The Keystone XL pipeline is irrelevant
The Keystone XL pipeline will make no measurable contribution one way or another to global climate change, Rapier writes. The arguments against it convey a false impression of the most important drivers of global carbon emissions.
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Let’s first use a bit of science and data to see what the numbers imply about the significance of Keystone XL — even for a worst case scenario. Here’s a 3-step exercise that anyone can do to estimate the impact based on specific sets of assumptions:Skip to next paragraph
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- State your assumption of how much oil that you believe Keystone XL will facilitate being burned that wouldn’t be burned otherwise. You can make that number as high as you like, but state your reason for choosing the number.
- Calculate the expected global temperature impact that would arise from your number.
- Finally, calculate the length of time it would take to burn the amount of oil you chose in your first step. How much would the global temperature be expected to have changed 50 years from now in your scenario? (Information cited below will allow you to calculate Steps 2 and 3).
For me, the calculations look like this.
For Step 1, the pipeline itself would transport 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) at maximum volume. I would certainly expect this volume to displace some other oil from the market such that the entire 830,000 bpd is not a net addition to the global oil market. However, the climate impact of even the total 830,000 bpd is trivial. It less than 1/10,000th of a °C per year.* This contribution wouldn’t even be measurable. It would merely be noise in the global temperature measurement.
So, that clearly wouldn’t get anyone excited, therefore one has to begin extrapolating. What if the pipeline was the catalyst for extracting the entire Athabasca oil sands reserve in Alberta? Well, that’s still not much to get excited about. For Step 2, I refer to a 2012 paper by Neil C. Swart and Andrew J. Weaver from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria published in Nature Climate Change. The reserve itself — that is the part that is economically viable to extract — is 170 billion barrels. Using standard climate models, the researchers calculated that burning the proven reserve would lead to a global temperature increase of 0.02°C to 0.05°C. That is between 1/50th and 1/20th of a degree Celsius. Not only is this still only noise in the global temperature measurement data, but now the amount of time it would take to burn through this reserve becomes relevant (which is Step 3).
But before we calculate the time to burn through the reserve, let’s look at the worst possible case that I frequently see pipeline opponents cite (with no caveats attached to it). What would be the temperature impact if the entire 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place could be burned? This is a ridiculous assumption for several reasons, but let’s work through the case anyway. The researchers in the previously-cited paper in Nature Climate Change calculated that burning the entire 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place could raise global temperatures by 0.24 to 0.50°C. Guess which number Keystone XL opponents like to cite? 0.5°C, the high end of the worst case, most unrealistic scenario (it’s technically impossible to burn through all the oil in place).
Besides the fact that it’s ridiculous to associate the Keystone XL pipeline with burning all the oil in place in the Athabasca, once we work through Step 3 even this worst case falls apart. Always overlooked in this debate is the length of time it would take to burn through the reserve, or the resource. The fact is that there is a limit to how fast oil can be extracted. The Canadian oil industry has been growing, but at the current production rate of 1.8 million bpd of oil sands production it would take 259 years to burn through the reserve, and 2,740 years to burn through the resource.