Monday, March 04, 2013

The most important figure about the oil sands

Are the oil sands a "carbon bomb"? Will the construction of new pipelines unleash this "bomb" on the climate?

There's lots of confusion about these questions. On Friday, the U.S. State Department released an assessment that stated the Keystone XL pipeline would have a negligible climate impact, essentially because a market analysis suggested that other options will arise for transporting additional carbon from the oil sands. Environmentalists are crying foul, energy and industry experts are arguing both sides, and pundits are wondering why the report was released on a Friday afternoon, when few people follow the news. It's hard to know who to trust.

The figure below, based on one figure made by Keith Stewart from Greenpeace and shown to me by Mark Jaccard in the fall, suggests the answer to both questions could be considered "yes", but not in the way people normally say. 

The first column is existing, planned and announced oil sands projects;
 the orange bars are oil sands production in the IEA future scenarios.
Production is assumed to be 80% of capacity, following the IEA methods. 

The figure shows that according to International Energy Agency (IEA) modeling, if all of the oil sands projects with regulatory approval go ahead, oil sands production will exceed the level expected to occur in a +2°C world. If the projects under regulatory review all go ahead, oil sands production will be higher than that in the IEA's +6°C scenario.

The expansion of the oil sands is by no means the sole driver of the extreme warming in those scenarios. As estimated in a much-discussed article by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver last year, the total amount of carbon stored in the oil sands is "only" sufficient to raise the world's temperature by 0.24-0.50°C. Now, some may argue that is enough to consider the oil sands a "carbon bomb" - scientist John Abraham argued as much in the Guardian recently. Others disagree, since Swart and Weaver's analysis showed that the potential "warming" from the oil sands is tiny compared to that from the world's coal stores.

The IEA scenarios suggest that both arguments miss the point. The oil sands are only one source of oil, and only one source of fossil carbon. That carbon will not be exploited in a vacuum. In analysing this problem, you need to consider what role the oil sands are likely to play in the global oil and global energy system. A world in which the oil sands are fully exploited is a world in which many other sources of oil and carbon are also exploited. In a sense, the State Department's market analysis for Keystone XL was too limited in scope to capture the global carbon picture.

Regardless of whether the carbon in the oil sands should be directly labelled a "carbon bomb", the IEA Outlook suggests a world with greater oil sands extraction is, in essence, a "carbon bomb world". If we want to avoid a world that is >3.5°C warmer, we likely need a global energy system in which the expansion of extraction in the oil sands is constrained.

This is why so many climate policy experts here in B.C. oppose the pipeline expansion or construction. Absent carbon regulations or pricing, the best available tool for slowing or capping oil sands expansion is blocking new transportation options. The proposed pipelines would move additional bitumen; new pipelines would allow for construction of many of those projects with regulatory approval or under regulatory review. 

Does this mean the "science" says you should oppose the pipelines?

The hard truth is that there's no "right" answer on climate policy. Science, or energy modeling, can guide our decisions, but cannot make decisions for us. Each of us will develop an opinion about the pipelines and oil sands expansion based on other considerations as well. My hope, and I suspect the hope of most climate experts, is that people think about these numbers before making a decision.


david lewis said...

Food for thought on Keystone XL.

What to do about the CO2 portion of greenhouse gas emissions could be viewed using an analogy of an addict and heroin. An addict thinking of starting up a relationship with a new dealer who he believes could provide the drug he is addicted to for a lower price, although he knows that what the new dealer sells is slightly more contaminated than what he's used to, might compare to the US thinking of committing itself to expanding its use of tar sand oil. Price is important to our heroin addict, but availability trumps all, depending when the fix is required. The US values oil from North America, as opposed to oil coming from anywhere else.

Scientific (medical) advice to that addict must be nothing less than to tell him to get off heroin any way he can.

Scientists should make an effort, especially now, to be clear about what is going on. Kevin Anderson's "Clarion Call" comes to mind. As the possibility to limit global warming to below 2 C slips away, let history record that scientists stepped up, no matter what apparent risk to their career was perceived.

david lewis said...

On the other hand....

