The Facts About Canada’s Oil Sands and Climate Change

Motivated Reasoning

This week I was reading an article from the Associated Press called Some fracking critics use bad science. The gist of the article is that Gasland director Josh Fox used false information in his new film, The Sky is Pink. Among other things, he claimed that cancer rates were higher in Texas where fracking is taking place. Three different cancer researchers in the area contradicted him on this claim.

But then the article went on to say something that I thought was very relevant to debates on just about any controversial energy topic — fossil fuel subsidies, climate change, hydraulic fracturing:

One expert said there’s an actual psychological process at work that sometimes blinds people to science, on the fracking debate and many others. “You can literally put facts in front of people, and they will just ignore them,” said Mark Lubell, the director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis.

Lubell said the situation, which happens on both sides of a debate, is called “motivated reasoning.” Rational people insist on believing things that aren’t true, in part because of feedback from other people who share their views, he said.

As a result, misinformation is hard to stamp out, because it tends to be repeated — confirming the views people already hold. That brings me to the topic of today’s column: Climate change claims around the Keystone XL pipeline.

Keystone Pipeline and Climate Change

tar sandsWhile some might mistake this column for advocacy for the Keystone XL pipeline, its real purpose is a call for truth in advertising. Whether the Keystone XL is wise energy policy is certainly debatable, but the debate should be on the basis of factual information. Our best chance for passing responsible energy policy is if all sides can differentiate between fact, opinion, hyperbole, and misinformation.

I have gone on record as saying I favor the Keystone XL pipeline for a very simple reason: We are going to continue to need oil for some years to come, and the pipeline would improve U.S. energy security. I also strongly advocate for policies that reduce U.S. oil dependence, so my ideal objective would be that the Keystone pipeline is built — creating jobs in the process — and the transition from U.S. oil dependence renders it obsolete. But it would be there as an insurance policy in case our policies fail to sufficiently wean us from oil in a timely manner.

Opponents envision that by shutting down the pipeline, they will slow the growth of the tar sands industry and force a faster transition from oil. The risk that they never acknowledge is that it may weaken our energy security by shifting our dependence from Canada to Venezuela or the Middle East, and further encourage Canada to strengthen their relationship with China. If that happens, then pipeline opponents will have made the situation worse on just about every count.

Game Over For the Planet?

NASA scientist and climate change advocate James Hansen declared that if the oil sands are tapped, “it is essentially game over” for the planet, and that the pipeline would be a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” Bill McKibben has led a high profile campaign of protests against the pipeline on the basis of climate change impacts. Keystone opponents have recently called for a review of the climate change implications of building the pipeline.

But then a paper published last February in Nature Climate Change calculated that if the 170 billion barrels of proven reserves from the Alberta oil sands were burned it would produce just 0.02 to 0.05 C of warming. That contrasts sharply with the hyperbolic statements.

So how did Hansen and McKibben respond? In Least Reassuring Reassurance of All Time, McKibben wrote:

If we burn through the known quantities of tarsands oil, that alone will raise the planet’s temperature by .4 degree Celsius—which is about exactly how much we’ve already raised the planet’s temperature by burning everything we’ve burned since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Hansen said:

“The argument that the currently known amount of carbon in the tar sands pit is small compared to the total fossil fuels burned in two centuries is fallacious and misleading — every single source, even Saudi Arabia, is small compared to the total. If we once get hooked on tar sands and set up infrastructure, the numbers will grow as mining capabilities increase. Tar sands are particularly egregious, because you get relatively less energy per unit carbon emitted and there is associated environmental damage in the mining.”

Joe Romm deemed the report confusing because the “study does not actually include the extra emissions from tar sands extraction in its core calculations” and he goes on to state that inclusion of those emissions could bump up the total by 17%.

The Facts

Let’s examine each criticism. Granted, Romm is correct and the emissions could actually be 17% higher. What does that mean? The 0.02 to 0.05 C of warming might be as high as 0.06 C. In other words, instead of warming by one-twentieth of a degree, it might be one-seventeenth of a degree. Romm chose not to spell that out, preferring to leave readers with the impression that the study is questionable.

With respect to McKibben’s comment, there is zero possibility of burning through all of the oil sands. It is technically impossible to extract all of the oil in place, so he put up a fictional case of burning through 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place in order to make the number — 0.4 C — as high as he could possibly make it. The number is nonsense because the assumption is nonsense. The real question at hand is the 170 billion barrels of proven reserves, but more importantly how quickly that could reasonably be developed (more on that below).

Hansen’s argument is more along the lines of “We can’t get this oil sands thing started because production will grow and that will add to an already bad situation.” Of course Canada is highly committed to developing their oil sands, oil sands production has in fact been growing for many years, and a great deal of infrastructure is already in place.

Length of Time

Other than Romm’s nitpick, critics of the study didn’t find much fault with the calculations, but insisted “We have to make a stand over the oil sands.” But here is a point I haven’t heard anyone discuss. Canada’s oil production in 2011 was 1.3 billion barrels. Over the past decade, its growth rate has been under 3% (but still above the global average growth rate). Let’s pretend that growth rate can continue until Canada reaches 10 million barrels per day, putting its oil production on par with Saudi Arabia and Russia. How long would it take to produce 170 billion barrels of oil and contribute the 0.02 to 0.05 C  (or 0.06 C) of warming? Until the year 2075!

So given the very low contribution to the overall climate change equation — plus the length of time it would take to extract and burn through that 170 billion barrel reserve — the focus on this issue is tremendously misplaced. It is a classic tempest in a teapot. Time would be far more efficiently spent trying to figure out a way for the developing world to industrialize without consuming ever greater quantities of coal.


My point here is not “Don’t worry, be happy.” Certainly we can say that in a world struggling to limit carbon emissions, Keystone XL will just add to the problem. But all carbon emissions add to the problem, and if that’s the case, have pipeline opponents stopped using oil? Almost universally the answer is no. Why? Individuals would probably rationalize that what they consume isn’t significant enough when weighed against the bigger picture.

But that’s my point about Keystone. We have all of this hyperbole around it, when the math shows that it would be effectively background noise. If you are basing your opposition to Keystone on the climate change implications, then you may want to question whether fighting to stop a 0.06 C temperature rise in 2075 is the correct issue to rally around.

There are more legitimate issues upon which to base your opposition. What might be the real downside of building the pipeline? Much has been made of the risk of spills and leaks. These risks do not disappear if the pipeline isn’t built; they just shift to the rail cars and trucks that are carrying that oil right now. The pipeline is likely an improvement over the status quo in that regard.

The real downside from building the pipeline in my view is that U.S. consumers — particularly those in the Midwest — are likely to pay higher prices for fuel. After all, the purpose of building the pipeline is to access new markets for the crude oil, which would relieve a glut of oil in the Midwest. This would mean higher prices as that glut is relieved (but potentially lower world prices as the crude is added to global supplies). Of course many climate change advocates believe we should pay higher prices for fuel, so you have to consider whether arguing this point is consistent with your views on fuel prices.

But that possibility could form the basis of an informed debate on the topic. We can weigh the jobs created and potentially the jobs saved in Gulf Coast refineries against extra costs to consumers in the Midwest. But the risk of a potential tiny temperature change more than 60 years from now does not — in my opinion — form the basis for a credible argument against the pipeline.