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Tar Sands Impact on Climate Change

Posted on 23 August 2011 by dana1981

Beginning on 20 August 2011, 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 approximately 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.

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Comments 51 to 80 out of 80:

  1. Interesting article Badgersouth. I noted some comments at the end which point out that the Keystone Pipeline could be to export bitumen to Europe. I don't know if that is true, but if it were true, I would not approve.
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  2. Dana @ 48 [snip] but please do not make claims that just because Canadian governments are not out to shut down the oil sands, they do not "give a damn about the environment." Alberta is a world leader in reducing natural gas flaring and venting.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Please keep the discussion impersonal and free of rhetoric. I somehow doubt the environmental impact of gas flaring approaches the total enviornmental cost of oil sand extraction, so the assertion is reasonable.
  3. More on the bad news front... "A pipeline that would greatly expand imports of oil sands crude from Canada won't significantly threaten water in the Great Plains or have much impact on climate change, the State Department argued in a final environmental impact statement it made public Friday. "While not the final go-ahead, the environmental assessment offered a preview of the Obama administration's pro-pipeline arguments in the face of efforts by environmental groups to get the United States to take action to reduce carbon emissions. The tarlike form of oil in the sands requires more energy to extract and process, and therefore produces more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil." Source: "State Dept. signs off on controversial oil sands pipeline" by Renee Schoof, McClatchy Newspapers, Aug 26, 2011 To access the entire article, click here
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  4. jyushchyshyn - I refer you to the fact that the Canadian government is slashing funding and jobs from its environment ministry.
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  5. "Einstein said to think and not act is a crime," James Hansen tells SolveClimate News. "If we understand the situation, we must try to make it clear." Source: "NASA's Hansen Explains Decision to Join Keystone Pipeline Protests" by Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News, Aug 29, 2011. To access this informative and timely article, click here.
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  6. re Moderator Response,#52 I somehow doubt the environmental impact of gas flaring approaches the total enviornmental cost of oil sand extraction. So the flaring enough gas to supply the needs of Germany and France is insignificant. I don't think so. In addition, there are cannons to prevent birds from landing on tailings ponds at the oil sands. If we import oil rather than use the oil sands, we will have to put such cannons along our entire coast lines.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] I didn't say that the gas flaring was insignificant, just that it was not enough to compensate for the environmental damage caused by exploitation of oil sand deposits.
  7. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the solar segment of the renewable energy industry in the US is not fairing well in competition with China as evidenced in: “U.S. losing clean-energy race? Solar maker Solyndra bankrupt,” McClatchy News, Aug 30, 2011 To access this article, click here. This article includes a graphic of US Trade in Solar Panels from year 2000 thru 2010
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  8. jyushchyshyn @56, The Alberta government is hardly a shining example of environmental stewardship-- you chose to highlight/cherry-pick one example (i.e., flaring of natural gas). They are still stalling on the grizzly bear, despite very good science that indicates that this umbrella species should be classified as threatened. Go to Google Earth and look at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains-- note the huge swaths of clear cutting, and the rest of the province has been sliced and diced by access roads and seismic lines. You should also know that those canons are not effective and have failed on more than one occasion in the past-- how someone can defend tailing ponds is beyond me, and I doubt very much that you would like a tailing pond or a tar sands plant anywhere near your house or city of residence. Also it is ludicrous to try and claim that the oil form the tar sands is ethical because in addition to the points made above it neglects the following: 1) The ethical travesty of the negative impacts that this development is having and will continue to have on the First Nations. So sad that some people believe that the human rights of First Nations is not important in this. 2) The fact that the Alberta Government is quite candid that if the USA do not take the oil then they are happy to sell it to whoever is interested, and that includes China who has a very dubious human rights record. 3) The ethical travesty of destroying huge swaths of the Boreal forest and in the process potentially wiping out the Caribou, to mention but one species negatively affected by the development. That is effectively stealing from future generations folks. The tar sands are a blight on Canada's reputation, it is a national disgrace and an embarrassment. And last but not least, a sign of how truly addicted we are to FFs that we have to resort to such extreme and energy intensive measures to extract dirty oil to continue to feed our habit. How myopic and selfish.
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  9. Suggested reading: “What You Need To Know About The Canadian Tar Sands,” TreeHugger, Aug 30, 2011 To access this informative article, click here.
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  10. Suggested reading: “Keystone XL Is Self-Destructive. Does the Obama Administration Need to Be Also?” Op-ed by Mark Bittman, NY Times, Aug 31, 2011 To access this thoughtful essay, click here.
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  11. Suggested reading: “Looking beyond TransCanada’s summer of discontent Why excluding opponents to resource development is unwise,” by Doug Mathews, Alberta Oil, Sep 1, 2001 To access this article, click here.
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  12. Suggested reading: “Pray that naysayers are right about climate change,” David Horsey Cartoons and Commentary,, Sep 1, 2011 To access this cartoon/article, click h
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  13. Badgersouth: Both your links in #61 & 62 are to the same location.
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    Moderator Response: Corrected.
  14. Albatross The Alberta government is not perfect. I never said it was. But flaring is a huge source of Greenhouse gas emissions. To thumb our nose while willing filling our gas guzzling SUVs with OPEC oil does absolutely nothing to stop global warming. None.
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  15. a sign of how truly addicted we are to FFs The fact that we blame the supplier rather than the person in the mirror is a sign of how truly addicted to FFs.
