps up either.

    This is just a sick and dishonest evaluation, bypassing reality in favor of those who would cover up the very real toxicity of tar sands/dilbit, transport, refinement, the whole messy and complicated process of delivering it 2000 miles over vulnerable territory.

    Meanwhile, for four decades every means possible has been used to divert subsidies and support away from clean energy towards these dangerous dead ends of fossil fuels.

  3. This is the one issue on which I disagree with Hansen and it’s because I think he hasn’t looked at the numbers properly. He took the highest estimate out there for the carbon content in the formation, assumed 100% exploitation, used a high estimate for the carbon intensity of extraction and got a massive resulting “carbon bomb”.

    Putting aside the high estimates for a moment, the main problem was his assumption is the 100% exploitation. Absolutely no one is suggeting that this should happen.

    The reality on the ground is that extraction is labor and infrastructure intensive and the province of Alberta is straining to manage the current growth. Even under the most ambitious development rates, it’s highly unlikely that more than 10% (170 billion barrels) will be taken over the next 100 years. This would require about 6 to 8 XL sized pipelines to deliver the 5 million barrels per day. This translates to an increase in atmospheric CO2 on the order of 10 ppm over 100 years. I would not argue that this is trivial, but it is hardly a game over scenario either.

    Although you can derive these kinds of numbers with simple back of the envelope calculations, if you’re looking for something more rigorous that reaches the same conclusions there’s this 2012 article from Nature by Swart and Weaver: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1421

    • Ernst K.,
      The problem with the pipeline is not that it will by itself increase ghgs. Rather it is that it creates that many more jobs dependent on obsolete energy infrastructure and that many more people whose livelihood depends on denial of science. If you thought the US was obstructionist up to now, watch us stand in the way of progress now that we are a net petroleum exporter.

      • Fair enough, you can make a legitimate argument along those lines, although I’m not sure it’s a particularly compelling one.

        The “game over/climate bomb” argument would be compelling if it were legitimate. It’s obvious hyperbole for anyone who has looked at this closely and I would argue that it plays to the alarmist stereotype and thereby undermines political support for action more than it galvanizes support amongst the already convinced.

        I’m also concerned that it distracts from the need to organize to put a price on carbon and reduce coal development.

  4. Aurgh. The issue with Tar Sands is a complex one and I feel much the same as you. I suspect the conclusion of the EIS is probably accurate….the Tar Sands will be developed and the impacts of moving them from one place to another is a minor component of the environmental effects. I have several friends who’ve done consulting work related to the developments in Alberta and they are generally aghast at the scale of disturbance. The impacts are covered in detail here: http://www.ianas.org/books/Environmental_and_health_impacts_of_canadas_oil_sands%20Industry.pdf and much of what I’ve read supports what friends have said: everyone is way behind the curve in terms of regulatory oversight, financial guarantees (reclamation bonds), and general reclamation and monitoring of the massive disturbance at the mine sites. It’s up to the Canadian people to address these issues as well as the GHG issue. Under the current government that is unlikely.

  5. As an Albertan, I’m in complete agreement with you. I understand, from some more detailed analyses of the report that I’ve heard, that there has been a shift towards acknowledging other scenarios in which (very credibly) building the pipeline makes a substantial difference to development of the tar sands. And I hope the comment period allows the EPA to express its concerns (again) about the report’s conclusions– and that the public comments also help to push back against this. Rapid development of this mess may help to keep my taxes low, but I’d much rather see some of the dirtiest, most expensive oil in the world locked in.

  6. “A 30-day public comment period begins on February 5, 2014 and will close on March 7, 2014. During this period, members of the public and other interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on the national interest determination to http://www.regulations.gov. Comments are not private and will be made public. Comments may also be mailed directly to:

    U.S. Department of State
    Bureau of Energy Resources, Room 4843
    Attn: Keystone XL Public Comments
    2201 C Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20520″

  7. For those in the US, there are numerous vigils being organized to oppose Keystone XL:


    I’m expecting to be at one. Perhaps some others may feel so linclined as well.

  8. Er, “inclined.” (It is, after all, a slippery slope.)

  9. The argument by the oil industry for all three major pipeline projects has been the same: the project is hugely important, lots of jobs. But if you block it it won’t make any difference because there’s two other major projects. But it’s critical — do you hate jobs? But it is irrelevant — we’ll just use trains and trucks if there’s no pipeline.

