Canada is Center of Climate Debate

Obama's Crucial Decision

Ken Silverstein | Aug 30, 2011



Canada is now at the epicenter over the battle to reduce carbon emissions. At issue are the plentiful tar sands that could help feed this nation’s oil appetite as well as the required 1,700 mile pipeline that would wend its way down while stopping in refineries in Texas. 


But should this be where the green community draws its line in the sand? Its key arguments are that the production process is so energy intensive that if completed it would not only add significantly to carbon levels but also that it would increase oil dependence and stall the electric car. The reality is, however, that this oil resource will get developed and it will eventually get transported -- and consumed by the Asian countries instead of the United States. 


"Through the Keystone system, the U.S. can secure access to a stable and reliable supply of oil from Canada where we protect human rights and the environment, or it can import more higher-priced oil from nations who do not share America's interests or values," says Russ Girling, TransCanada's chief executive. 

The tar sands, also called oil sands, sit in Alberta, Canada that holds the second largest pool of crude petroleum in the world behind Saudi Arabia. The extraction of those resources is one issue. Transporting them is another. And that’s when the United States enters the picture. 

The U.S. Department of State is charged with making recommendations to the president of the United States, who will decide by year-end if the pipeline should be built. The department has just said that the line could move forward with minimal environmental harm, noting that the overall carbon emissions would not be much greater than those of other heavy crude oils that the United States refines. 

Many are also saying that if the southward XL pipeline is not built then the Canadian company would construct a different line heading west. The fuel would then be carried by ship to Asia, where even more greenhouse gases would be released. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the State Department, calling its analysis so far “insufficient.” EPA’s main concerns are that the line would traverse sensitive aquifers where this nation gets its drinking water. It also wants more data on the potential for line leakage. And, finally, it must be convinced that the lifecycle emissions tied to the oil would not add notably to greenhouse gas levels. 

Obama’s Dilemma 

Only the Canadian government can decide whether to allow the development of tar sands in Alberta. All indications are that it will do so. Still, the fuel source would sit idle unless it has a passage way into potential new markets. TransCanda Keystone Pipeline wants to build its XL project at a cost of $7 billion so that it could carry -- initially -- 830,000 barrels per day of the crude that is derived from bitumen. If all the permits go through, it would be operational by 2013. 

Producing crude oil from tar sands is expensive. It is also energy intensive because lots of natural gas must be burned to heat the water that is used to separate the oil from the tar in which it is mixed. That creates more carbon emissions. In fact, the Canadian government is saying that because production would likely double in a decade, its greenhouse gas emissions would rise by a third. 

Beyond those barriers, the mining of the commodity leaves an awfully large footprint in the wilderness. Environmental organizations are furthermore concerned that the optimism surrounding oil sands will only add to the world's dependence on fossil fuels at a time when they say that cleaner energy alternatives are available.

“It's not that we're going to necessarily keep it in the ground forever by blocking this pipeline,” says Bill McKibben, an environmental activist who has led protest in Washington this week, on the PBS Newshour. “But sooner or later, the world is going to come to its senses about climate change. And, therefore, preventing it for 5 or 10 years is a pretty good thing.”

McKibben adds that the politically-powerful Indian tribes in Canada are opposed to building any westward pipelines, meaning that the tar sands there would stay landlocked -- if President Obama agrees with the environmental position. 

But the assumption that the oil will stay in the ground just won’t hold. Today, the world community uses 85 millions barrels per day while the United States consumes a quarter of that. Demand for oil is expected to rise by 54 percent in the next 20 years, meaning global production would have to jump to 44 million barrels of oil per day, says the U.S. Department of Energy. 

In the end, President Obama will be torn between his promises to limit greenhouse gases and his desire to create jobs. Odds are he’ll choose the latter, reasoning that Canada’s crude would otherwise find its way elsewhere and that future improvements in technology will minimize the environmental harm. 


EnergyBiz Insider has been named Honorable Mention for Best Online Column by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists. 

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Statement about "...stall electric cars..."

Overall, stalling electric car acceptance might not be as bad as one thinks because the quoted gasoline-equivalent-mpg is often a bit deceptive.  One must consider that unless one can guarantee that his local grid has only wind, solar, hydro, geothermal or nuclear generated energy going in, then he must assume he is charging up using fossil-fuel generated energy.  Therefore the efficiency of the fossil power is a consideration.