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  16. jyushchyshyn @64 You said earlier that " they do not "give a damn about the environment." They do what they think is necessary to maintain a veneer of credibility. In reality they are very far from perfect when it comes to their environmental policies. I do agree that flaring is a problem, especially in regions like Nigeria. But this post this about the tar sands and the damage that they are doing and will continue to do, so can we please limit our discussion to the tar sands and its environmental, societal and ethical consequences. I'm afraid the rest of your posts @64 and @65 do not make much sense to me.
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  17. Albatross @66 Given that more imports are at least a possible consequence of not developing the oil sands, the impacts of such oil imports are indeed relevant.
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  18. This article: will make you not want this pipeline. For starters:
    * Keystone XL is an export pipeline. According to presentations to investors, Gulf Coast refiners plan to refine the cheap Canadian crude supplied by the pipeline into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America. Proceeds from these exports are earned tax-free. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.
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  19. What about the rhetoric of rejection? "Nothing matters, it will all be developed anyway. Atmospheric CO2 will probably go up to 1000 ppm and human population plummet no matter what anyone does." Some people think human action matters. This pipeline is symbolic of whether we start heading off 1000 ppm now or wait until after CO2 reaches 450. If we stop the pipeline and start heading in the right direction and show some leadership all of a sudden, it is not at all certain that all the tar will be burned. Stopping it or not will be symbolic in addition to the direct effect on barrels burned. Symbols matter.
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  20. A map of 20 years of pipeline related oil spills appears in Sept 9 NYT. Not surprisingly, there's a cluster of spills in the oil patch, places represented by the some of the most vocal deniers: Texas Guvna and would-be King Perry, Oklahoma's Sen. Inhofe, Kansas' Brownback, Louisiana's Sen. Vitter.
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  21. Note how the trend is down, while the volume has risen. A good thing to observe. Thank you for posting this link. It is very encouraging.
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  22. Pete@68: It is a matter of tax policy as far as exportability. A stroke of the pen, and the tax policy will change, and the production will remain in the USA.
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  23. Camburn#71: "the trend is down, while the volume has risen. A good thing to observe." Not sure what volume you're referring to or if you have a source for that claim. However, it is a good thing to observe that it is not the spill that kills you, it's the pollution that doesn't get cleaned up after the spill: Federal records show that although the pipeline industry reported 25 percent fewer significant incidents from 2001 through 2010 than in the prior decade, the amount of hazardous liquids being spilled, though down, remains substantial. There are still more than 100 significant spills each year — a trend that dates back more than 20 years. And the percentage of dangerous liquids recovered by pipeline operators after a spill has dropped considerably in recent years. Also important to observe that much of this safety is due to federal regulation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the pipeline agency, acknowledges weaknesses in the program and is asking Congress to pass legislation that would increase penalties for negligent operators and authorize the hiring of additional inspectors. That may be a tough sell in a Congress averse to new spending and stricter regulation. The pro-business agenda of many politicians will kill such regulation - and then you'd better not drink the water.
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  24. I am an optomist by nature. When I see a downward trend in something that I consider bad, I am all for the trend. As far as more regulation etc, observe the present trend. It appears that the current regulation and employees are doing a fine job. I commend them for doing so.
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  25. In a perfect world, I wouldn't have to buy insurance as I, nor my employees would ever be involved in an accident. Even tho I maintain my equipment diligently to the highest standards, accidents do occur. When one looks at the per barrel transported verses spilled, it really is quit astonishing that it is as good as it is.
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  26. Here's a graph of oil pipeline related spills in Alberta, CA (where the tar sands projects are located). Their record on the 15 year period shown - not so good. -- source Historical evidence reveals that the problem of oil pipeline ruptures and spills is endemic to the industry in Alberta. ... As the province pushes forward with tar sands development and aims to export its oil products to China via an extensive pipeline through to Kitimat, British Columbia, Canadians should take notice of this history and its implications for the country's future. Take notice? Nah, it's ok as long as it's not in my backyard. Alberta's tar sand crude is sour - higher in H2S and CO2 content than the light, sweet crude produced in much of the US Gulf Coast. Piping that stuff cross country is not good for the health of the pipe, nor for the people who live along the pipeline route. Desulphurization and CO2 capture has to take place at the upstream end. So anyone living downwind of the production facilities and pipeline route in what was formerly known as 'The Great White North' better bone up on their emergency preparation plans. On second thought, H2S is just a trace gas, so it can't be harmful.
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  27. The Tar Sands of Alberta are going to continue to be developed. Whether they are shipped by rail or pipeline remains to be seen, but I would hope pipeline as it is much more efficient and safer. Just as Australia will keep exporting coal to China, resources will be developed.
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  28. “Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama’s announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in -- and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.” Source: “Bill McKibben, Puncturing the Pipeline” TomGram, Nov 15, 2011 To access this insightful analysis, click here.
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  29. For an informative update on status of the proposed Keystone pipeline, check out: “Climate Change Disappears from Keystone XL Pipeline Debate” by Lisa Song, Inside Climate News, Mar 29, 2012
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  30. Earth Observatory has a nice display of tar sand mining's emissions. ... the emission of pollutants from oil sands mining operations in Canada’s Alberta Province are comparable to the emissions from a large power plant or a moderately sized city. So we get to enjoy these emissions twice - once in the form of NO2 released during mining and then as CO2 when the crud is burned.
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