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PORTSIDE  August 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE August 2011, Week 5

Subject:

What Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline Mean for Climate Change

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Date:

Mon, 29 Aug 2011 02:24:35 -0400

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What Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline Mean 
for Climate Change

Environmentalist Bill McKibben was among 100 people
arrested at the weekend for protesting against the
Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. But why are climate
campaigners so concerned?

Dana Nuccitelli
Skeptical Science, part of the Guardian Environment
Network
guardian.co.uk
23 August 2011 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/23/tar-sands-keystone-xl-climate

Bill McKibben is leading what may be the largest green
civil disobedience campaign in a generation, against the
proposed construction of the 1,600-mile long Keystone XL
pipeline.  The pipeline would transport oil from the
Alberta tar sands in Canada to American refineries at
the Gulf of Mexico, and many are concerned about the
associated impacts on the climate.  Digging up new
sources of fossil fuels will inevitably increase the
amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the tar sands
result in higher carbon emissions than even conventional
oil.  On 15 June 2011, the Energy and Power Subcommittee
of the House Energy and Commerce Panel approved a bill
to expedite a decision on the pipeline, possibly trying
to rush it through before adequate environmental impact
assessments are completed.

The project must be approved by President Obama in order
to proceed, and the aim of the protest is to convince
the president to reject the project.  If the Keystone
pipeline is not approved, the tar sands oil may be stuck
in place.  As McKibben noted,"Alberta is remote, and its
only other possible pipeline route - to the Pacific and
hence Asia - is tangled in litigation."

McKibben is among those who have already been arrested
for this display of civil obedience.  We felt that this
would be a good time examine the climate impact of the
tar sands and proposed pipeline. Background and Politics

Tar sands (a.k.a. oil sands) are an unconventional
deposits of petroleum containing bitumen, which is a
very viscous form of petroleum generally known as tar or
very heavy crude oil.  Alberta, Canada contains the
largest deposits of crude bitumen in the world, the
biggest of which is the Athabasca tar sands.

There is political pressure in the USA to utilize oil
from the tar sands, because although it's not quite a
domestic energy source, obtaining oil from our friendly
neighbors to the north is considered preferable to
relying on sources in the less politically stable and
friendly Middle East.

Additionally, gas prices have increased in recent years,
and there has been pressure on politicians to take
action to counteract the rising costs in the USA.
Republicans in particular have frequently called for
increasing domestic oil drilling, even though research
has universally concluded that this action will have
virtually no effect on gas prices.  In fact, in the rise
in gas prices coincided with increased domestic oil
drilling in the USA.  But of course, certain American
politicians don't seem to care that their claims have no
factual or scientific basis.

Environmental Impacts

Before we examine the climate impacts of the tar sands,
it's worth noting that they result in substantial
adverse impacts to the environment in general, as is
clear in  aerial photographs from Google of the region
(Figure 1).

Google Tar Sands

Figure 1: 2011 Google aerial photograph of the Athabasca
tar sands.  The photograph is approximate 30 miles
across.  The most clearly visually impacted area is
approximately 15 miles across.

Tar sands mining operations involves clearing trees and
brush from a site and removing the overburden soil that
sits atop the deposit.  As you can see in Figure 1, in
Alberta this results in significant destruction of the
boreal forest.  The mining process also requires vast
amounts of water, although much of it is recycled.
However, Environment Canada found in 2010 that water
quality monitoring in the region was lacking.  Some
scientists have raised concerns that the tar sands may
be causing aquatic life deformities downstream.  Kelly
et al. (2010) found a number of pollutants downstream of
the tar sands.

"Canada's or Alberta's guidelines for the protection of
aquatic life were exceeded for seven [priority
pollutants]-cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel,
silver, and zinc-in melted snow and/or water collected
near or downstream of development."

Additionally, there are always concerns about
environmental impacts related to potential oil spills
and leaks.  On a similar pipeline, Keystone I, there
were 12 spills over a period of less than a year, and a
team of University of Nebraska hydrologists expressed
concern over the associated risks to drinking and
irrigation water supplies in the US Midwest, though
which the pipeline would run.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Making liquid fuels from bitumen requires energy for
steam injection and refining.  Currently the energy is
produced from natural gas.  This process generates more
greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of final product
than the production of conventional oil.

There is a slight challenge in quantifying the climate
impact of tar sands oil as compared to conventional oil,
because there are different ways to make this
comparison.  Approximately 80% of the carbon from any
barrel of crude is emitted when it's burned.  Therefore,
evaluating well-to-wheel (extraction to combustion)
emissions, tar sands emit approximately 10 to 45% more
greenhouse gases than combustion of conventional oil.
However, if we exclude combustion and evaluate well-to-
tank emissions, tar sands emissions are approximately
twice those of conventional oil.  According to a recent
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment, tar
sands well-to-tank emissions are approximately 82%
higher than conventional oil.

Keystone Pipeline Emissions

The EPA also evaluated the greenhouse gas emissions
specifically associated with the proposed Keystone
pipeline which McKibben's group is protesting.

"recognizing the proposed Project 's lifetime is
expected to be at least fifty years, we believe it is
important to be clear that under at least one scenario,
the extra GHG emissions associated with this proposed
Project may range from 600 million to 1.15 billion tons
CO2-e, assuming the lifecycle analysis holds over time"

Over 1 billion tons of equivalent CO2 emissions is a
substantial chunk of emissions.  We recently discussed
The Critical Decade report produced by the Climate
Commission established by the Australian government.
Their report concluded that humanity can emit not more
than 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 to
have a probability of about 75% of limiting temperature
rise to 2°C or less.  According to the latest data,
between 2000 and 2010 we emitted approximately 300
billion tons of CO2, so after 20% of the allotted
timeframe, we're already over 30% of the way through the
allotted emissions.

Climate Concerns

In addition to being more emissions-intensive than
conventional oil, the main concern is that exploiting
the tar sands is conceptually backwards.  As The
Critical Decade report made clear, we need to be looking
for ways to leave fossil fuels in the ground, not trying
to find more unconventional sources of carbon for
combustion.  The USA in particular has taken very few
concrete steps to minimize its greenhouse gas emissions
to this point.  Building the Keystone pipeline to
exploit an unconventional source of fossil fuels is a
step in the wrong direction, and will encourage other
countries to follow suit.   If we're to have any hope of
achieving sufficient global greenhouse gas emissions
cuts, the USA needs to start leading the way in finding
ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption, not lead the way
in finding ways to burn new unconventional sources,
especially when they're more emissions-intensive than
conventional sources.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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