Game Over?

Over the weekend, NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote on his website (my emphasis):

The U.S. Department of State seems likely to approve a huge pipeline 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.

On Tuesday, this NYT story reported that the monster can not be contained:

One way or another “” by rail or ship or a network of pipelines “” Canada will export oil from its vast northern oil sands projects to the United States and other markets.

So the regulatory battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would link the oil sands to the Gulf Coast of the United States, may be little more than a symbolic clash of ideology, industry experts say. Even if the Obama administration rejects the Keystone plan, the pace of oil sands development in northern Alberta is unlikely to slow.

Oil producers in Canada have several alternatives for reaching the United States market. And recent investments by Chinese companies in the oil sands suggest that a growing alternative market lies across the Pacific.

“The Canadian oil sands will continue to be developed irrespective of whether the pipeline goes ahead,” said Russell K. Girling, the president and chief executive of TransCanada, the company behind the $7 billion project.

That is what is known (if I may be permitted to flog a tired phrase one last time) as an inconvenient truth. Roger Pielke Jr., in a recent post,  explains:

The fungibility of global oil supply means that reducing use of a particular source of oil in one place simply means that it will be consumed in another, and oil from elsewhere will have to fill that gap.

Now let’s go back to James Hansen’s weekend plea, where he lays out the climate implications of the tar sands monster (my emphasis):

Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm.  However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize 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.

Still not convinced that tar sands will be thrown into the mix? Michael Klare, in assessing recent energy developments, does some math:

In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year.  According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand.

It’s become increasingly evident that this demand will be met, in part, by unlocking vast reserves of unconventional “heavy oil,” such as Canada’s tar sands.

Game over?

29 Responses to “Game Over?”

  1. charlie says:

    I guess Hansen doesn’t believe in electric cars, either.
    So, really, it all comes down to killing Big Coal.  i wonder why some senators from WV and Wyoming might not like that…

  2. Pascvaks says:

    Game Over?  Yep!  Really, though, it never really got started if you look at what was accomplished.

    “World Calling Thomas Edison, World Calling Thomas Edison, Come In Thomas Edison, We Need Some Help, OVER”

    “Thomas Edison To World, Thomas Edison To World, I’m busy, OUT!”

  3. RickA says:

    Game over?  Not necessarily.
    As long as tar sands oil is cheaper than other energy sources, it will be exploited.
    What is needed is investment in non-carbon energy production (fission, fusion, space based solar, etc.).  If we can invent enough to make non-carbon energy production cheaper than coal, oil, tar sands oil, natural gas, propane, etc., then basic economics will cause the tar sands oil to be left in the sands.
    The idea of eliminating coal, as an energy source, without a non-carbon energy source just as cheap is really a non-starter.
    I wish the Jim Hanson’s of the world would figure that out.
    We really have to invent our way out of this situation – not just pretend we can stop using coal and oil, without an adequate substitute.

  4. Sashka says:

    Currently, the global oil consumption is just under 100 million barrels per day. Suppose the build this pipeline or otherwise enable consumption of another 860,000 barrels per day which would add a whopping 1% to the total. Game over? It’s not even a game changer, Keith. As for Hansen, he needs professional help, I’m afraid.

    While we are on the subject, could someone explain why they prefer investing $7B into pipeline instead of building a refinery locally? Just curious about the economics there.

  5. Marlowe Johnson says:

    The end use for oil is predominantly transportation.  The challenges of decarbonizing the transportation (which are similar around the world) are distinct from the challenges of decarbonizing the electricity system (which vary by region).
    Power plants have useful lifetimes measured that are much, much longer than the useful lifetimes of vehicles. As such technological change to lower carbon energy sources for the transportation sector is much easier (i.e. less lock-in risks) than it is for the utility sector. Personally I think Hansen is being far too pessimistic on this front. Battery storage tech is improving at a fast enough clip that oil consumption will start to drastically come down by 2030-2040 timeframe IMO.
    The pipeline will still ship crude (i.e. unrefined) oil , so whether or not you build a refinery locally is largely irrelevant.

  6. harrywr2 says:

    Sashka Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 11:09 am
    While we are on the subject, could someone explain why they prefer investing $7B into pipeline instead of building a refinery locally?
    They would still need a pipeline to moved the refined product thru major US pipeline hubs, add to that the complexity of US refined products and life gets complicated.  There are summer and winter Denver mixes which are different then summer and winter Chicago mixes etc etc etc.

