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How Severe an Impact Would the Keystone XL Pipeline have on the Environment?

How Severe an Impact Would the Keystone XL Pipeline have on the Environment?

Last month, a group of 15 climate scientists (included the now disgraced Peter Gleick) sent a letter to Congress expressing their displeasure over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. President Obama has weighed in against approval, but Congress wants a green light to allow construction of the 1,700-mile, $7 billion project. Most recently, Bill Clinton weighed in for the pipeline, indicating just how deep the positives of the project are for the U.S. and world oil market.

So why are physical scientists getting political about a market-friendly pipeline to deliver oil from the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to various refinery locations in the Midwestern U.S. and ultimately the Gulf Coast?

The letter (reprinted at the end of this post) states that in addition to the local environmental impacts of oil sand mining (see here and here for a first-person account from Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey of the operation), burning such oil “on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.”

The 15 climate scientists added:

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

What Is the Climate Impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

As a climate scientist myself, I can profess to knowing the same thing that the 15 signatories know about what the impact that carbon contained in fossil fuel reserves will have on the climate. And I can (as can they) calculate how much of an effect the Keystone XL pipeline will probably have on global temperatures. For some reason (hmm?) the 15 climate scientists chose not to include that information in their letter to Congress.

But here it is: The rise in global temperatures resulting from extracting and burning the oil delivered by Keystone XL at full capacity is about 0.0001°C/yr.

Keystone XL by the Numbers

The Keystone XL Pipeline was to deliver about 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to U.S. refineries.

Various estimates have been made of the total carbon dioxide associated with producing and burning a Keystone XL-delivered barrel of oil (or the products derived therefrom, such as gasoline) for energy, and they generally arrive at a number somewhere around 0.62 tons of CO2 per barrel (see here for a derivation of that number).

Multiplying the amount of CO2 per barrel with a production of 800,000 barrels a day, 365 days a year, gets you an annual total CO2 emitted to the atmosphere from oil delivered by the Keystone XL Pipeline of 181 million metric tons.

How much “global warming” does that get you?

In a previous Master Resource article, I calculated, based on observations of CO2 emissions and temperature changes during the past 50 years, that it takes about 1,767,250 million metric tons of CO2 emissions to raise the global temperature 1°C.

In fact, I think I suggested that everyone should jot this number down and pin it to a convenient place for ready reference next time someone was throwing around CO2 emissions reductions expected to result from some regulation.

In this case, instead of using it to calculate the “savings” in global temperature rise from some perspective emissions control regulation, we can use it to calculate how much additional global warming that the oil flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline will produce when burned.

To do so, we take 181 mmtCO2/yr and divide it by 1,767,250 mmtCO2/°C. And we get 0.0001°C/yr, that is, one ten thousandths of a degree Celsius of temperature rise from the Canadian tar sands oil delivered by the Keystone XL pipeline each year.

Obviously, the climate scientists who wrote to Congress must have other concerns than the inconsequential and undetectable global climate change that would directly result from the Keystone XL-delivered oil.

The Camel’s Nose

When it comes to global climate impacts, the Keystone XL pipeline itself has virtually none.
What the climate scientists who wrote the letter to Congress are really worried about is not the Keystone XL pipeline in particular, but what it means for tar sands development in general.

Their fear is that once the tar-sands oil becomes readily available—with the Keystone XL setting a prime example—then the development of the tar sands region of Alberta will happen rapidly and the flow of oil from the region will multiply.

In total, it is estimated that the Alberta tar sands deposit contains about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil. If all that were extracted and burned to create energy for human civilization, it would deliver about 1,047,200 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, producing (via a similar calculation as above), 0.59°C of warming in total.

Another estimate of the climate impact of the total Alberta tar sands oil was recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria in British Columbia (Weaver was also a Lead Author of the “Global Climate Change” chapter of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report). Swart and Weaver only considered the direct CO2 from the use of the oil rather than the additional (and less certain) emissions from extraction and refinement operations (as was included in my analysis) and they also used a lower number than I did for the expected temperature change from a set amount of CO2 emissions. They calculated that the Alberta tar sands had the potential to raise global temperatures by about 0.36°C—a value a bit more than half of my number.

But either way, if you are in favour of trying to keep the global average temperature within 2°C of its pre-industrial value, it isn’t hard to see why an additional 0.59°C (or 0.36°C) of warming would be a big deal (especially considering that the earth has already warmed up about 0.7-0.8°C since the pre-industrial times, not to mention continued warming from CO2 emissions from non-Alberta-oil-sands fossil fuels).

And so the 15 climate scientists writing to Congress want to keep all the tar-sands carbon in the ground, and not risk the Keystone XL pipeline being the camel’s nose under the tent, despite the lack of direct climate impact from the pipeline’s oil itself.

