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Thoughts on Keystone XL

David Lewis's picture
  • Member since 2018
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  • Sep 27, 2011

James Hansen used to say he couldn’t imagine a better person to head the DOE than Stephen Chu.  

Both men entered political life to do something about getting civilization to respond to the evidence for climate change.



Yet the Keystone XL issue has them on opposing sides.  Hansen led those protesting the pipeline proposal on the streets in front of the White House to the point of being arrested.  Chu’s position as an integral part of the Obama Administration has him saying he favors the project:  he calls it a tradeoff involving environmental damage, economic prosperity and national security.  

Keystone XL became the issue it is because of Hansen.  

Hansen sees the various potential sources of fossil fuel that remain in the Earth’s crust somewhat differently than do economists or oil industry executives.  Economists just classify deposits as “resources” or “reserves”, depending on market prices.  As one class of “reserves”, such as conventional oil, runs out, higher prices drive the “invisible hand” of the market to direct investment and technological innovation to convert some new part of the “resource” i.e. tar sand, into new “reserves”.  The ramped up development of tar sand oil which has resulted in the Keystone XL pipeline proposal illustrates this process.    

Now it is true that Hansen does call for a carbon tax, which would have the effect of reducing the incredible power of markets to convert fossil carbon in the Earth’s crust into CO2 in the atmosphere.  Chu agrees:  he also supports politics that would force markets to price CO2 emissions.  

But Hansen also sees the remaining fossil fuel resources that could potentially be turned into reserves in a way more like a friend of a drug addict might see things if their friend showed signs of experimenting with a more dangerous drug.  It is this idea of his that led to the Keystone XL protest.

 Hansen believes that committing the US more firmly to using tar sand oil by building Keystone XL, as opposed to just using up conventional oil and finding new energy from other zero or low carbon new sources, is like watching a friend move from soft drugs to heroin.  

He sees the situation like this:  

Note that the “methane hydrates” bar may actually be several times taller than depicted.  Recent research indicates there may be as much as is shown here just in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.  

And, Hansen cut the estimated size of the unconventional resources depicted by one half to reflect current skepticism about how much can ultimately be extracted.

This chart is slide 23 in an August 2011  PowerPoint presentation by Hansen 


(For background on how serious Hansen takes the accumulation of CO2 that is ongoing as civilization uses fossil fuels:  Hansen’s 2007 presentation to the largest gathering of planetary scientists that takes place annually in the world, i.e. the American Geophysical Union meeting held each year in San Francisco, stated that if all the fossil fuels depicted in this chart are converted to CO2 and allowed to enter the atmosphere, it is a “dead certainty” that Earth will experience a “Venus syndrome” where its surface temperature rises beyond the boiling point of water, the oceans boil away, and life on Earth ends.  He doesn’t have a model that predicts this.  He says that because the Sun has increased in power enough since the last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, and the amount of methane hydrates which are subject to become a positive feedback to this is greater now than prior to the PETM, he fears this ultimate worst case scenario will become true.  He isn’t claiming he has solid science:  he’s basically saying, he’s got a bad feeling about this.)

Back to the chart.  He believes no one is going to be able to do anything about the conventional oil that is left.  He usually cites two reasons for this:  we are too committed to using this once cheap and easily obtainable oil for transport, and the countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia where most of what’s left of this oil is cannot be stopped from producing and selling it.  

You won’t find Hansen saying that if any more of this “conventional” oil is used its “game over”, the way he is doing with tar sand oil.  The only other part of the fossil fuel reserves he has protested to the point of getting arrested in the past has been coal.  He’s granting a “free pass” to the producers and users of conventional oil.  Once he’s granted a free pass into the atmosphere for the CO2 that will be emitted as civilization uses all this oil and gas, because he believes the CO2 accumulation that’s already there commits our descendants to life on a planet completely unlike and with less carrying capacity than the one we inherited, he’s left with condemning any further coal and unconventional oil and gas use in the harshest possible terms.  

Hence the rhetorical heat generated over Keystone XL.  

He seems to think it would be possible to arouse the population of North America to the point people would stop using the great fossil fuel resources of this continent except for the remaining basically depleted “conventional” oil and gas, while these same North Americans would stand by and allow the Saudis and the rest of the oil barons of the Middle East and Russia to do whatever they felt like because their oil is somehow different.  It doesn’t seem realistic.  

