The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer

Consider this my atonement for not making it to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington this past Sunday. My self-serving defense was a conveniently scheduled family get together. (And how often are family events conveniently scheduled?) My admiration and thanks go to the 40,000 or so who braved the biting cold.

Excuses aside, I was there in mind if not body. The pipeline and the tar sands production it would help enable are just a thoroughly bad idea. They make no sense from any perspective, except perhaps for the few people (and I guess corporations now get included in that category) who would profit from them. Many have written about this, but I think a summarized categorical break down is worthwhile.


Like all post-peak fossil fuels, the tar sands have a diminishing EROEI or Energy Return On Energy Invested. In other words, as fuels become scarcer, it takes increasing amounts of energy (and money, see below) to get energy out of them. EROEI is the after-the-fact problem discovered with ethanol from corn as a fuel; it takes a lot of energy to grow and convert the corn into ethanol.

The oil in the tar sands is in what’s called an “unconventional form.” It’s a very thick slurry, a tar, called bitumen. You may know bitumen as that pungent black stuff that’s heated and spread on roofs. Making usable oil out of the semi-solid tar is an energy intense process, rendering the resulting energy far less productive.

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing


Directly related to the above, energy from tar sands costs more than many other types of energy. Why then, you ask, is it financially attractive to business? The short answer is that the deck is stacked. The combination of perverse tax incentives (incentives, usually supported by special interests, which work against the public and/or government’s interest) and the market’s failure to include true costs create the illusion of cost competitiveness.


The common rationale here is the expanding tar sands oil production will reduce dependence on Middle East oil sources. But because US oil demand is already diminishing due to higher fuel efficiency standards and the recession, most of the tar sands oil will end up being exported.

exporting tar sands oil


The Canadian tar sands are located under the Boreal forest, according to Treehugger “one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet.” The open pit mining process utterly obliterates any ecosystem that has the misfortune to have resided above it.

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

In addition to the energy required, it takes vast amounts of water to extract oil from tar sands, causing both water depletion and pollution.

Most damningly, the extraction process has “three times the global warming pollution of conventional crude production.” Releasing the carbon imbedded in the tar sands, accompanied by the burning of fuel to extract it, would push the CO2 levels in the atmosphere past the tipping point, constituting “game over” for the climate in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

So even if oil from tar sands was truly economically viable – which it isn’t – it would be a huge and irreversible environmental mistake to use it.


An oft-used rationale for the pipeline is that Canada is going to utilize the tar sands regardless of whether the US allows building the means to transport it by pipe down to the Gulf of Mexico refineries. Perhaps, but there is no reason we should enable them to do so. And by no means all of Canada supports tar sands production; our sending such a message may encourage Canadian opposition.

Furthermore, KC Golden writes at Grist “It’s a statement of principle for climate action….It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.”

OK, so….

You may ask: where’s the EcoOptimism aspect here? Since all we get from tar sands oil is a delay in the upcoming end of oil age, accompanied by the potentially disastrous (in the truest sense of the word) increase in climate disruption, wouldn’t it make a helluva lot more sense to take the government and commercial investments and place them in energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy? (You know, the ones like solar and wind that both don’t run out and don’t screw up the climate we depend on.) The Return on Investment for these holds much higher promise, and that’s before we start to include the avoided costs of rising sea levels. It should, in short, be a no-brainer.

In fact, Joe Nocera wrote “this should be a no-brainer for the president” in today’s Times. Unfortunately, however, he was referring to supporting the pipeline, and the fact that he was unable to sway the “boneheaded” (his word) opinion of James Hansen in a conversation they just had.

I’d prefer to refrain from such descriptions, but if there is boneheadedness to be found, it is in Nocera’s contorted logic, which ranges from fatalist statements such as “Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future” to writing off the idea that a carbon fee could reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent within 10 years with a mere “well, maybe.”

Kind of makes you wonder about the meaning of “no-brainer.”



5 thoughts on “The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer

  1. Josh Harrison

    Good post – Boneheaded is the kindest term you can call Joe Nocera. His column was a remarkable salad of arrogance, condescension and ignorance. Not to mention his curious assertion that an energy tax on carbon would increase the desirability of tar sands oil by somehow making it cheaper? This from someone who considers himself a hard-headed no nonsense Business Columnist? So, here’s my question: how do you effectively respond to this kind of propaganda? A strongly worded letter from the internets doesn’t feel enough…

  2. Lloyd Alter

    I am sorry, but it is not a no-brainer. I cannot write this for my day job, but we cannot solve this problem by limiting supply, we have to do it by going after demand. Stopping the Keystone does nothing but send the oil west or east, and cutting the profits of the huge companies that run the tar sands by a little bit until they find the alternative routes. 50,000 people put the president on the spot for what is a sham; there is still going to be a pipe to get all that oil out of the North Dakota fields just south of the Canadian border and they have the same issues as the tar sands do- how to get their fracked gooey oil to market.

    Keystone was a target because it put Obama on the spot: there was no congress to deal with, it is his decision. So now he has to alienate either the environmentalists or the midwest states, for no good reason at all because it makes no difference at all, the tar sands are not going away.

    The tar sands are a problem for so many reasons. My country has become addicted to the income from them and it has distorted our economy. It is dirtier than other fossil fuel sources.

    But this Keystone campaign has diverted the green movement from actually promoting real change, is putting the President on a serious hotplate, and will change absolutely nothing.

    1. David Bergman Post author

      I’m not suggesting we can approach this by limiting supply — I agree with you there. That would be a totally undesirable approach that would backfire in many ways.

      What I am suggesting is that we diminish demand through increased energy efficiency and other means while correcting the false pricing of carbon-based energy. In other words, “real change.” Allowing the construction of the pipeline, which would be made affordable in part by perverse subsidies and corporate tax policies, continues the subsidizing of fossil fuels, which in turn makes renewable energy relatively more expensive.

      It would be vastly preferable to accompany this with carbon fees (with a rebate dividend program) — in fact, carbon fees would likely make the tar sands infeasible — but that is not looking politically feasible at the moment and we have to start somewhere.

      Obama needs to be put on a hotplate. He’s been far too indecisive in following up on his speeches.

      (ps — why can’t you write this for your day job?)

      1. Lloyd Alter

        Because it is an unpopular view and I am a Canadian writing in an American publication, which is probably biasing me.


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