Keeping the Cork in the Oil Sands Bottle

Are the bitumen deposits in NE Alberta the biggest carbon bomb on the planet or will their exploitation have hardly any effect on the climate? Will the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline accelerate development of the oil sands or will it make little difference?

I have attempted to answer the first question previously in a Skeptical Science post that discussed the 2012 Nature Climate Change article by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver. The oil sands, even in the worst case (assuming constant production rates of coal, gas and conventional oil, with accelerated bitumen production), will only contribute a small proportion, about 3%, to fossil-fuel emissions over this century. However, when framed in terms of the steps we need to make to stabilize the climate, the oil sands loom larger, comparable in size to one of the Princeton wedges. In this view, exploiting the oil sands would be like taking a stride closer to the brink, whereas prudence requires us instead to take several steps back.

As for the narrower question of how much difference the KXL decision will make to the production of bitumen, well, there are many ways of framing the problem, with the latest draft report from the State Department calculating very small impacts indeed.

A wonk’s eye view

The simplest way of calculating the emissions attributable to the KXL pipeline is to take the amount of product, let’s say 830,000 barrels per day (the stated capacity of the pipeline), and multiply it by the carbon content of bitumen (0.48 tonnes of CO2 per barrel), which gives emissions of about 7 billion tonnes of CO2 over 50 years. Some allowance must be made for the diluent in the pipe (subtract ~25%) and the emissions involved in extracting the bitumen (add ~17%, estimates vary but that is a consensus number), but let’s go with 6 billion tonnes as a rough estimate for lifetime emissions. This amounts to about two months of global emissions of CO2 at current rates, or one year’s worth of current US emissions. But that’s not the way the wonks would see it.

Alternatively, they might assume that the addition of the pipeline will cause little change in global demand for oil, meaning that any oil flowing through the pipe will mostly be compensated for by market forces reducing oil production somewhere else. All that they would blame on the pipeline is the effect of swapping carbon-intensive bitumen for lighter crude oil, adding, as mentioned above, the additional 17% emissions for bitumen compared to average crude oil.

The EPA wrote a letter in June 2011 that commented on an earlier State Department Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) prepared for the initial submission of the KXL. The EPA estimated, using an incremental approach, that the extra greenhouse gas emissions related to KXL could be in the range of 0.6 to 1.15 billion tonnes of CO2eq over the 50 years life of the pipeline, about 10-20% of the 6 billion tonne that I estimated earlier, roughly one or two months of emissions at the current US rate.

In the latest report, the State Department now argues that the pipeline decision will barely make any difference to bitumen production, because the bitumen will find its way, KXL or no KXL, to market by rail and through other pipelines. Their estimated incremental rail transport costs (after subtracting savings due to the reduced need to transport diluent) are $5 per barrel extra for rail transport compared to pipelines. However, according to this NRDC blogpost, that estimate is probably low. Actual costs of currently operating small-scale rail-transportation projects are $15 per barrel higher. Even at those higher transportation cost levels, there is still good money to be made at current product prices.


From a January 2012 presentation by one of the leading oil sands producers.

The logistics of moving millions of barrels per day are daunting: each million barrels per day capacity requires over 300 continuously running trains, every train having 100 tanker cars. Oil producers greatly prefer the lower costs, capacity and greater scheduling dependability of pipelines to rail. Rail is a second-best option and is only on the agenda now because of the threat to the approval of the pipeline.

Elementary economics dictates that increasing the production or delivery cost of a product will limit its supply for any given price. The State Department consultants estimated that, in 2030, bitumen production would be just 90,000 to 210,000 barrels per day less if KXL were not built, other things being equal. That’s about one-ninth to one-quarter of the oil scheduled to flow through the pipeline. Applying that factor to the EPA’s 2011 estimates of incremental emissions would amount to savings, over 50 years, equivalent to just a few days of current US emissions. Promoters of the pipeline were overjoyed; they could now switch their argument from claiming that the pipeline was an essential element in developing the oil sands to one in which the pipeline would make negligible difference to the development of the oil sands and therefore have little or no effect on climate change.

Leaving Flatland

Entering Wonk World is a little like visiting Flatland, the two-dimensional world imagined by the Victorian schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbot. For quantitative analysts, everything that can be expressed in a spreadsheet entry may be considered and factors that don’t fit this frame of reference are neglected. The incremental effect of one variable is estimated by holding the other variables constant. In Wonk World, paraphrasing Einstein, what can’t be counted doesn’t count.