    Somehow it appears not to be transparently obvious to everyone that the proponents are spouting self-contradictory nonsense.

    The Enbridge line 9 reversal got approved based on those lies, so we’re not far from getting oil to Montreal. The BC project looks likely to pass in the end. And now, Keystone. In every case the “environmental” “assessment” claimed that the tar sands would be developed because the other pipelines up for discussion were assumed to be approved.

    It’s all deeply discouraging.

    • Yes. Yes, it is discouraging.

    • Silver lining of encouragement: the difficulty in getting even four pipelines approved (two west, one east, and one south) makes it pretty clear that the 40 required for the “game over” scenario will never be built.

      This primary concern should be that the development should be limited and growth constrained. It’s clear to me that the level of opposition to XL will lead to fewer proposals in the future and the process will get more and more rigorous and drawn out each time.

  10. I think Northern Gateway is in trouble. The opposition by native communities (even if it isn’t universal) is likely to tie the project up in court for long enough to kill it. But that’s assuming we wake up and start winding down tar sands development within the next ten years (if we don’t I’m afraid Hansen will be proven right).

  11. Build a whole new infrastructure to take tar out of the ground?
    Or build a branch of the existing infrastructure to capture methane now being burned off in gas flares? Thirty percent of the natural gas extracted in North Dakota is flared off.

    Which makes more sense?
    Which makes more money?
    Which do we need here, more sense or more money?


    Or ask an economist, who will tell you that capturing all that wasted methane now being burned off would just drive down the price of fuel everywhere by increasing the availability so it obviously makes more sense to burn it than sell it. It’s worth less if it’s plentiful than when it’s scarce.

    The old growth forests weren’t worth much til they were mostly gone. The tuna weren’t worth much, the whales weren’t worth much — while they were abundant. People aren’t worth much nowadays, they’re so common.

    Hell, lungs and arteries aren’t worth much, to the young and healthy.

    And besides, accommodating to the new world will drive innovation.

    Last I recall Earth is right at the inner edge of the habitability zone around Sol and a less than one percent increase in solar output would toast us anyhow.

    I’m starting to think we’ve just been very lucky — stable Holocene to develop agriculture, several centuries of unusually favorable climate during a period of world exploration (Australia, California), only one Carrington-size solar flare event since we started building long linear conductors across continents (telegraph wires at the time), no nearby supernova for quite a while …. this kind of good luck adds up, for a while.

    But eventually, luck subtracts.

    • Hank, you voice thoughts that are with me all the time.

      It reminds me of the time I was in primary school and the kids who lived further away came to school on a double decker bus. One day when a whole lot of us non-bussers had to catch it we discovered that it leaned alarmingly when cornering – you can probably guess where this is going…

      Yep, within five minutes of starting the journey half of the top deck (guess which gender…) was rushing to the same side as the lean at each corner, causing the lean to become even more extreme. Apparently the aim was to actually tip the bus. Fortunately the driver and teacher downstairs ensured that this stupidity didn’t continue for more than a few corners, but it was an early lesson in the human propensity to put selfish pleasure ahead of evolutionary success.

      All I see in the Western world is a bus-full of politicians, corporate vultures, and ideologically-blinkered pawns desperately trying to lean our only ride in the whole universe over the nearest corner. The only difference is that it’s the same bunch of monkeys who are also driving the bus.

      And the Golden Darwin Award for the Anthropocene goes to…

  12. Horato Algeranon

    “Hope and (Climate) Change”
    In Obama’s own words
    — versified by Horatio Algeranon

    In recent years, I have directed
    The lease of lands, to be inspected
    For oil and gas – and offshore too —
    Quadrupled rigs, for me and you!
    The pipe we’ve laid encircles earth
    And even then, we’ve got a dearth!
    For hope and change, I was the one
    For climate change, it’s said and done.

    — by Horatio Algeranon

    Keystone is a Tombstone
    We’re cheating Holliday
    Entering a danger zone
    But sure we’ll get away

  13. Both environmental impact documents are nonsense. They pretend that the KXL will carry conventional crude oil. It will not; It will carry dilute bitumen (dilbit). Dilbit has different behaviors in the pipeline (e.g., corrosion). If released, it has a very different environmental toxicology. It has very different fate and transport. The documents do not address the proposed contents of the pipeline. They are a lie.

    Both contractors had serious conflicts of interest that were not acknowledge by the contractors, and that deceit was not detected by the State Department.

    What we have learned is that our State Department is either incompetent or corrupt.

