Why Tar Sands Must Stay in the Ground

By Bryan Walker 20/08/2011

After drawing attention to climatologist Jason Box’s intention to take part in the act of civil disobedience planned at Washington over the next fortnight, I thought it might be useful to underline why the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, is so appalling a prospect.  James Hansen puts it plainly in a short paper he issued a couple of months ago. It’s the sheer size of the tar sands resource which makes it alarming. Hansen acknowledges that there are multiple objections to the pipeline, including the destruction of the environment in Canada and the likelihood of spills along the pipeline’s pathway, though thinks it unlikely that these will be enough to stop it going ahead. But it’s the climate change implication which is crucial:

’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 AR4 WG3 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. 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.’

Given the current state of our knowledge it ought to be unthinkable that such a project should proceed. The governments which are backing it and the companies which are carrying it out are either deeply ignorant or dangerously reckless. Hansen puts it more mildly:

’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 are exploited.’

Bill McKibben had a trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week discussing the forthcoming protest and describing the decision on the pipeline as a defining moment for Obama.

’He has to sign a certificate of national interest before the border-crossing pipeline can be built. Under the relevant statutes, Congress is not involved, so he doesn’t need to stand up to the global-warming deniers calling the shots in the House…

’Obama can’t escape it simply by saying that someone else will burn the oil if we don’t. Alberta is remote, and its only other possible pipeline route – to the Pacific and hence Asia – is tangled in litigation. That’s why the province’s energy minister told Canada’s Globe and Mail last month that without the Keystone pipeline Alberta would be ‘landlocked in bitumen’…’

If Obama blocks the pipeline the oil will stay in the ground for at least a while longer. ’Long enough, perhaps,’ says McKibben, ’that the planet will come fully to its senses about climate change.