Coal Emissions Equal an Athabasca Oil Sands Reserve Every 4 Years

A Disproportionate Response

I had intended to write an article today outlining some potential solutions to the Midwest’s ethanol predicament, but some recent exchanges on Twitter prompted me to postpone that for a week.

The issue in question involves various comments I have made about the Keystone XL pipeline. I have argued that while Keystone XL has mobilized a lot of passion and energy, its threat is minuscule compared to the world’s growing carbon dioxide emissions from coal. Thus, I believe most of the effort being directed at stopping Keystone XL would be better directed at the world’s coal emissions.

Some took exception to this. Some who are spending their time and energy on Keystone XL argued that Keystone XL really is a big deal, while others noted that a heroic effort is being expended to combat coal consumption. So, I have done a few calculations to illustrate my argument.

The Warming Potential of the Athabasca Oil Sands

You may recall that a paper from the University of British Columbia estimated that burning the entire 170 billion barrel Athabasca reserve could raise global temperatures by 0.03°C. If you could actually burn all the oil in place, the calculated global temperature rise could be as great as 0.50°C. But you have to take into consideration the amount of time this would actually take. Even if Canada’s oil industry grew to 10 million bpd (putting it on par with Saudi Arabia and Russia), it would take slightly over 500 years to produce the 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place. And that’s making the unrealistic assumption that you could produce all the oil in place.

Here is a more defensible assessment. In 2012, Canada produced 3.74 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil. The oil industry there has been increasing production by 3.1% per year over the past decade. At that growth rate, Canada could reach Saudi Arabia’s production level in 2045. If we assume that level of production could be maintained, it would take until 2070 to produce the 170 billion barrel Athabasca oil sands reserve. At that point, the temperature impact is estimated to be 0.03°C — not even measurable against the background noise.

Of course that’s also looking at the entire Athabasca reserve. Keystone XL’s impact would be a tiny fraction of that. But even if we assume the worst case — that Keystone XL is the only option that will enable the growth of the oil sands and that there will be no other routes out — we get a temperature impact so low that isn’t measurable six decades from now.

The Relative Carbon Dioxide Impacts

Now consider the carbon dioxide impact of oil sands versus coal. Per the US Environmental Protection Agency, consumption of a barrel of oil produces 0.43 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Oil sands are more carbon intensive to extract, adding an additional 17% to the overall carbon footprint of the barrel of oil. So let’s assume that consumption of a barrel of oil sands produces 17% more, or 0.50 metric tons of carbon dioxide per barrel. That means consumption of the 170 billion barrels of Athabasca oil sands could result in an additional 85 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere. For just Keystone XL, over the course of 30 years it would carry oil that would generate 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Make no mistake, that’s a lot. But it’s relatively small given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, hence the small temperature impact.

Now, let’s compare coal. Again, using the same EPA reference, burning a metric ton of coal produces 2.56 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In 2012, the world consumed about 7.6 billion metric tons of coal, which means 19.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide was emitted. At that rate, the world’s coal consumption emits as much carbon dioxide as the entire Athabasca oil sands reserve every 4.4 years — and the global rate has been accelerating. Or, in terms of just Keystone XL, the emissions from 30 years of transported crude is equal to a bit over 2 months of global coal emissions.

In other words, during the past few years, while the Keystone XL protesters were marching on the White House, the world dumped an Athabasca-sized amount of carbon dioxide in the air from just coal. That’s why I say that the Keystone XL is a relatively minor issue. While our attention is focused on that, we are being buried in carbon dioxide from coal — and I am trying to call attention to that.

Rapidly Growing Asia Pacific Demand is the Driver

The primary source of new carbon dioxide emissions is the developing Asia Pacific region, which is where the majority of the world’s coal is consumed.


Asia Pacific is on a trajectory for 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2020

Asia Pacific’s energy consumption is on the rise across the board, and the region consumes nearly 70% of the world’s coal, and that number has been growing rapidly as countries in the region industrialize. To me this is the problem that requires immediate, undivided attention, yet it receives a fraction of the coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Disproportionate Threats

This should demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that Keystone’s XL’s threat — even the threat of the entire Athabasca reserve — is insignificant when placed up against coal. That doesn’t mean Keystone XL is undeserving of any attention, but I view this like a triage situation where the biggest threat should have the biggest focus. Coal can single-handedly obliterate the 2°C warming target agreed to under the Copenhagen Accord. Oil sands can’t. But while environmental groups have been fighting a battle to stop Keystone XL, the world has been losing a war against coal.

Disproportionate Visibility

The only outstanding item is whether Keystone XL does receive the bulk of the attention despite being a minor part of a much bigger problem. Some people vigorously protested my assessment, and suggested that this maligns many efforts going on to reduce coal consumption.

I don’t doubt that. I consider myself to be part of that effort. But how does one quantify this? It’s pretty subjective. But in the media, including in social media where environmental NGOs are very active, discussions of Keystone XL dominate. It is getting the lion’s share of the attention, partially because Keystone’s threat is being so grossly exaggerated. If people were as panicked over coal consumption as they are over Keystone XL, it would be a good start, but it deserves 100 times the attention of Keystone XL. It seems to me that Keystone XL has the laser-focus of environmental groups everywhere in a way that global coal consumption does not.

Rally the Troops for a Skirmish

Others will argue that the Keystone XL is part of a movement that will move on to bigger and better things, or that it is an easy symbol around which to rally forces. To that, I simply say that the clock is ticking. Don’t rally around a minor threat just because it happens to be the battle you think you can win. If you have a threat that can kill you, and one that can hurt you, my immediate concern is for the one that can kill me. Even if I succeed in rallying attention to the one that can hurt me, I may still die in the process.

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