Keystone XL’s Emissions Versus Coal-Fired Power

Another Courageous Punt

I hadn’t planned to write yet another Keystone XL pipeline article, but I have gotten a lot of questions since the recent announcement by the Obama administration that they are still unable to make a decision on the project. I agree with the Washington Post’s assessment of the situation, that this is now into absurd territory.

At this point I don’t think the project will be approved by this Administration, although it could be approved by the next. I think this is a simple political calculation by President Obama, that by foot-dragging and delaying he is keeping his environmentalist allies at bay, but without all of the political fallout around Democratic Keystone XL supporters should he simply reject the pipeline.

This is one reason I would make a terrible president. I can’t play games like this. You make a decision. It can go one of two ways. You can say “I am going to make a stand along with my environmentalist allies who voted me into office and reject a continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.” That would be a courageous stand, albeit one more steeped in symbolism than in measurable climate impact. More on that below.

Or, the decision could be “We have run the numbers, and our own State Department says there won’t be a significant impact on climate if Keystone XL is built. Further, it will back out Venezuelan crude from Gulf Coast refineries in favor of a friendly supply to the north.” That would also be a courageous stand, as it would force President Obama to say “I am making a decision that you won’t like” to one of his major constituencies.

Instead, we have been treated to endless foot-dragging. I think the end game for the President is to try to run out the clock on the project. The longer the project is delayed, the less likely it is to be built. Alternatives to Keystone XL will continue to emerge. At some point, TransCanada (backer of the pipeline) may simply conclude that the need is no longer there and scrap their plans. That way, environmentalists could declare victory, Obama would save a little bit of face with Democrats who favor the pipeline, but likely lost in the shuffle would be the fact that the oil just found other routes to market.

It’s All Relative

My argument on the pipeline has always been that it ultimately makes no difference, as far as the climate impact goes, whether the pipeline is built. People like to talk about the emissions, but plug those emissions numbers into the climate models. Determine by how many degrees the emissions will affect the climate, and over what time span. Opponents don’t talk about this, because the results would be embarrassing. You would literally find that there is not a measurable impact over any time frame you could measure — unless you make some really outrageous assumptions (like all of the oil sands in place suddenly being released into the atmosphere).

But what about the millions of tons of carbon dioxide that will be emitted by the oil carried by the pipeline? Isn’t that significant? It’s all relative. Is a billion a significant number? It depends on context. A billion molecules of water is only enough to make about a billionth of a drop of water. We can add or remove a billion molecules of water from the ocean every day and there will never be a measurable impact. A billion is insignificant in this context.

This is the reason Keystone’s climate impact is insignificant. It doesn’t matter if it “sounds” like a big number. It doesn’t make a difference, because it’s like a drop of water in an ocean. It’s an emotional argument full of symbolism. I have been told many times that I am tone deaf when it comes to such arguments, but that’s sort of what it’s like to be an engineer. Show me the numbers. Calculate the impact in both cases (built or not built). That way informed decisions are made. I don’t like warm and fuzzy arguments, I like to try to quantify them and make them objective.

I have always contended that the global coal resource is a far greater threat to the climate. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that I think we should just forget about everything but efforts to reduce coal consumption. No, that’s not what I mean. But what I do mean is that the level of effort should be proportional to the threat. I think public awareness about the relative threat of coal relative to Keystone XL is grossly out of proportion. So you have this high profile campaign to stop Keystone XL, while 1200 coal-fired power plants are under development in developing countries. What I am trying to do is bring more awareness to the coal issue.

How Keystone XL’s Emissions Stack Up Against Coal’s

This brings me, finally, to the title of the article. I was recently asked how the emissions from Keystone XL rank relative to the emissions of these coal-fired power plants that are being planned. I had done some back of the envelope calculations to estimate this, but here I will apply a bit more rigor and document it so we can have all assumptions on record, and have an answer that can give some confidence.

According to the World Resources Institute, there are 1,199 coal-fired power plants that are currently being proposed globally, with 76 percent of them in China and India. Some are like Keystone XL and are awaiting approval, while others are under construction. The total capacity of these plants is 1,401,278 megawatts (MW), which means the average size of these plants is 1,169 MW, or 1.169 gigawatts (GW).