    • What we have learned is that our State Department is either incompetent or corrupt.

      Does any evidence indicate this is an either-or question?

  14. Believe me, I love this blog for its statistical stuff and its great work at fisking climate-change denier arguments. It’s one of my favorite sites. Just remember that as I continue with this post. I have no shortage of admiration and respect for Tamino and many of the posters here for their dogged pursuit of good evidence and good analysis.


    Denying Keystone XL will do very little to impact U.S. GHG emissions and international emissions. You’d still import crude oil from somewhere else to satisfy demand. *That* isn’t going away with the denial of a pipeline.

    The bitumen Keystone would import into the U.S. will simply push other oil imports from the Gulf Coast, leaving the U.S. at about zero net gain in consumption. Further, these oils have similar (although likely slightly less) GHG footprints.

    That oil that’s pushed out out of U.S. markets doesn’t necessarily get consumed by the world either. Altogether, the effect is a very slightly reduced crude oil price, which ends up shutting in almost all of the equivalent amount of the remaining total production (the marginally economic barrels get shut in first). Altogether, the net effect is a very, very small rise in consumption. And, if that bitumen gets to other markets in other ways, going east or west, the effect will be the same.

    If you even want an example of how rising bitumen production from Alberta is unlikely to actually doom us all, the IEA’s World Energy Outlook has rising bitumen production in its 450 ppm scenario (I don’t have a publicly available copy, sorry).

    Yes, it sounds contradictory, but it’s the total production that matters, not just the total of one type of production. Again, you can add one barrel of one type, but lose two others from some other type because it’s the marginally economic barrels of oil that get shut in first, not the ones people find unpalatable to burn. Thus, other oil will likely get shut in first before the bitumen will.

    So, from a whole practical standpoint, this fixation on Keystone XL has been incredibly distracting and probably won’t result in anything tangible.

    And, yes, I realize that there’s the “it’s a symbol” argument. It’s certainly rallied the environmental troops around a cause.

    But be careful what you’re wishing for. When 55% of the general public wants this pipeline to be constructed, denying Keystone XL could easily become a conservative symbol in the next election, making Democrats look anti-business and getting them turfed from Congress as well as making it easier to elect a Republican president.

    Again, please keep this in context of my love for this blog. I really do think we should be reducing our emissions. I’d love to see some sort of carbon price to give markets incentive to do that. Alternatively, strict emissions standards for motor vehicles would do well too (which we’re left with in the meantime given the difficulties in passing carbon-tax or cap-and-trade legislation). But I can’t help but think this approach on Keystone XL has largely been a waste of time and could end up being counter-productive in the end.

  15. People, except chemical kineticists, are very bad at rate problems. Tar sand oil is expensive, even compared to Brakken. Building the pipeline will decrease the cost of mining the tar sand oil, which will make it more competitive. If the pipeline is NOT built then investment into tar sand mining will be lower as the profit would be smaller. QED the effect of building or not building the pipeline will be substantial.

  16. Thanks for pointing that out, Eli.
    Miguelito, you are totally missing the other values of delaying Keystone (and Northern Gateway and Line 9, etc.): keeping the issues of fossil carbon and the rape and pillage of the tar sands in the spotlight. That, and giving Joe Oliver and the likes of Ezra Levant fits.
    The divestment movement is growing. Still just small potatoes, to be sure, but it is growing. And it’s making the fossil fuel industry very nervous. Which is why we see the likes of Curry and Fiq amping up the nonsense.

  17. There is a decent analogy available here. Wyoming wants to send a lot of coal to China. To do so, they need to transport it by rail through the Columbia River Gorge. That means through Washington and/or Oregon. Washington and Oregon have a very different take on Global Warming and environmental regulation than does Wyoming. So while Alberta isn’t about to regulate the tar sands, and neither is Ottawa, British Columbia and the First Nation lands that must be traversed if Keystone is denied may have a very different take on it, and this seems to be a big part of the difference between the State Dept and EPA take on Keystone.

  18. And in today’s news….

    The 2009 rupture and fire of a TransCanada nat gas pipeline, and the government report on it, was kept secret until now.

    Gee, I wonder why?

  19. Horatio Algeranon

    Interesting (though depressing) article:

    How the U.S. Exports Global Warming (by Tim Dickinson (Rolling Stone)
    While Obama talks of putting America on the path to a clean, green future, we’re flooding world markets with cheap, high carbon fuels.