The real world doesn’t always cooperate. The figure below shows forecasts of oil sands production made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) every year from 2006 to 2012 (except 2009). Note how the projections were revised drastically every year. Over this time period, events swamped the orderly growth predictions. These events were, for example: the United States went from being the world’s largest oil importer to what some pundits hail as “Saudi America”; decisions on pipelines once seen as “no-brainers” were deferred and the plans became subject to strong public protest; and the world went through a giant spasm of chaos, greed and fear known as the Great Recession.


Added in the top right-hand side is the State Department’s maximum calculated effect of a KXL decision (210,000 barrels/day) in 2030. Compare this to the drastic year-to-year production forecast revisions made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Staggering amounts of capital are required to develop the oil sands, perhaps $250 billion in initial capital, spent mostly over the next ten years. The decision makers who allocate capital are certainly informed by the best wonkery that money can buy. But they know also that, over the decades needed to provide a return on this capital, other influences beyond calculable market trends will determine the profitability of their investments. For example, one of the most closely guarded secrets of any oil company is the product price forecast that they use in their internal economic analyses; this not only reflects the results of quantitative analysis, but also the subjective judgement of senior executives. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that long-term price forecasts need to revised at short-term intervals.

Investors are obliged to weigh any number of unknowns: will Venezuela increase production and keep heavy oil differentials high; will the price of natural gas rapidly rise; will climate change suddenly force governments to introduce carbon taxes; can the companies control their labour and construction costs; will global demand continue to rise? In this world, a decision by their only export market to refuse a new pipeline will weigh very heavily indeed. Capitalists always have other projects to invest in elsewhere.

In the even more real world outside the corporate boardroom, the logic and the arithmetic are simpler. We know how much carbon we can safely burn. We know also that once we have sunk capital into infrastructure and into developing the resources, it will be harder to stop ourselves from consuming them, because the go-forward production economics will then be largely determined by marginal operating costs. The reason that the Alberta and Canadian governments, along with the oil companies, desperately want the Keystone XL pipeline is because it will encourage more capital investment in new oil sands projects, effectively locking in a revenue stream for decades. This is not a secret.

The Keystone XL decision is a symbol, as some have pointed out, but it is no mere token. The decision will provide a strong signal, one way or the other, about the resolve of the US government to reverse direction on fossil fuel consumption. Everyone from oilmen to activists is watching anxiously.


Modified from the Pembina Institute’s Beneath the Surface: A review of key facts in the oilsands debate. Note the expansion to over 9 million barrels per day.

As Bill McKibben pointed out in his Rolling Stone article, the global fossil fuel reserves that are already on the corporate books, for which the development capital has largely been sunk, greatly exceed, by a factor of five, what we can safely burn to be assured of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius. He wrote:

Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons [the CO2eq potential of the fossil fuel reserves], is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

Keystone XL will bring up more bottles out of the ice box and up from the cellar, uncork them and put them on the kitchen table. The State Department wonks tell us that simply opening more bottles won’t make our thirst any bigger or our hangovers any worse. They really should get out more.

We don’t have to view the question of whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline solely thorough the wonk’s reductionist lens, simplifying the issue until it becomes susceptible to quantitative analysis. If the bitumen is to stay in the ground—and it must if the climate is to be stabilized—then we have to make our best efforts to stop, or at least slow down, the investment in the infrastructure that will lock-in its exploitation.

Ultimately, we have to reduce global fossil fuel demand, not only for bitumen, but also for oil, gas and, most importantly, coal, through carbon pricing. However, introducing effective carbon pricing at the required global level is not a realistic option today and may not be for decades. A decision against Keystone XL won’t reduce demand and its direct, calculable effects won’t reduce emissions very much either, but it is a decision that one man, Barack Obama, can make —and can make now—and which might one day be seen as marking the turning point in the struggle against climate change.



Feature photo from Garth Lenz whose work is crowdfunded.


  1. "Douboilthink"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    To cut emissions
    Just increase.
    Might sound odd
    But "War is Peace"
    "Black is White"
    And "Tar is Good"
    "Tarry Pipe
    Oirlwell rules
    In times like these
    To cut emissions
    Just increase.

