Protecting a Drowning Man from Sunburn

Later this week I intend to start a series covering the recently released BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013. However, first I want to follow up on last week’s post The Increasing Irrelevance of the Keystone XL Debate. With few exceptions, the post was well-received by people on both sides of the debate. There was some reasonable debate on the post on my Twitter feed, and much less rancor. I think only one person accused me of being an “enemy combatant” while most recognized that I am sincerely trying to shine a light on a problem that I see as orders of magnitude worse than Keystone XL.

The primary objection to my argument over the irrelevancy of Keystone XL is the same one that has been voiced in the past. It is that the Keystone XL project itself may be relatively insignificant, but add up many Keystone XL projects and you get a big effect. The only problem is that this really isn’t even true.

In last week’s article I referenced 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. That paper contained a graphic that I shared on Twitter, and it got quite a bit of commentary. The graphic shows the relative potential warming contributions of various fossil fuel resources:


Note that the vertical red line on the left represents the limit of how much more carbon dioxide could be emitted before the models indicate that we would reach 2.0°C warming from pre-industrial times. Even if you added up all the world’s conventional and unconventional oil — which would take more than a century to extract and burn — you still don’t quite reach the limit. Of course the counterargument is that these are still contributors, which along with gas and coal can easily push us right past the limit.

True, but look at the relative contributors to the global resource base. Note that the bottom contributor is all of the oil-in-place (OIP) in the Alberta oil sands. It will never be technically or economically possible to extract all of the oil in place. No oil field is ever completely extracted, and oil sands are especially challenging. The actual reserve — that is the part that is economically viable to extract — is only 9.4% of the OIP. That is represented by a barely visible pink line on the unconventional oil bar. Keystone XL is a much smaller subset of that. If we assume that Keystone XL transports the full 830,000 bpd for 30 years, that amounts to only 5% of the tiny pink line representing the reserve, or 0.5% of the OIP line at the bottom.

Now, look again at the line for coal. Note the amount of rationalizing Keystone XL opponents have to do in order to make Keystone’s contribution sound meaningful. There is lots of extrapolating, and emphasis on the potential for burning all of Alberta’s oil sands. Yet all of the extrapolating in the world doesn’t take away from the fact that oil — over the course of the next century or more — will make a relatively insignificant contribution to the global climate. Coal on the other hand can easily obliterate that 2.0°C warming target.

Readers know that I am fond of analogies. I know that by nature they aren’t perfect, but good analogies can help boil complex issues down to simple terms. So let me offer up this one. I live in Hawaii. The tropical sun can be brutal. Spending too much time in the sun without protection will cause severe burns, and it can lead to skin cancer over time. But if I came upon a man who is drowning, I wouldn’t spend my time trying to apply sunscreen because I am worried about the possible sunburn that might eventually kill him from skin cancer in 30 years. I would try to save his life right now. That’s where you focus your resources. You can rationalize that the sunburn is hazardous too, but that’s not going to matter much if the guy drowns.

This is the way I see these Keystone XL protests. You are applying sunscreen to a drowning man. As you rationalize how important this sunscreen could possibly turn out to be (and how it might attract the attention of someone who can save him), time is working against you and the person continues to drown. By the time you finish applying the sunscreen, you may have a well-protected corpse. The sunscreen won’t matter after all if the most pressing focus is not on the most immediate threat.

Now this should not be confused with an argument that we need Keystone XL, because that’s not what it is. Again, I just think Keystone XL is irrelevant either way in the big picture. Personally, I hope we kill off demand to the point that we don’t need Keystone XL’s oil. In fact, my focus is on supply-side solutions, because I don’t think you can just cut off supplies when the demand is high. There are too many other ways for oil to get to market, and as we saw in last weekend’s deadly train derailment of crude oil in Quebec, some of those ways are less safe. I have warned many times about such unintended consequences, which are generally met with rationalizations that rail is simply not an option that could replace Keystone XL.

But even if we pretend that rail can’t facilitate the continued development of the oil sands, look at that graph once more and ask why the focus isn’t on saving the drowning man. I understand you may not feel you know how to help the drowning man, and you might have easy access to sunscreen — but you better find someone in a hurry who can extract him from the water or none of that will matter. Once the guy drowns, nobody is going to care that he is covered in sunscreen.

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