In some ways, therefore, I prefer the ideas of Chu.  Chu wants a global agreement to put a price on carbon, urgent development of alternative energy supply such as nuclear and renewables, dramatic gains in energy efficiency, all aimed at capping the accumulated level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as low as conceivably possible.  

Unlike Hansen, Chu does not dismiss the possibility, which Hansen thinks is now remote, that breakthroughs with renewables R&D could occur making these sources of energy more realistic.  Chu sees the need to develop everything possible.  

Chu, again unlike Hansen, is optimistic about carbon capture.  He’s pouring DOE funds into R&D and deployment.  Carbon capture is dismissed by most of Hansen’s “green friends”.  Chu has studied the technology and is on record saying:  Energy efficiency is the lowest cost solution, but CCS is not far behind”.  With carbon capture the political problem of how to persuade the powerful interests committed to the use of fossil fuels to address climate change becomes less.  With a high price on CO2 emission and carbon capture available, drawing distinctions between fossil fuels depending on whether its tar sand oil transported via Keystone XL, “conventional” US oil, coal to liquids refined products, or whatever becomes unnecessary.  

Chu favors any way to put a price on carbon, cap and trade, carbon tax, command and control, anything the political system can implement.  On the other hand, Hansen actually called for the Copenhagen negotiations to fail because his favored idea, a carbon tax 100% returned to individuals, was not made the heart of the agreement.  This was even though nothing the negotiators wrote down would have restricted any country bound to the overall provisions of the treaty from choosing a carbon tax implemented Hansen’s way as their method of meeting their national obligations.  

And so, although Hansen must be taken seriously because of his distinguished record of being correct when he takes a controversial new position on how to interpret the scientific data on climate change, he appears to be on less sound ground when it comes to politics.  

But I find myself very much an admirer of Hansen’s energy.  He’s trying out his best ideas to get through to people that we are limiting the future of all our descendants on a timeframe as far ahead as we can meaningfully consider.  What civilization is doing now to the composition of the atmosphere will have consequences stretching out for tens of thousands of years and longer.  

This is just his latest tactic.  He wants his descendants to know he did whatever he could.  I love him for that.  It may be that the sacrifice of thousands getting arrested over Keystone XL will help convince others this issue is serious.  If so, I’ll be happy to concede Hansen was on the right track to inspire this protest.  

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Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Sep 26, 2011


I believe there’s a fundamental flaw in Hansen’s logic, and it’s akin to the “2% of reserves, 25% of consumption” canard we hear from politicians all the time concerning US oil use.  In the latter case, the fallacy lies in comparing conservative proved reserves estimates, which represent a snapshot in time, instead of the ongoing flows of production supported by reserves today and resources tomorrow.  In Hansen’s case, he appears to assume that future cumulative production will mirror resources in the ground, and that all that buried carbon will end up in the atmosphere.  In fact, the Saudis and other OPEC producers prefer to leave most of their oil sitting in the ground and allow much higher-cost sources, such as oil sands, to provide the incremental supply to the market.  That results in much higher revenue for them. 

To assess the potential atmospheric impact of oil sands fairly, you’d have to look at current and likely future production rates, which would result in only a fraction of the resource being produced and consumed in the next couple of decades, during which CCS technology will mature–or perhaps something better/faster/cheaper than fossil fuels come along.  If you assume that oil sands production will level out around 3.5 million barrels per day, that equates to roughly 1.8 billion tons of carbon per decade, or about 7 billion tons through 2050.  That’s a lot of carbon–about a year’s worth of current global emissions–but it’s a far cry from the 150 billion or so tons shown on Hansen’s bar chart.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Sep 26, 2011

In Hansen’s public statements, such as the one I link to as the source of the chart in my post, i.e. his presentation to the National Press Club this August, he takes a current estimate of the total “unconventional” resource, i.e. including “unconventional” gas, heavy oil, tar shale and tar sands, and cuts it in half.  This surprised me a bit.  

Usually, a climate scientist talking about how much fossil carbon there is in the crust brings up all of it.  

Climate scientists are interested in how much fossil carbon there is because the total of fossil carbon in the Earth’s crust puts an upper limit on how much of it human ingenuity driven by desperation to find energy to fuel continuing exponential growth in the size of civilization might be able to turn into CO2 in the atmosphere.  

Many scientists think about how much CO2 civilization can possibly put into the atmosphere before negative effects stop this activity, and what effect that big of a forcing added essentially instantly to the planetary system will have over the next thousands and millions of years.  Today’s rate of change of the composition of the atmosphere is ten thousand times faster than what has prevailed over almost the entire history of the planet.  I study and admire Hansen because he is out there trying to wake people up to attempt to stop this.  