  2. Dedicated to Jim Hansen, Bill McKibben and all the others (that includes you, Andy!) who have "tried to make us see" what we do not wish to see

    "Tarry Pipe"
    -- Horatio Algeranon's rendition of "Starry Night" (by Don McLean)

    Tarry, tarry pipe
    Taints our water black and grey,
    Leaks out on a summer day,
    With tars that show their darkness in the soil.
    Shadows on the hills,
    Soils the trees and the daffodils,
    Foils the bees with the oil spills,
    In blackness on the slowly dying land.

    Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
    How you rallied for humanity,
    How you tried to make us see.
    We would not listen, we did not know how.
    Perhaps we'll listen now.

    Tarry, tarry pipe.
    Flaming towers that brightly blaze,
    Swirling clouds and smoggy haze,
    Collect in former skies of China blue.
    Climate changing too, farmers' fields of wilted grain,
    Weathered faces lined in pain,
    Are roiled beneath the pipeline's tarry sands.

    Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
    How you rallied for humanity,
    How you tried to make us see.
    We would not listen, we did not know how.
    Perhaps we'll listen now.

    For we did not trust you,
    But still your claims were true.
    And when no dope was left to hype
    Up that tarry, tarry pipe,
    It took our life, as poisons often do.
    But you could have told us Keystone,
    That pipe was never meant for more
    Than profits for a few

    Tarry, tarry pipe
    Praises sung in Congress halls,
    Shameless Feds in Capital malls,
    With lies that waste the world you can't forget.
    From the shysters that you've met,
    The oil men in Armani clothes,
    The silver tongues of bloody Roves
    Have oiled and poisoned all the virgin snow.

    Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,
    How you rallied for humanity,
    How you tried to make us see.
    We would not listen, we're not listening still.
    Perhaps we never will...

    Horatio made a very low-budget ($0 -- Horatio's time is worth a lot, as you can tell) recording of Tarry Pipe that you might not wish to listen to here

  3. Despite the relatively light conversation this article is drawing a bit more traffic than is usual. Still, traffic is relatively light given how cogent, well-researched, clear and helpful the article is.

    It would be helpful in several ways if people who appreciate the article talked it up on social media and in real life!

  4. Horatio's wordsmithing is superb as always, and the compliment to Andy Skuce well deserved.

    So difficult to convey how serious it all is, but these guys do pretty well too:

  5. Pingback: Limping Into Spring (perils and pitfalls of the freeze-thaw cycle)

  6. I disagree on several points.

    One, the alternative to Alberta tar sands is the equally dirty Orinoco asphalt in Venezuela.

    IMO, the strategy of denying addicts their drug of choice is not a successful strategy. See certain street corners. And in this case the addicts control society.

    Two, transportation is NOT the limiting (or even secondary limiting) factor is expanding tar sands production. It would be #4 or #5 on my list. Yesterday, Suncor & Total canceled a tar sands upgrader project. Many other tar sands projects have already been delayed or canceled. Keystone XL, yes or no, MAKES NO DIFFERENCE !

    Three, this symbolic fight distracts the US from effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions. The French# announced earlier this month a more than doubling of their Metro PLUS other urban rail expansions and improvements. By 2030, 90% of Greater Parisians will be within 2 km of an urban rail (Metro, tram, RER) station.

    In the rest of France, 1,500 km of tram lines, in almost every town of 100,000 or larger will be built this decade.

    Fuel use in France is plummeting. In the first 2 months of 2013, gasoline sales are down -8% over Jan & Feb. 2012.

    French carbon emissions are just 64% of German #s, and are dropping faster on a % basis (with zero new nukes opening) and are = to Germany on a kg/capita/year basis. Germany is pushing renewables, the French are pushing Transit Orientated Development. Both are good, but the results show the French approach is better,

    The United States could build as much Urban rail as the French are - per capita - with just !/4th of our current subsidy for cheap gasoline.


    PS; I wrote the chapter on freight for "Transport Beyond Oil" Island Press. We can save 2 to 2 million barrels of refined diesel per day with expanded & electrified railroads. We trade 20 BTUs of refined diesel for 1 BTU of potentially renewable electricity - a massive carbon gain !

    PPS; I have a number of essays on my main blog

    And I have been working with one of the original designers of the Washington DC Metro (1962-63) on a plan to triple urban rail passenger-miles while reducing the operating subsidy

    These are EFFECTIVE carbon reduction strategies !!

  7. Thanks for the comment, Alan

    Taking your points in turn:

    1) It is true that Venezuelan heavy oil is almost equally carbon intensive as the oil sands product, but increased Alberta bitumen production will not cause a barrel-for-barrel drop in Venezuelan production, so it would not be appropriate to use Venezuelan carbon intensity in any incremental comparison, if that is what you are arguing for.

