Monday June 13th 2011


James Hansen slams Keystone XL Canada-U.S. Pipeline: “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts”

X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel.

The Canadian tar sands are substantially dirtier than conventional oil as the chart above shows (longer analysis here).  They may contain enough carbon-intensive fuel to make stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at non-catastrophic levels all but impossible.

And that is the point of Dr. James Hansen in a must-read essay on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to bring that dirty fuel into this country, “Silence Is Deadly: I’m Speaking Out Against Canada-U.S. Tar Sands Pipeline.”

Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been right longer about the climate than just about anyone else (see “Right for 27 years: 1981 Hansen study finds warming trend that could raise sea levels“).  So he deserves to be heard.

Here is his essay, to which I’ve added some commentary with links:

The U.S. Department of State seems likely to approve a huge pipeline, known as Keystone XL to carry tar sands oil (about 830,000 barrels per day) to Texas refineries unless sufficient objections are raised. The scientific community needs to get involved in this fray now. If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster. The environmental impacts of tar sands development include: irreversible effects on biodiversity and the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and Caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities. Although there are multiple objections to tar sands development and the pipeline, including destruction of the environment in Canada, and the likelihood of spills along the pipeline’s pathway, such objections, by themselves, are very unlikely to stop the project.

For more on the pipeline controversy, see “WikiLeaks reveals State Department discord over U.S. support for Canadian tar sands oil pipeline.”

An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.

Governments are acting as if they are oblivious to the fact that there is a limit on how much fossil fuel carbon we can put into the air. Fossil fuel carbon injected into the atmosphere will stay in surface reservoirs for millennia. We can extract a fraction of the excess CO2 via improved agricultural and forestry practices, but we cannot get back to a safe CO2 level if all coal is used without carbon capture or if unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands are exploited.

A document describing the pipeline project is available here. Comments, due by 6 June, can be submitted here, or by e–mail to or mail to Keystone XL EIS Project, P.O. Box 96503–98500, Washington, DC 20090–6503 or fax to 202–269–0098.

I am submitting a comment that the analysis is flawed and insufficient, failing to account for important information regarding human–made climate change that is now available. I note that prior government targets for limiting human–made global warming are now known to be inadequate. Specifically, the target to limit global warming to 2oC, rather than being a safe “guardrail,” is actually a recipe for global climate disasters. I will include drafts of the following papers that I recently co–authored:

Paleoclimate Implications for Human–Made Climate Change that can be found here,
Earth’s Energy Imbalance that can be found here, and
The Case for Young People and Nature that can be found here.

My general audience discussion of Hansen’s first paper is “Must-read Hansen and Sato paper: We are at a climate tipping point that, once crossed, enables multi-meter sea level rise this century.”

I will also comment that the tar sands pipeline project does not serve the national interest, because it will result in large adverse impacts, on the public and wildlife, by contributing substantially to climate change. These impacts must be evaluated before the project is considered further.

It is my impression and understanding that a large number of objections could have an effect and help achieve a more careful evaluation, possibly averting a huge mistake.

Hear!  Hear!

I’m just sorry he didn’t post earlier, to inspire more people to submit by the Monday deadline.

It is worth noting that the existing part of the pipeline system doesn’t even seem like a good idea for non-climatic environmental reasons, as the Christian science Monitor reported Saturday:

A controversial oil-sands pipeline operated by a Canadian oil company was ordered shut down Friday by the US Department of Transportation on charges that its continued operation “would be hazardous to lives, property, and the environment.”

TransCanada, a leading North American pipeline operator, started operation of Keystone I, a 36-inch pipeline system, in June 2010, making it possible to deliver Canadian oil to markets across Midwest farmland in several states, from the Dakotas through Illinois.

The company wants to expand the system so that it snakes from the Canadian province of Alberta, taking oil southeast through Oklahoma and eventually into refineries located in Nederland, Tex., along the Gulf Coast.

The Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands posted a scathing pastoral letter in 2009 – see Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production.

It’s times like these that I remember how much I miss my friend and colleague Alex Farrell, the passionate analyst.  He did the best analysis of the climate risks of unconventional oil I know of, “Risks of the oil transition” and is the source of the outstanding figure at the top.  He would no doubt be standing side to side with Hansen on this.

Everyone who cares about preserving a livable climate for future generations should join Hansen in opposing tar sands development and this pipeline.

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This article was originally posted on Climate Progress