Assuming that oil extraction at the tar sand deposit will plateau at 3.5 million barrels per day is very questionable.  The Alberta government expects 3 million bpd by 2015 and they are talking 5 million bpd by 2030.  

And as far as the reserves go, they were calculated in 2006 for an oil price of $62.  At that price the EIA says its around 170 billion barrels.  However, The CEO of Shell Canada is saying the actual reserves at a price he thinks oil will stay above are 2 trillion barrels or morean order of magnitude greater than the Saudi total.  They don’t have to explore for this oil – its a layer many tens of feet thick spread out over an area the size of Florida.  

What matters to how much can be produced and at what rate is technology.  

SAGD is a way to produce 60 – 70% of the 2 trillion barrel resource.  Encana has a video.

An example of breakthrough technology that may already be here, that would support the concerns of those who fear technology might suddenly appear to make extraction rates for oil from tar sand far higher than anyone contemplates today is Dr. Paul Painter’s work at Penn State.  He’s using “ionic liquids” which when mixed into the tar sand cause three layers to settle out: the sand, the ionic liquid, and the oil.  They don’t have to heat the mix.  

This video features one of his co-researchers describing what they’ve discovered.  

Dr. Painter has a page on his website:  “Extracting Oil from Tar and Sand“.  

See also:  The Recovery of Bitumen from Oil or Tar Sands Using Ionic Liquids. Painter, P; Williams, P.; Mannebach, E. Energy Fuels 2010, 24, 1094-1098.

Another video describing in more detail what ionic liquids are was posted on Youtube by Leicester University

The Saudis may lose their gamble, if they are doing as you say, i.e. refusing to produce the incremental supply so the price will be determined by higher cost producers.  

What would it take?  How about Texas turning into a copy of the worst parts of the Sahara.  I hear the big fear in Texas today is what happens if this drought doesn’t end?  

We think we’re getting away with changing the composition of the atmosphere because thermal inertia of the oceans causes a lag before we see the effects of what’s been done already.  Its coming.  One day the truth will dawn:  we’ve made a Faustian bargain by allowing the CO2 from our use of fossil fuels to enter the atmosphere.  

At that point the principal foreign policy objective of most countries will be to stop what’s left of the fossil carbon in the crust from entering the atmosphere.  

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Sep 27, 2011


Whether you choose 3.5 million bbl/day or 5 MBD (I don’t see 20), the carbon released is still much less than what you get if you assume the whole resource–or just half–ends up in the air.  It’s production math, not reserves that counts here.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Sep 27, 2011

Hansen’s group at Goddard has concluded that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere already commits our descendants to life on a planet with diminished life support capacity, no stable ocean shorelines anywhere in the world on any timeframe that would be meaningful to human beings, and wholesale global climate disruption.  Such wholesale changes in where humans can live and grow food have tended to lead to war in the past.  Plus, at no extra cost, there is a risk that at any time the kind of abrupt large scale climate change of the types illustrated many times in the paleoclimate record may occur.  A global species extinction event is underway, with the risk intensifying that it may rank with the most significant such events of the entire history of the planet.  What will happen as a result of ocean acidification is only now being fleshed out.   The most reputable experts talk about an event not seen for tens of millions of years, which is a way to point to the PETM event, where most living things on the planet died as the oceans became inhospitable for most life because of hydrogen sulphide.  

Hansen’s protest over Keystone XL is in that context.  I might have advised him to come up with a different idea that somehow put the focus on the emissions that result from using any fossil fuel – but it is a fact that when I was concocting ideas for protests back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I never succeeded in provoking a national debate in the US about why I was mistaken.  Hansen’s protest got worldwide attention.  

I wonder at the pessimism about the ultimate oil extraction rate from tar sand.  The same types who blithely advise that we continue basing civilization’s breathtaking expansion on fossil fuels who dismiss the difficulty the greatly expanded future civilization will have replacing this source of energy because of their faith in the magical power of market forces to drive innovation tend to say we’ll never be producing 50 or 100 mbd out of tar sand, its just impossible. 

I suppose that when my brother decided to try cocaine for the first time, he thought it was impossible that he would end up spending the entire equity in his house, becoming unable to work, and eventually committing suicide over it.  

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Sep 27, 2011

Willem, I removed that comment as it seemed off topic to me. Though it did discuss global energy information, it did not reference the discussion in the post.

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