    I agree that for drugs, as for fossil fuels, limiting demand (or overcoming addiction) is more effective than limiting supply and I said as much in my final paragraph. But, extending the analogy, building more crystal meth labs would not help reduce consumption. I would love to see a price put on carbon, far more than a ban on KXL. However, that is not on the table in the USA or Canada for the foreseeable future. As David Roberts put it, this is like urging activists to "drop achievable campaign, switch to something impossible".

    2) I would like to hear what your three or four more important factors than transportation are that are stopping oil sands developments. Certainly the oil companies and the governments in Canada don't believe that.

    The Suncor plant was cancelled because it was not economic, despite the fact that the bitumen-SCO differentials are at a record high due mainly to transportation bottlenecks. Andrew Leach has some good articles explaining why the upgrading-in-Alberta option is only possible with government subsidies.

    3) I wish you success with promoting more inter- and intra-city rail transportation in the USA. I rode the trams in Bordeaux last year and was very impressed, especially with the way that they safely power the trams from the exposed third rail on pedestrian streets.

    But I don't understand the "distraction" argument. Has activism on Keystone XL really diminished activists' enthusiasm for urban transit? Is activism a finite resource that gets easily depleted or is it renewable? My own experience in protesting the Northern Gateway pipeline at a rally in Victoria, British Columbia is that it was a stimulating experience that spurred me to take part, for the first time, with local groups seeking ways to reduce our carbon footprint, including promoting public transport, ride sharing and charging stations for electric vehicles. That's anecdote, not data, admittedly, but I wouldn't be surprised if the first-time demonstrators against Keystone XL in Washington felt similarly empowered and motivated to continue to act on climate change.

  8. Thank you for your detailed and courteous reply.

    By the points.
    1) In expansion of Alberta tar sands is somehow slowed, then additional investments will be made in Venezuela, increasing their expansion at a faster rate. All other oil sources are limited except Kashagan#

    # Kashagan is one of the two largest oil fields found in the last 30 years, in Kazakhstan. Low quality conventional oil. After $43 billion invested over 15 years, Kashagan will start producing 375,000 b/day this year. There is little appetite at current oil prices to further expand to a potential 1.5 million b/day.

    The OECD predicts 2020 oil prices of %150 to $270/barrel (in 2013$). An IMF model predicts (middle case) that oil prices will double every decade (until "we" cannot afford oil) with volume increases of 0.9%/year. That increased volume will largely come from tar sands, Orinoco and kashagan - they only known "marginal" supplys left.

    At such prices, a carbon tax will have little effect (2020 oil prices in 2018 or 2019 ?). What will have an effect is developing low carbon, oil free alternatives.

    More later.

  9. There are two paths to follow to deal with ever rising prices of oil/liquid fuels.

    One is the path of the Hirsch Report (commissioned by Dept of Energy under last administration). "Boil the planet" to fill gas tanks. 1,000 MW coal fired plants to heat oil shale, tar sands expansion, enhanced oil recovery, etc. A very serious & determined approach.

    I have spent years (including some ground breaking research with the Millennium Institute) - to promoting low carbon (i.e. not EVs) oil free transportation using market demand and a playing field tilted away from BAU & FF.

    If there is NO ALTERNATIVE - people will DO ANYTHING for liquid fuels !!

    Our research suggested that 3 policies -
    - ACORE levels of renewables
    - Urban Rail & Transit Orientated Development
    - electrify & Expand Freight Railroads

    resulted in 20 years, vs. BAU

    - GDP +13%
    - CO2 -38%
    - Oil Use -22% (both CO2 & Oil Use would be down more except fro GDP +13%)
    - Employment +4%
    pdf of paper on top of middle left column

    I am talking with Springer about writing a book that results in an updated model of this.

    Also read my main blog - just under the pictures of pretty French trams.

    More later

  10. #2) The limiting factors on tar sands expansion

    - Logistics & manpower in Northern Alberta - More $$ does not create more results, the infrastructure is maxed out.
    - Natural Gas (The Province of Alberta has already limited NG exports)
    = Pentanes Plus diluent (shortage if not for fracing boom, it will a limiting factor within a few years
    - Capital ($5 billion is pocket change, not enough to play @ Ft. McMoney)
    - Upgraders, or refineries capable of handling API 7 to 9 oil

    You are quite wrong about what the oil companies think are the limiting factors. Of course, they will do all sorts of public manipulation to add a few % profit to each barrel of oil.