  7. Sashka says:

    @ 5

    I always admired people who can forecast the rate of technological progress 20-30 years forward. No wonder they know so much about future climate as well.

  8. Dean says:

    game, set, and match.
    The issue is not really the amount carried in one pipeline, but whether the global economy uses these hydrocarbon alternatives fully, whether they become a standard part of the energy mix.

  9. Tom Gray says:

    AGW – Green imperialism from the US and Europe. T

    he US Congress gets to decide whether Canadian oil is extracted and sold. I suppose that the US Congress and the EU rule the world or so some think.

    Perhaps the green imperialists should understand why their pronouncements are resented nd rejected.

  10. Tom Gray says:

    Perhpas Canada should take Hansen’s urgings to heart and immediately cut off all oil shipments to the US. China can take the oil sands so they would probably take the conventional oil as well. Afterall the economy stands fro nothing compared to AGW mitigation

  11. Jeff Norris says:

    @Sashka 7
    Because silence is consent I have to say lighten up.  Marlowe is entitled to her hope and optimism. The issue is should we make economic decisions based mostly or entirely on hope and optimism.

  12. Sashka says:

    @ 11

    Of course Marlowe is entitled. Did I say otherwise? Also, I am entitled to the opinion that CO2 sensitivity is low. Morano is entitled to think that it’s zero. Hansen is entitled to think that the ocean will eventually boil unless we stop CO2 emission.

    What was your point again?

  13. Gaythia says:

    @3  I think we need to define “cheaper” and look at long term and “tragedy of the commons” effects, not just short term profit margins.
    The OPEC countries, especially Saudi Arabia seem to manage to keep the price of oil at “just enough” levels that keep us addicted and maximize their own profits.  And what is the cost of our Middle East military wars and entanglements?
    Massy Coal, seems to discount long term health consequences as exemplified by the Big Branch disaster, subsequent inspection failures, and data showing that even young workers have the markers for black young disease.
    What is the long term expense of building a pipeline for the tar sand oil as opposed to investing in alternative energy and mass transportation?
    We need to be able to promote a long term view.  Obviously this is difficult when there are so many embedded and powerful vested interests for the status quo.  However,  we can’t view eliminating non-carbon sources for energy as  “non starters” until AFTER we have a cheaper alternative.  It can’t happen that way.  We need to invest now, with the expectation of payoffs in the future.

  14. Jeff Norris says:

    My point was I felt you were coming across playing the person more than the ball.  Marlowe brought up battery tech; attack that position, attack where the energy is going to come to charge those super batteries that she expects to be built in 3o years: who or how should  the R & D costs be paid .  Reinforce your question about why refineries are not being built.  Maybe I was wrong and you weren’t throwing an elbow that is just how you came across to me. 
    You agreed when Bart said this:
    “Another rationale for mentioning the big picture amidts one’s criticism could be to as to avoid (as much as possible) that your criticism is extrapolated to mean that you think AGW is bunk.
    A valid reason to my mind, though admittedly it is also a consequence of the dynamics of the debate, where people love to take what you say out of context as if it supports theior narrative.”
    I took this to heart.  Again I maybe reading too much into your comment or ignorant of what you are trying to say.  I guess I want to encourage  the intelligent discussion of ideas even with ideas I don’t agree with.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    you’re right; this is one area where I’m uncharacteristically optimistic 🙂

  16. Sashka says:

    @ Jeff

    Surely I admit to giving Marlowe an elbow but I’m not particularly sorry about it. I did mean to attack the ridiculous position that future is predictable or foreseeable. There were oh so many failed forecasts but I can’t think of too many successes. Especially when it comes to energy the progress is known to be slow, painful or nonexistent. For example, in 70-s the scientists believed that in 20 years they’ll build an industrial fusion reactor based on TOKAMAK design. We all know now how it actually went. Hubris out of control …

  17. RickA says:

    Gaythia Says @ 13: 
    June 8th, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    “However,  we can’t view eliminating non-carbon sources for energy as  “non starters” until AFTER we have a cheaper alternative. ”

    I guess my point is that IF we could find a non-carbon energy source which was cheaper, the switching process would happen on its own.

    Otherwise, we are trying to push something uphill, and will encounter resistance.