The argument that opposing transport of fossil fuel is the "best available tool for slowing or capping oil sands expansion" was imported into Canada from the US. Many Canadian activists have now bought in. Eg: the Canadian Sierra Club approved civil disobedience for their members for the first time. This is the way Canadian branch plant industrial operations have always taken their marching orders from their US masters, by announcing US strategy as their own.

Why do US climate activists not focus on stopping unconventional oil production originating in the US from moving to market?

US oil production grew by 766,000 barrels in 2012. This dwarfs the expansion going on at the Canadian tar sands. It is four times more than the increased production from Canadian unconventional sources. This increase in US oil production from US soil was greater than at any time the US has produced oil.

Yet US activists tell us, and Canadian activists duly parrot, that the big focus is stopping the expansion of production at the Canadian tar sand deposit.

The basic reason Keystone XL got as high as it is on the US climate activist agenda is the zero possibility of US Congressional action on climate due to political gridlock in Washington and Republican climate science denial. Frustrated climate activists who were promised that if Congress would not act the EPA would, who knew the US Supreme Court had cleared the way by declaring EPA has already been granted the power to limit CO2 by a previous Congress, who saw the Obama Administration avoid using that EPA power for the four long years of the first term, who wondered what could be done, realized that the President has to approve any pipeline that crosses the US border.

The second phase of the Keystone expansion of the pipeline system emanating from the tar sands, i.e. XL, was up for approval.

Obama faced an election in a bad economy, and no matter how many sectors of the US electorate Republicans were determined to alienate, enough support for any Republican Presidential candidate remained that it was thought that if climate activists threatened to withdraw support for the Democratic Party unless Obama cancelled the Keystone XL permit to cross the border, Obama would have to cave in and do it.

Now it so happens that Obama won that election. What was the maximum possible climate action may not be the maximum now. All Obama did, pre election, was to delay the ultimate decision on Keystone XL until after the election. Hence the US activist focus has again turned to this issue.

But Obama has announced, now that he is safely elected for his second term, that things are going to be different on the climate front. "...if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will", is the new line. He directly threatened Congress with these exact words in his State of the Union address. The NY Times declared that climate is the most prominent policy vow Obama made in his second Inaugural Address. He's looking for things that will ensure his place in history, as well as for what is possible in a still difficult political situation.

US activists are continuing on with this Keystone XL campaign as if none of this has happened. Obama has invited them to up the ante and all they can think of is playing the same game.

I discussed the Keystone XL campaign recently here.

david lewis said...

Postscript: The "game over" idea comes from Jim Hansen. I analysed Hansen's statements around this here.

The Hansen argument grants a free pass to the CO2 emissions from whatever the Middle East oil barons can produce and sell. This free pass applies also to the purveyors of "conventional" oil and gas wherever in the world they are located, i.e. Russia, the US, China, Mexico, or wherever. It appears that Hansen can't see how production of such low cost energy that can conveniently be used for transport could be stopped. He seems to think, given that all these conventional fossil supplies are headed into the atmosphere as CO2 and that those supplies could power civilization as it made a transition away from fossil fuels, that what activists should do is go after everything else. He was emphasizing coal, because there is so much of it left and because substitutes for its use at large point sources appear easier to find than substitutes for transport fuels, but he's added unconventional fossil fuel production to his list.

Hansen seems to think a viable political position on climate is to ask North Americans, who have tapped out their conventional fossil supplies of oil and gas, to stop exploiting the tremendous remaining fossil resource that remains on their own continent while they watch the Middle East and Russian oil barons continue to increase their conventional production.

Simon Donner said...

Thanks for your thoughts David.

There's always a danger when people expect us scientists to have expertise on energy policy decisions. That's seems to be what gets people upset about Hansen's attitude about the oil sands. I can certainly see the political argument posed in the last comment, thought I'm not expert on "valid" or "invalid" political positions.

This post, inspired by the original graph made by Keith Stewart, is an attempt to parse the "game over" / "carbon bomb" argument made by Hansen, McKibben and others with some data on oil production and some conclusions of energy + climate analyses.

It has caused some supportive and some heated comments, all offline or in person, which mostly center around whether the figure and the argument are too nuanced for a general audience. Perhaps. I'll let the audience decide for themselves.