  11. Well it's the refinery issue that's sending the crap down to Houston, isn't it? And the pipeline is a key to the infrastructure.

    So I'm not sure where you are claiming disagreement. Or why.

    As for capital, that's what the oil industry is all about. Each deep water offshore oil platform costs billions.

    Fort McMoney. Heh.

  12. Wow. This should enter 2013 essential history of art right next to Homo Narcissus by A-Team. Wow again. This is way more than just brilliant parody, it is a cross-decades fulguration of contemporary medunno of... aah. Wow.

  13. Horatio is skeptical of the "makes no difference" claim that is making the rounds.

    It assumes that there is an alternative to Keystone available to the interested parties just "waiting in the wings" that is just as good as (if not better) than Keystone in all regards (price of product transport, refining capability and port availability at the endpoint, long term reliability, return on capital investment, etc)

    As NRDC's Danielle Droitsch put it in Just the facts: Climate Impacts from the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

    "Industry insiders and even pro-tar sands government officials in Canada understand that the expansion of tar sands production is not inevitable. They have publicly acknowledged that they need the building of pipelines to access international markets for expansion.

    Even if you build every single pipe that's on the table right're still short pipeline capacity … For the growth to continue, all the proposed export pipeline capacity and more will need to be built, and soon. Andrew Potter, Managing Director, Institutional Equity Research at CIBC World Markets, Jan. 1, 2013

    Current alternatives to the Keystone XL for transporting tar sands oil are on a much smaller scale, in much earlier stages of development, and in many cases face such significant opposition that they are unlikely to move ahead in the next five to 10 years if at all."

    //end quotes

    Or, more to the point

    If Keystone doesn't matter
    Then why does Canada care
    That Keystone gets a charter
    To go from here to there?

  14. Michael.

    The pipeline is *NOT* the infrastructure key.

    China imported over 1 million b/day from Russia for over a decade - despite a change in gauge (the distance between the rails).

    Central Asian oil fields move millions of b/day oil to markets with a combination of pipelines & rail

    I can outline ways to move millions of barrels/day from Alberta by rail.

    The State Dept. report just affirmed what I already knew.

    > As for capital, that’s what the oil industry is all about.

    Capital will be a limiting factor for expansion of tar sands production *LONG* before transportation will be. $100 billion may be more than Western oil companies will be willing to invest in the medium term. China will be needed to reach that sum IMHO.

    Before a decision is made on Keystone, there have been multiple investment decisions to delay tar sands projects. There are limits to capex even in the oil industry.

  15. First my essay on Bordeaux trams - the first one opened December 21st, 2003 !

    I believe that France is rivaled only by Denmark in their carbon reductions in the last decade. French carbon emissions per capita are 64% of German carbon emissions !

    This is EFFECTIVE action - in just a decade 🙂

    And yes, activism is a limited resource. The singular focus on a symbolic action has eclipsed several potential effective actions.

    I know of at least a dozen thoughtful, experienced, engaged, public spirited people that would have joined a movement for effective Climate action - but are sitting out Keystone.

  16. Alan, you've made your point. I'm not sure I agree.

    As a Canadian, like so many Canadians, I am as astonished as I am horrified by the current status of Canada as a rogue nation. So this issue rings true for me. I would like to see Obama put the brakes on this ethically disastrous course for Canada.

    That's why it's hard for me to see this as a sideshow.

    We do not need new fossil fuel industries and this is one.

    I am not convinced that stopping KXL is contrary to your vision for massive increases in rail investment. I share your enthusiasm for rail if not your dedication to it.

    To the contrary, making oil as scarce as it ought to be will enhance your prospects as a light rail advocate. I am not sure why you want to come along and demotivate everyone.

    I didn't have much trouble finding your presence on the internet. I'm reasonably convinced you're NOT a figment of some oil company's tricky PR campaign. But I don't see why, that being the case, that you're so stuck on being divisive.

    "I know of at least a dozen thoughtful, experienced, engaged, public spirited people that would have joined a movement for effective Climate action – but are sitting out Keystone." I note you do not name them. Perhaps they know better than to be divisive for no good reason.

    Let's make it clear. Do you WANT the pipeline to go in? Because if you're slightly opposed or even indifferent, the style of your participation on this thread is hard to understand.