So how does one of these coal-fired plants compare to Keystone XL? It depends on the assumptions you make for Keystone XL. The pipeline is designed to carry up to 830,000 barrels per day (bpd), of which 730,000 bpd of capacity is reserved for oil sands. The other 100,000 bpd of capacity would be reserved for crude oil coming out of the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.

It isn’t realistic to assume that failure to build this pipeline would result in 830,000 bpd of crude not being produced. Rather, the incremental cost to ship that oil would increase, Gulf Coast refineries would continue to rely on Venezuelan heavy oil, and there may be some delays in oil sands development as alternative logistical routes are developed.

Might failure to build the pipeline ultimately translate to keeping 50,000 bpd of oil off the market? Possibly. But let’s determine the emissions from 830,000 bpd just to get our hands around how much this is. Per the EPA (and they show the calculations), there are 0.43 metric tons of CO2 emitted per barrel of oil consumed. Thus, each day the Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil that would ultimately result in 830,000 bpd * 0.43 = 356,900 tons of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere. For reference, in 2012 global carbon dioxide emissions were 94.4 million metric tons a day, or about 265 times the amount that would result from burning 830,000 bpd of oil. (I actually thought it would be higher than 265 times). This means Keystone would transport oil that would contribute 0.4% of global carbon emissions.

Also according to the EPA, the average emission rates in the United States from coal-fired generation are 2,249 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh). If we assume that the new plants being built will achieve the average for US plants — and whether it’s a bit more or a bit less, it will be in the ballpark — we can estimate the emissions. (I am not certain how this calculation will turn out; I haven’t done it rigorously).

The average coal-fired power plant with a capacity of 1,169 MW can produce 1,169 MW*24 hours = 28,056 MWh of electricity per day. This in turn will produce 28,056 MWh * 2,249 lbs CO2 = 63.1 million lbs of CO2 per day, which is equal to 28,616 metric tons.

An easier way to think about it is that each day the Keystone XL would transport oil that will produce the carbon emissions of (356,900/28,616) = 12.5 coal-fired power plants. Another comparison is that the coal-fired power plants in various stages of planning are equivalent to (1,199/12.5) = the oil carried by 96 Keystone XL pipelines.

For these calculations, there are a number of caveats. I didn’t factor in the energy required to produce the oil sands, but then I also didn’t consider that for the coal. Probably more is required for oil sands production, but it’s small relative to the actual carbon dioxide emitted in the combustion of the fuel. Per the earlier EPA link, transmission and distribution losses for electricity average 7.2 percent, which is also comparable to the energy required to refine oil and move it to market. Again, we are talking about a few percent difference at most, so the comparison is definitely in the right ballpark. Note that we are also assuming 100% full capacity for the pipeline and the coal-fired power plants.

If I am critiquing myself here, I would ask “But wouldn’t it be significant to shut down 12.5 coal-fired power plants?” Indeed, when put in that context the comparison is more significant. It still doesn’t change the overall climate impact, nor the fact that world’s current overall emissions from coal are huge in comparison. As I previously calculated, the world emits enough carbon dioxide every four years that it would be equivalent to what would be emitted from the entire Athabasca oil sands reserve.

But the final caveat is the most important. If Keystone XL doesn’t get built, that’s not going to keep 830,000 bpd of oil off the market. Let’s say, hypothetically, it kept (830,000 bpd/12.5) = 66,400 bpd off the market. In that case, this is equivalent to the daily amount emitted by the average coal-fired power plant that is being planned.

Conclusions: Keystone XL = 12.5 Coal-Fired Power Plants — or Maybe Just 1

I have made the comparison previously that the world is building 1,200 Keystone XL equivalents with all of those planned coal-fired power plants. This comes down to the assumptions you make. If you assume “no Keystone XL” keeps 830,000 bpd off the market, then the world is “only” planning 96 Keystone XL pipeline equivalents with those coal-fired power plants. If you assume that “no Keystone XL” will keep 50-60,000 bpd off the market, then indeed the world is building the coal-equivalent of more than 1,200 Keystone XL pipelines.

Either way, at least now we have some sort of relative comparison, which depends on the assumptions we make. Feel free to critique my calculations and assumptions.

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