If we use the example of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, one can find information on the Internet indicating the battery range on the Leaf varies between 47 and 138 miles per charge.  The 47 mile figure is with heavy stop-and-go traffic and the car's climate control system in service.  The 138 mile figure is steady cruise at 38mph with no accessories at all operating.  autoblog indicates that at 55mph with the ac running, the range is about 70 miles.  techreview lists 62 miles at normal highway speeds with the air conditioning on.  Considering that one does not take the battery pack down to zero charge, a typical charge from depletion is about 22.8KWh.  Using techreview's number, since interstate speeds are more typically 70mph, the energy consumption is 0.37KWh per mile.  The typical heat rate for baseload fossil plants is about 9,000 BTU/KWh (LHV), therefore the consumption is 3,330BTU/mile.  The lower heating value of typical pump gasoline with up to 10% ethanol is about 112,000BTU/gallon.  Therefore, the gasoline-equivalent fuel mileage is about 33.6mpg.  My wife had a Mercury Mariner that consistently achieved 28mpg driving around Houston and it is arguably a lot more versatile than the Leaf.

If the Chevy Volt were to get its originally advertised electric-only range of 40 miles per charge (which it evidently doesn't based on Internet reviews) and the 16KWh battery pack took 15KWh to charge, the gasoline-equivalent mileage would be 33.2mpg.  It gets better gasoline-equivalent mileage from the engine only mode at 37mpg than it does in the electric-only mode.

Granted, the energy cost per mile driving is lower with the electric car due to the price of electricity versus the price of gasoline but one has to consider that every 60 miles driven on a long road trip will be 2 hours instead of 1 hour assuming there is a 480VAC charging station available every 60 miles.

One really has to question the economic feasibility of developing the infrastructure for massive EV adoption and of having one (expensive) EV for short commuting type trips and a second gasoline or diesel powered vehicle for longer trips.


Game over

The issue is if you turn on full blast the oil spigot the technologies to make wind and solar better and cheaper will not ever occur because there is no incentive. If you believe global warming is happening this Canadian pipeline is where to draw the line. It will be "game over" for wind and solar. 

Wind and solar

We must think longer term and wind and solar are inevitable. They are not to where they need to be. That's the problem because many say they will never get to that place. They are too intermittent. One has to have faith that some day the technologies will get to the place where we can depend more on wind and solar. At that time we can displace the oil, even the tar sands from Canada. For now I don't see how we avoid the Canadian product. 

The century old dilemma...

Until we price (and/or tax) fuels based not only on the extraction (and depletion costs) but also on the environmental impact (of extraction, processing and consumption) we will be having these discussions and staring at the dilemmas ad nauseum. 

As an environmentally conscious economist, I would suggest that we exploit the resource (short term economic benefit) and use the revenues to establish better energy alternatives (long term solution).

Most of the world is benefiting from Solar and Wind.  Only in the US we have engaged in a rhetorical war, not on the underlying principles and problems, but an ideological war of left vs. right -- idiots that we are.

"Most of the world is benefiting from Solar and Wind"?

Could our resident economist provide some data to support this statement?

Could we see something by way of data or evidence to refute the notion that Spain suffered 2.2 job losses for every green job "created"?

2.2 jobs lost

Unfortunately I am equally unable to provide evidence that the recent earthquake in VA was not earth's revenge for the creation of the Tea Party. :-)

But on a serious note.  When you talk about job losses you cannot expect that there will not be a need for re-training or there will be no displacement. 

Depending on your age, you may (or may not) remember that back until the early '80s every office had several secretaries who were proficient in shorthand and used to type everything.  The old IMB XTs & ATs came in and, as their price dropped, most of these secretarial jobs became obsolete. Our economic evolution is filled with similar experiences that cut across industries.  (Think about wedding photographers, and how the digital revolution has made many of them unemployed; think about radio djs and how now everything can be programmed months in advance; think about lighthouse attendants and how they have been replaced by batteries, and I can go on and on).  Nobody blamed the battery for the job losses; nobody accused IMB of trying to steal the bread from the mouths of the secretaries' babies

Green energy by itself is not manna from heaven.  Nobody said that we are going to have solar and wind power and we will continue to maintain the same employment levels in the oil sector.  Workers have to either be rertained within the energy sector (blade, panel, wire, etc., maintenance), or be assisted into another industry.

Scientific Risk Assessment?


What's the use of tars sands oil and other  fossil fuels 

if they lead to catastrophic climate change?  

Any scientific risk assessment here?


Just one of the risks is drought. 

How do we mitigate future droughts? 

Yes, we can't control the weather short term, 

but water availability in the long run is 

largely determined by the use of fossil fuels 

leading to Global Climate Change--more precipitation  

globally, but some areas will get less or much less. 