  17. Micheal,

    I am not a figment. I think I am up to 14,000 posts of (tech central for Peak Oil), a chapter in "transport Beyond Oil" (Island Press), Millennium Institute, etc.

    My metric is what the likely impact is on CO2 levels in 2050, 2075 and 2100. By that metric, I so not think that blocking Keystone XL will drop levels by one part per billion. I can think of several policies that will drop CO2 by ppm.

    I am wholeheartedly opposed to making Keystone XL the focus point of mitigating Climate Chaos. And there is an element of strategic per-positioning. When people realize that this campaign will have no impact of CO2 levels (either by Obama approving or when tar is railed out), hopefully they will turn towards effective measures to reduce CO2 levels.

    I only posted here because John H. (who I disagree with on this issue) invited me to.

    BTW: Feel free to erase my posts after they have been up for a day.

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  19. Oil is likely to spiral upward in price. This will create increased pressure for more supply. (+0.9%/yr per IMF model as price doubles every decade).

    Any artificial constraint to limit supply will be broken through. In the case of KXL, if not Obama (>50%), then the next Republican President will approve it. And until then, tar will be railed to market.

    Two strategic data points:

    The Chair of the Congress of New Urbanism states that TOD has 1/4th the carbon footprint of Suburbia (most of this is stationary energy savings, including far fewer ft2 of retail). (I would have guessed 1/3rd)

    40% of Americans want to live in Transit Orientated Development, but less than 2% do since there is simply not enough "T" to "OD" around. Add $270/barrel oil and that % increases.

    Combine those two facts, invest 25% of our current subsidy for cheap gasoline ($101 billion in 2010) for 25 years and American carbon footprint shrinks enough to affect global CO2 levels.

    This is the sort of change that is going to be required !

    Equally important is improving US energy efficiency just to EU levels.

    And my pet, electrifying & expanding freight rail lines. -1 to -2 million b/day - trade 20 BTUs of refined diesel for 1 BTU of conserved or renewable electricity. All in one decade.

    This has not exhausted the list of effective measures to reduce CO2 emissions.

    Meanwhile, energy and passion is spent on symbolism.

  20. Possibly relevant: Pipelines Can't Handle North American Oil Boom:

    The production of oil from Western Canada is expanding to the point that existing pipeline capacity is overwhelmed. Canadian pipeline company Enbridge aims to get its Northern Gateway project built for exports from Canada's west coast. TransCanada, meanwhile, anticipates crude oil deliveries will expand from Canada to southern U.S. refineries by way of the Keystone XL pipeline. Expanding oil production from North America, however, may be too much for pipelines to handle and suppliers will need to look to more-expensive rail to get their oil to markets.

    ...ITG finds that in order to accommodate the oil boom, crude oil deliveries by rail will have to climb to 1.6 million bpd by 2017 in order to keep up. Rail deliveries, its report finds, will have to expand at a rapid clip even if "all planned pipeline projects, such as Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, proceed."

    Yes, this is a throttle. Indeed we should oppose train shipments of tar sands as well. The stuff has to stay where it is.

    Reuters reported:

    A mile-long train hauling oil from Canada derailed and leaked 30,000 gallons of crude in western Minnesota on Wednesday, as debate rages over the environmental risks of transporting tar sands across the border.

    The leak - the first major spill of the modern North American crude-by-rail transit boom - came when 14 cars on a 94-car Canadian Pacific train left the tracks about 150 miles north west of Minneapolis near the town of Parkers Prairie, the Otter Tail Sheriff's Department said. adds:

    Michigan is still trying to clean up from a tar sands pipeline spill in July 2010 where over a million gallons ended up in the Kalamazoo RIver. It has been a monumental mess ever since and a signal about how the industry views human health and environmental safety

  21. David Roberts tweets "Every single pro-KXL article from VSPs sounds *exactly the same*. … Maybe there's just one VSP w/ multiple aliases?"

    By VSP he means Very Serious Person, a sarcastic nomenclature that Tom Fuller does not understand. Or David and I don't. Whatever.

    But if you see me using it, I mean what David does.

    Anyway David's link is to a Fareed Zakaria piece. But at least Zakaria is NOTICING the controversy. He wrote a whole book about the 21st century which did not even mention climate at all.

    Honestly these people live on a different planet.

  22. Alan, thanks again for all of your comments. I certainly don't disagree with everything you say--fully supporting your efforts to wean transportation off of oil--and I am short of time, so my comments will be brief.

