Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Wake of President Obama's Georgetown University Speech

During his Georgetown Univeristy speech on June 25th, President Obama indicated that the Keystone XL pipeline, (which would ferry tarsands oil from Alberta to Texas) should not proceed if it will generate greenhouse gases (GHGs) and contribute to climate change.  "The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward," the President said. Obama has instructed the State Department to approve the pipeline only if the project won't increase the net emissions of GHGs.This is the first time that the President has linked the pipeline to emissions.

"Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interests," Obama said. "Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

Newly retired James Hansen, formerly America's leading climate scientist has said that if the pipeline goes forward, the resulting emission mean "game over" for efforts to combat climate change. Hansen's position was refuted by a State Department report which exonerated the pipeline's climate impacts. However the EPA vociferously disagrees with the State Department's assessment.

It is widely understood that tarsands oil emits more GHGs than the production of conventional crude oil. A 2009 study by the consulting firm IHS CERA estimated that production from Canada's oil sands emits "about 5 percent to 15 percent more carbon dioxide, over the "well-to-wheels" (WTW) lifetime analysis of the fuel, than average crude oil." Author and investigative journalist David Strahan stated that IEA figures show that carbon dioxide emissions from the oil sands are 20 percent higher than average emissions from the petroleum production.

A Stanford University study commissioned by the EU in 2011 found that oil sands crude was as much as 22 percent more carbon intensive than other fuels.

Greenpeace says the oil sands industry has been identified as the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions growth in Canada, as it accounts for 40 million tons of CO2 emissions per year.

According to the Pembina Institute, average GHG emissions for oilsands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as compared to conventional oil produced in Canada or the US.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions from individual projects vary considerably because of differences in technologies, practices and oilsands quality from project to project. On average, producing one barrel of synthetic crude oil from oilsands results in 111 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions.
  • Production of synthetic crude oil from oilsands mining operations result in 62 to 164 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions per barrel.
  • Production of synthetic crude oil from oilsands in situ operations result in 99 to 176 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions per barrel.
  • Average emissions per barrel for conventional crude oil production are 35.2 kilograms of CO2 equivalent in Canada and 24.5 kilograms of CO2 equivalent in the U.S.
Even on a full life cycle (well-to-wheels) basis, oilsands GHG emissions intensities are between 8 percent and 37 percent higher than conventional crude, due to the greater amount of oilsands production emissions.
  • Well-to-wheels includes emissions from production, upgrading, refining, transportation, and use (combustion) in a vehicle. The greenhouse gas emissions resulting from refining, transport, and combustion of oilsands crude is essentially the same as conventional crude. Combustion accounts for most of the emissions, regardless of the source.
  • A comparison of oilsands emissions intensities (well-to-wheels) from seven data sources to the 2005 U.S. baseline (the average of all fuels consumed in the U.S. that year, calculated by the EPA) showed that oilsands emissions range from 8 percent to 37 percent higher than the baseline due to the greater production emission intensities of fuels derived from oilsands.
  • According to a peer-reviewed study completed for the European fuel-quality directive, the average oilsands GHG emission intensity is approximately 23 percent greater than the average conventional crude used in Europe on a life cycle basis.
About 7 percent of Canada's total GHG emissions came from oilsands plants and upgraders in 2010.
  • Oilsands plants and upgraders produced 48 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2010, an increase of 31 million tonnes over 2000 levels.
Oilsands are the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in Canada. 
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands have almost tripled (increased 2.9 times) in the past two decades. Planned growth under current provincial and federal policies indicates greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands will continue to rise resulting in more than a doubling of emissions between 2010 and 2020, 48 million tonnes in 2010 to 104 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020.
  • Overall, Canada’s annual GHG emissions are projected to increase by 20 Mt between 2005 and 2020, under currently announced federal and provincial policies. Emissions from the oilsands (including emissions from upgrading) are projected to grow by 73 Mt over the same period. Because the ups and downs in emissions in other sectors largely cancel each other out, essentially the entire projected increase in Canada’s emissions between 2005 and 2020 will come from the oilsands.
If Alberta were a country, its per capita GHG emissions would be higher than any other country in the world.

While President Obama made it clear that the Keystone XL will not be approved if it generates emissions that contribute to climate change, supporters of the pipeline are nonetheless taking this as a promising signal. Oil and gas companies, the Canadian government and Republican members of Congress are interpreting the President's remarks as support for the pipeline.

To illustrate the point, a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner said the President's comments indicated that the pipeline should be approved. "The standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.

It is very hard to envision a positive outcome for the Keystone XL. If the pipeline goes forward it will result in 800,000 barrels a day of new production capacity. It should be clear that this would significantly increase GHG emissions. In the President's own words if the pipeline generates GHGs it is not in the national interest and should not go forward.

Author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben also made it clear that the President must reject the controversial tar sands pipeline. In a statement on Monday McKibben said, "The president is a logical man, and taking two steps forward only to take two back would make no sense."

With over 170 billion barrels of tarsands oil in Canada they have been called a carbon bomb. We simply cannot afford to extract and burn Canada's tarsands if we are to have a hope of curbing climate change. Supporters of the pipeline are unlikely to concede the point, but that does not make them right, it only highlights their intransigence and puts them on the wrong side of history.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

Related Articles
Unions Oppose the Keystone XL in the Jobs vs. Environment Debate
EPA Slams State Department on the Keystone XL
Cornell University Questions the Economic Benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline
American Employment: Keystone XL vs Green Jobs
A New State Department Environmental Impact Assessment Clears the Keystone XL Pipeline
The DoD's Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (CCAR) Excludes Keystone XL
Obama to Expedite the Keystone XL Pipeline
The Center for Biological Diversity CREDO and Friends of the Earth Slam Keystone Reversal
Bill McKibben on Obama's Keystone XL Reversal
Republicans Vow to Continue Push for Keystone

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