How much less depends on how much CO2 in atmosphere--

~280 ppm for 600,000 yrs prior to 1900, now 390 ppm, 500 ppm?, 800 ppm? ...?  

Climatologists say that Texas will get less precipitation -- maybe much less.  

Water availability in the long run is determined primarily 

by conservation of fossil-fuel based energy. 


Roland James


Tar sands Yes or No?

The world uses 226 million barrels of oil equivalent in btu's every day, of that number 200 million barrels of oil equivalent in btu's comes from hyfrocarbons, oil, natural gas and coal.  Only an absoulte fool or person totally ignorant of this fact can suggest we are going to eliminate hydrocarbons from our energy diet even over the next 100 years.

Alberta relies on the exploration for and development of oil and gas for a large portion of the province's budget. To continue to meet the world's liquid hydrocarbon needs/desires all known sources will have to be developed not counting growth of consumption.  Should we use less and use what we do more wisely? Absolutely!  But to ignore a resource that will be developed regardless of our acceptance of it makes little sense or really none at all.  Over 100 years this land will be reclaimed and be tolerably pristine again.  Perhaps not for our generation or the next but ultimately for future generations. 

The ANWR resources will also be developed over time but at much less environmental cost or "temporary" land disruption.  The current Secretary of State is funding (in a shotgun approach) research to bring the costs of renewables down, if successful that will assist but not remove our need for hydrocarbons.  Get used to it....and by the seems easy to ascribe droughts now to GW (man-made of course) rather than predict them in advance.  Retroactive proofs are suspect as are their political origins.

tar sands oil


What's the use of tars sands oil and other  fossil fuels 
if they lead to catastrophic climate change?  
Any scientific risk assessment here?

One of the risks is drought.
How do we mitigate future droughts? 
Yes, we can't control the weather short term, 
but water availability in the long run is 
largely determined by the use of fossil fuels 
leading to Global Climate Change--more precip 
globally, but some areas will get less or much less. 
How much less depends on how much CO2 in atmosphere--
~280 ppm for 600,000 yrs prior to 1900, now 390 ppm, 500 ppm?, 800 ppm? ...?  
Climatologists say that Texas will get less precip--maybe much less.  
Water availability in the long run is determined primarily 
by conservation of fossil-fuel based energy. 

Listen     NPR  8/26/11

Not as bad as the Horn of Africa yet, so let's pray for rain
but keep drivin' our vehicles and air conditionin' our buildings
and houses to 'cool' temperatures" --to bring even greater drought 
in the future ? ?

Record demands for electricity.  Texas' 40 coal plants 
running all out,  but  "When the electric grid needs power 
the most--in late summer afternoons when air-conditioners
are on full blast--the West Texas breezes often come to 
a near standstill."  'A Mighty Wind' [or 'A Not So Mighty Wind']
August 2011 Texas Monthly  p105  by K Galbraith and A Price

'You know how to read the signs of daily weather...
but you don't know how to read the signs of the times.'
Jesus    Matthew 16:1-4

Race Against Tragedy (drought and famine in Somalia and Horn of Africa) 
by Eliza Griswold   Newsweek  August 8, 2011

Mogadishu, Somalia

Fleeing the worst drought and famine in 60 years, tens of thousands of Somalis 

made their way to the border with Ethiopia and Kenya. Refugees centers like this 

one outside Mogadishu have been overwhelmed, with people in makeshift tents 

swelling the population of the hastily constructed camps far beyond capacity. 

The situation is so dire--with more than 3 million Somalis and nearly 10 million 

in the Horn of Africa facing …

It is a tragedy not of their making but of our making--
Per capita per year CO2 emissions:
US-25 tons  Europe  11  China  5   India  1.5    Africa .5

 "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence"  (2011) 

by Christian Parenti  (son of Michael Parenti) 

"Kenya...In the past, we used to have 10-year climatic cycles...Since 2000 we have had three major droughts and several dry spells. 
But now they are coming almost every year, right across the country."


Evaluating Tar Sands

I have suggested before that all energy sources ought to be evaluated from three perspectives: 1) cost / reliability, 2) safety and environmental impact, and 3) energy independence.  It seems to me that tar sands have so-so cost/benefit on 1) and 2), but a huge benefit on 3).  Thus this would seem to be a no-brainer. 

D Dixon

Let's just drive the last nail in the economy's coffin

It's becoming more and more obvious that the so-called green movement's main objective is to detroy the U.S. economy.