    You are obviously an adherent of Peak Oil theory and while I think that there are many interesting posts on the Oil Drum, my personal view is that many of the predictions made there are exaggerated and wrong. Which is not to say that the cornucopians are more right, just that the whole area of production and price forecasting is so difficult and complicated that it is only possible to make predictions by focussing only on supply or on demand. The people who understand the subject best prefer to say little or nothing at all with any confidence. I would say that oil prices may well continue to increase, but that a plausible, although less likely, case can be made for flat or slightly decreasing prices in the medium term. But that's not much better than saying I don't really know, and I don't want to get into a Peak Oil debate here.

    I do not dismiss the rail option at all. I would guess that it may turn out to be more than an extra $5 per barrel over pipe-lining, but I can't be sure and I don't know what the ultimate capacity of the rail network is and, of course, it could be expanded with sufficient capital.

    You make other arguments about rising natural gas prices and rising labour and capital costs, which I alluded to in my original article. I agree that these are significant concerns and that once the bitumen price differential comes down to normal historical levels and production expansion accelerates, these will become top priority issues for the oil companies.

    I should declare that, like Michael, part of my motivation here is in seeing my country, Canada, turning into a petrostate, complete with what Green Party leader Elizabeth May has described as "policy-based evidence-making" and a tendency to put all of the country's economic bets on black.


    There's an interesting new article in Science by Damon Matthews and Susan Solomon that argues against the idea that worsening climate change is unavoidable, even if changes wrought by our past emissions cannot be reversed. In particular, they try to correct the common misunderstanding of the expression that there is more "warming in the pipeline". The inertia in the climate system is not in the physics of the system, but rather in the rate of human emissions, determined in part by our investments in plant and infrastructure, investments that have an effect on our energy systems for decades. Thus, "warming in the pipeline" fails as metaphor, but succeeds as literal truth.

    Which was the main point of my article.

  23. Thanks for the etymology on VSP, and the link to the reasonable side of Tom Fuller. One has to ask why he has closed his mind on climate. If he would only explore the mainstream "side" there on his own without all that animus, it would be obvious to him.

    I recommend Andy Skuce:
    "Changing Climates, Changing Minds: The Personal"

    The comments show the rational mental progression of a variety of people who checked for themselves.

  24. Disagree, Susan. Fuller can only seem reasonable in that post because of the notably consistent tilt of his commenters.

    I'm recalling the Fuller genesis story (paraphrasing): "Hi, I'm Tom Fuller, and I just spent the last few weeks in a comprehensive survey of climate science and its critics, from which I've concluded that Steve McIntyre et al. are right and the most important thing is to support their efforts. I had no axe to grind before that."

    Umm... no, not buying it. (The device explained.) My view on this was confirmed and amplified by a series of Gish gallops on his part, many of them on Michael's old blog. Fuller doesn't know the science nearly as well as I do, to say nothing of well enough to logically underpin the views he espouses.

    It's a tribute to Michael's liberal inclinations (and now yours too, although perhaps you weren't following along back then) that he's willing to give such an obvious propagandist the time of day. Michael hails from Canada and consorts with a therapist, but what's your excuse? (Just kidding on that last, mostly.)

    Don't forget also that this is a guy who happily co-authored an anti-climate scientist propaganda piece ("The CRUTape Letters") and even in the linked post says stuff like this:

    For the avoidance of doubt, let me be precise: Michael Mann is continuously in error in his analysis of the temperature record. Bill McKibben is not stable in his demeanor or policy advocacy. Peter ‘Gleick stole and forged (or knowingly published forged) documents from an organization he opposes. Reliance on their pronouncements will lead even intelligent and savvy people into a spiral of error that leads to foolish pronouncements such as Krugman’s latest misstatement condemning deniers to hell.

    Read what he's actually saying in this by no means unique passage, and don't be distracted by the surrounding reasonable-sounding tone.

  25. Pingback: Keeping the Cork in the Oil Sands Bottle | Critical Angle

  26. But what shall it profit the world if we have lots of electric trains and lots of transit oriented development, and burn all the carbon anyway?

    We have about five times as much reduced carbon reserves already on the books as is can be burned and stay below 2 degrees C higher temperatures and serious consequences. To be safe we must leave about 80% of the reserves in the ground. Thus your "resistance is useless" argument is useless.

