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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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But let’s assume that Canada’s oil sands industry continues to grow — and despite the challenges of dealing with Alberta’s harsh winters, it manages to reach the 10 million bpd level of Saudi Arabia. Over the past decade Canada’s oil sands’ industry has grown at a rate of 8.9% per year. If that impressive rate could be maintained, Canada would reach 10 million bpd from the oil sands in 20 years. (Of course the same people arguing for this possible huge temperature effect would argue that there is no possible way to transport that much crude from Alberta).  If they could then maintain that level of production, it would take Canada 57 years to extract the 170 billion barrel reserve and contribute the aforementioned 0.02°C to 0.05°C of warming to the atmosphere. So, in making a number of stretch assumptions, if the Keystone XL pipeline allows the extraction of the entire Athabasca reserve, in 57 years it will have made a contribution to the global climate that is too small to be measured.

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  • Graphic Figure 1
    (Robert Rapier/Energy Trends Insider)

  • Graphic Figure 2
    (Robert Rapier/Energy Trends Insider)

  • Graphic Figure 3
    (Robert Rapier/Energy Trends Insider)

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If we make one final stretch assumption and say the Keystone XL enables the extraction of all the oil in place in the Athabasca, then using the same assumptions as in the previous paragraph it would take 502 years to extract all of the oil in place and contribute the 0.5°C that pipeline opponents throw around as some sort of reasonable assumption on the expected impact the pipeline could make toward the climate. Yet in this case it would still be over a century before any impact could even be measured. Most climate activists I know don’t believe we have 100 years to solve this problem, yet time and resources are being spent on a tiny contributor to the overall problem that won’t make a measurable contribution for over a century — if ever.

At this point, some Keystone opponents will argue “Yes, but this could be the beginning of a social change that could make a difference.” But I have yet to see anyone detail how that might work. The vast majority of the world’s growing carbon emissions are coming from Asia Pacific. The reason they are growing is because billions of people aspire to a standard of living that still pales in comparison to Western standards of living. If I could connect the dots to how outrage over a pipeline from the oil sands to the US translates into a reduction of coal usage in Asia Pacific, I would concede the point. But thus far, I haven’t seen anyone connect those dots.

The following graphic illustrates what I consider to be the real problem, and why I consider the focus on Keystone XL to be seriously misplaced. This graphic (see figure 1 at left) shows the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from coal consumption in the Asia Pacific region, compared to the carbon dioxide emissions that would result from burning 100% of Canada’s oil production.

In this section, I attempted to show why I think Keystone’s potential contribution to the climate is insignificant. Jesse Jenkins has also performed extensive calculations on this in Climate Change and Keystone XL: The Numbers Behind the Debate. He looked at three possible scenarios involving Keystone XL and how those might impact upon carbon emissions. I think he does a great and very detailed job, but I would add that it is important to keep in mind that all of this carbon can’t be burned overnight.

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