The Future

Most observers of the situation think it incredibly naïve to think that even if the Keystone XL pipeline never comes to pass and all the Alberta tar-sands carbon stays in the ground, that the Canadian carbon won’t simply be replaced by carbon taken out of the ground somewhere else to meet humanity’s growing demand for energy. Or, if the U.S. is not a market for the Canadian tar-sands oil, someone else (hint: China) may very well be and so the Canadian carbon will be mined and released anyway.

It is interesting to me, that even in this time when it is en vogue to be “saving the planet” by seeking the mitigation of climate change through the limitation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that the big new energy sources that are being “discovered” and exploited are primarily the result of technological advances in producing fossil fuels (e.g., tar sands, shale gas) rather than in renewable energy sources.

Which goes to show the strength of the market, not to mention the silent majority who power it by wanting plentiful and reliable energy, with which they not only can deal with any climate changes, but also much more importantly, improve their standard of living.

A New Strategy?

The 15 climate scientists and their supporters are swimming against the tide by trying to slow down the market expansion of the world’s energy supply. They ought to change their strategy from one focused on playing defense to one focused on offense.


Instead of trying to force change by limiting the expansion of certain types of fuels—a strategy in which they risk being rolled over if alternative energy methods are not developed in time to keep up with demand—they should lend their support to the development of the new energy technologies to provide plentiful and reliable energyand which can outcompete fossil fuels.

To me success is better gained through offering a better product, rather than outlawing an existing one—especially when the existing one is the primary fuel being used to power the world.

Letter to Congress

Feb 13, 2012

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell, and Representatives Boehner and Pelosi,
We are researchers at work on the science of climate change and allied fields. Last summer, we called on President Obama to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s tar sands. We were gratified to see that he did so, and since some in Congress are seeking to revive this plan, we wanted to restate the case against it.

The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, one that it does not make sense to exploit. It takes a lot of energy and water to extract and refine this resource into useable fuel, and the mining is environmentally destructive. Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control. It makes no sense to build a pipeline that would dramatically increase exploitation of this resource.

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

We can say categorically that this pipeline is not in the nation’s, or the planet’s best interest.


James Hansen, Research Scientist, The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
John Abraham, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, University of St. Thomas
Jason Box, Associate Professor, Department of Geography Atmospheric Sciences Program, Researcher at Byrd Polar Research Center, The Ohio State University
Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security
Richard A. Houghton, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center
Ralph Keeling, Director, Scripps CO2 Program Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs Climate Institute
Michael E. Mann, Professor of Meteorology Director, Earth System Science Center, The Pennsylvania State University
James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University
Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences, Princeton University
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences, The University of Chicago
Steve Running, Professor of Ecology, Director of Numerical Terradynamics Simulation Group, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana
Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
George M. Woodwell, Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center

By.  Chip Knappenberger

This article was provided by MasterResource

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Leave a comment
  • J.A on March 06 2012 said:
    The oil companies are not responsible enough to be trusted with the Keystone pipeline. They have proven that.

    Keystone would go across the aquafer that has the source of water for many.

    They may have moved the area where they want to place the pipeline recently, but you still can't depend on them to be responsible.
  • P Gan on March 06 2012 said:
    I understand that Canada's efforts to build a pipeline to their West Coast is running into more determined opposition from Canada's First Nations.

    Why are the environmentalists not trying to stop the extraction of the oil sands with the Canadian oil company and government directly.

    Is the US an easier patsy than Canada's First Nations, the Canadian Government and oil company?

    The US should refuse to be a pawn in this whole game, where it is such a small player in this whole process.
  • Waterdog on March 06 2012 said:
    In Nebraska and I can tell you nobody gave a rats butt about carbon, it is about putting the Ogallala Aquafier at risk. Who can trust the old carbon oil boys after the Gulf disaster?
  • Mel Tisdale on March 07 2012 said:
    "In Nebraska and I can tell you nobody gave a rats butt about carbon"

    Thanks P Gan! Please do let me know if I can do anything to put your children and grandchildren in peril. The exhortation "Do unto others as thy would be done by" seems to have been forgotten by most Americans. Strange how they all pretend to be Christian. Still, as the saying goes: "Actions speak louder than words."
  • brian on March 21 2012 said:
    I always think that history usually gives us our best insight into what may happen. Most people dont know that there was a major Tar Sands spill in the USA 2 years ago which got many people very sick and also has proven impossible to clean from the river, plus the cost is over 10x normal oil clean ups. when the spill happened they thought it would take a month, it has been over 2 years. keeping that in mind there are still mixed opinions on the topic. here is some more detail on both...well worth the read
  • Gillian on March 22 2012 said:
    Gleick's science is not disputed. And while half the world might call him 'disgraced' the other half considers him a hero.

    How about a bit more balance?

Leave a comment

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