    Btw Alan your confidence in your knowledge of many details of the future is more impressive than convincing.

  27. One may say of each as yet unburned ton
    "Burning this ton adds only one ton to the atmosphere."
    So shall we burn each ton? But if not, then we must draw the line somewhere. Unburned tar sands carbon, which costs much extra carbon to extract and transport, is among the best tons to leave in the ground.

    Some argue as if drawing one line, vs the KXL pipeline, would be the last and only line drawn. But all we know for sure is that it would be the first, and a very strong signal to the world that ethical action is still possible.

  28. Pete: "We have about five times as much reduced carbon reserves already on the books as is can be burned and stay below 2 degrees C higher temperatures and serious consequences. To be safe we must leave about 80% of the reserves in the ground. Thus your “resistance is useless” argument is useless."

    "safe" being somewhat relative and contingent... Otherwise nicely said.

  29. "Very Serious People"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    Very Serious People
    Think Jim Hansen's wrong
    Find Keystone "distracting"
    Mock the protest song.

    Very Serious People
    Find it detrimental
    To march against the pipeline
    And act "environmental"

    Very Serious People
    Claim it doesn't matter
    If Keystone is developed
    "Cuz rail is even better"

    Very Serious People
    Believe Keystone "detracts"
    From more effective measures
    Prevents a carbon tax.

    Very Serious People
    Think the fight is wrong
    "With limited resources
    We mustn't go too long"

    Very Serious People
    Are unmoved by emotions
    'Bout tar spills in the river
    And other silly notions.

    Very Serious People
    Are Very Very Serious
    And unlike those who protest
    Seriously not delirious.


    In case you may not have noticed, Horatio is not among the Very (or even Slightly) Serious People -- and darned proud of it (odd as that may sound...and be)

  30. Reasonable side of Tom Fuller? "Michael Mann is continuously in error in his analysis of the temperature record." (loc. link). Very funny definition-by-example of manic denialism. And calling himself a lukewarmer, he even excels at meta denialism.

    When an Ego reasons, sometimes a little real reason might ensue by mere coincidence. For too many specimens of the Late Homo S Sapiens, reason is just an Ego protection and masturbation tool that can be bent and warped ad libitum.

  31. Thanks, you're absolutely right. I was a fan of OnlyInItfortheGold too. And denial is the pits. Didn't know Tom Fuller's history there, but my instinct was to give him a very wide berth. I only got sucked in because of mt's patience with him.

    I wrote a little bit on the financial article, and it applies here as well:

    What boggles is the absolute refusal to even look at the majority view of climate science without the filter of some second-rate but clever misdirection about it.

    It’s so obvious, but people trained to believe that if they disagree with WUWT or Inhofe or Monckton they are sinning against their tribe seem unable to absorb straightforward unbiased information. They will seize on any minutiae as long as it fits their worldview, and ignore any massive accretion of facts likewise.

    I've been wrassling (mostly in my head, on paper just some acid quips at Rabett's) with one Brad Keyes, who is just such another, only worse. And NiV in his way is too. These are people with a lot of time on their hands who write reams with a slant (NiV being by far the most clever, hence reasonable sounding) and always have the last word. At DotEarth, you know wmar and now some others. They've gotten much better at reproducing the look and feel of knowledgeable writing. This is not good.

  32. Pingback: Harper Picked Chinese Pandas Over Journey of Nishiyuu Aboriginal Youth

  33. Pingback: Global Warming: Not Reversible, But Stoppable | Critical Angle

  34. Pingback: Pipelines cause climate change, let’s talk about it | Critical Angle

  35. Pingback: Pipelines cause climate change, let’s talk about it | Planet3.0

  36. Pingback: Will the SEC investigate State Department’s Climate Bomb?

  37. This has become important once again.

    The State Department released a report on Friday concluding that the Keystone XL pipeline would not substantially worsen carbon pollution ...

    .... the report appears to indicate that if it were not built, carbon-heavy oil would still be extracted at the same rate from pristine Alberta forest and transported to refineries by rail instead.

    Cynically, the report pegs the "harmlessness" to the idea that since tar sands will be exploited anyway, transport need not take into account building infrastructure to ensure that it will indeed be exploited to the last drop.

  38. Pingback: Andrew Weaver’s support for a big bitumen refinery on the BC coast angers Greens | Critical Angle

  39. Pingback: Prof/MLA Weaver Offers Support for Tar Sands Refinery | Planet3.0

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