    There is always resistance to artifically making something more expensive than it needs to be – so people would (IMO) resist tacking on a $4.00 per gallon gas tax, or even a 50 cents per kWH electricity tax (on carbon based energy).

    Why not invest in finding ways to produce non-carbon energy which is actually cheaper than coal and oil.

    Just think of the amount of lobbying money which would be “saved”.

    By the way, good point about properly assessing the cost of various forms of energy.  Although it can be hard to attribute some war costs to oil.  How much of Iraq is about oil?  Is any of Afghanistan about oil?  Is Libya about oil?  I am sure some people will say 100% of war is about oil, but I am personally don’t believe that.

  18. […] Such options include the inevitable expansion of Canada’s own tar/oil sands (Keith Kloor has nicely knitted several views of this option), ever more coal production and the global push to tap greatly expanded reserves of natural […]

  19. David Palmer says:

    Basically yes, short of a major and lingering world depression.
    The reason: the inability of renewables to supply low cost base load energy leaves fossil fuels supplemented by hydro and nuclear as the only real deal.

  20. harrywr2 says:

    Gaythia Says:

    The OPEC countries, especially Saudi Arabia seem to manage to keep the price of oil at “just enough” levels that keep us addicted and maximize their own profits.
    In 1976 the Average weight of a US car was 4,000 pounds and global oil prices were skyrocketing…then we trimmed down for a while and it wasn’t until 2004 that the average weight once again reached 4,000 lbs.

  21. NewYorkJ says:

    Coal usage has dropped notably in the United States, in part due to energy efficiency and move towards wind power and lower carbon natural gas, both related to state and national-level actions (lawsuits stopping coal plants, renewable energy incentives, etc.).  Coal isn’t much cheaper than wind energy, and transportation improvements (hybrids, plug-ins, all-electric) are just beginning to be rolled out.  Moreover, there’s a realization that fossil fuels have great external costs that make them more expensive than alternatives

    So while I have cautious optimism, politics doesn’t always work for the greater good, and such external costs are often not factored into the cost of fossil fuels.  It only takes a bit of unchallenged lobbyist money to sweep them under the rug. 

    I’ve read Hansen’s views on the tar sands, and it’s game over if all of them are exploited, although the building of the pipeline isn’t the end.  Rather than sitting around on a blog and claiming it’s all inevitable (something the pro-polluters want you to believe), let’s focus on Hansen’s call for action, similar calls that have stopped U.S. fossil fuel projects in their tracks.
    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. Brief pointed comments may be just as well as longer statements.

  22. kdk33 says:

    Game over? 

    Shale gas is a game changer – a 70 yard run to go 2-scores up with 40 seconds to play.  Tar sands, is… a first down.

  23. DeNihilist says:

    Keith, here is THE reason why the pipiline should/will go ahead.

    PS – the resource is actually OIL sands. The Tar name is a green activist attempt to make this resource seem dirty.

  24. Howard says:

    Anyone against this pipeline directly supports the financial security of Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.  The oil deniers therefore desire more 911-style attacks.
    This inflammatory diatribe is a half joke that mimics the tactics of CAGW disaster porn peddlers.

  25. EdG says:

    While Canada’s Athabasca oil sands are the focus here, in terms of ‘game over’ Venezuela has similar deposits to be tapped. Rather more complicated for the US but there for China.

    In the meantime, Hansen states: “if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize climate.”

    Hansen has clearly become a zealous missionary, with predictable impacts on his ‘scientific’ work and pseudoscientific pronouncements. This one is particularly out of touch with reality. 

  26. Not ’til the fat lady sings. But given that there’s only one team on the field we are losing pretty badly.

  27. Pascvaks says:

    One great characteristic of the last century was “Innovation”, this century seems to like “Unnovation”.  Go figure.  When scholars focus on anything “game changing” in fine detail and over a long timeframe, war is in the offing (cold or hot, matters not).  Aren’t people fun to watch?  You just can’t guess what they’re going to do next.  But you can just about be certain that a big fight is coming.  They love to fight.

  28. By “Game Over” Dr. Hansen means that civilization collapses in the 2050s under BAU [Business As Usual].   “Game Over” means that when you go to the grocery store some time in the 2050s, there will be no food there.   You will die of starvation.   The human population will collapse to .01% or less of its present size.

  29. kdk33 says:

    Looks like the fat lady is warming up & getting’ all ready to go.  We just need to clear the stage:

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