(Minor correction and commentary added 3/20/13)

For today's venture into internet misadventure, all of the sources I mention in the text are cited in full using a modified Harvard-style citation style at the end of today's blog post.

Have you questioned your sources today? On Monday, Joe Nocera of the New York Times didn't which is a disappointment since I like his writing style and sometimes even what he has to say. His op-ed piece from Monday was, well, interesting - but well written, very well written. If he had been one of those maligned UCDavis students whose science essays I once graded, he'd have gotten a B- on the basis of using tertiary sources as opposed to easily available primary sources - though using primary here as a source label in this context is a bit sideways in my point of view since we're talking about technological analysis here and not the development of new hard data. If you take a moment to think about it, it's always a bit dicey to apply the whole primary vs. secondary vs. tertiary source concept, which was developed for the evaluation of archaeological, anthropological and historical data sources and use it in hard science and engineering, which is a different beast with a whole different way of looking at information streams. What's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander since similarity by species isn't always more important than differences by gender.

What did today's target of being wrong on the internet say? Well, his op-ed was about the conduct of James Hansen, a big-name in climate research who runs NASA's Goddard Institute. Hansen's been a bit vocal in his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The point of Nocera's piece is that Hansen has overstepped the bounds of what is really proper professional behavior for a government scientist - a point with which I personally do not disagree. If I had pulled any of Hansen's headliner stunts when I was working at a National Lab, I would have lost my funding and not gotten it back.

That's not where Nocera made his mistake. Here's the quote of where he made his mistake:

"...tar sands oil is not a game changer. The oil we import from Venezuela today is dirtier than that from the tar sands. Not that the anti-pipeline activists seem to care."

This looked a little dicey to me. I would have hunted down sources to investigate this rather interesting statement on Nocera's part regardless of whether he had a citation - because my nose for petrochemical industry facts was twitching - but he bravely cited a source. And such a source! His source was a 2009 blog post at the Wall Street Journal. It's a doosey. The title is: "Chavez Throws Stones, But Ignores Own Environmental Sins." I read it - it's only 2 short paragraphs long. It does say that Venezuela exports the world's dirtiest oil - a statement that is supported by a link to another WSJ blog. It says nothing, by the way, about Canadian oil sands - though it might be worth making the distinction now that what's in the Candadian oil sands is not liquid crude oil. The stuff in Canadian oil sands is bitumen, which is essentially what most Americans call asphalt or tar. It has to be processed before you can pump it through a pipeline to a refinery. It is possible therefore that Venezuelan crude is the dirtiest on the basis that oil sand tar is not crude. It's possible that Mr. Nocera does not grok this distinction and is equating bitumen with crude oil, in which case he is guilty of not understand what he's trying to write about.

Let's look at the second 2009 Wall Street Journal blog that was quoted by the piece about Chavez. It's titled "Oil Sands: Energy Security Outweighs Environmental Harm, Report Says." This second WSJ blog is a nice little piece reporting on a think tank report about the environmental vs. economic and energy security issues of using Canadian oil sand bitumen compared to not using them. This little blog quoted the think tank report correctly in stating that Canadian oil sands are quite dirty in terms of green house emmisions, even in comparison to Venezuelan heavy crude. The first blog misquoted the second.

There's a caveat here that needs to be investigated before dismissing Nocera's gaff. The second blog also commits the bitumen vs. crude mistake in terminology. It says:

"the report estimates the “well-to-wheel” environmental impact of oil sands crude is just 17% higher than regular crude."

Looking at the think tank report is not something to be blown off here for the sake of my favorite of the seven deadly sins, namely sloth.

The think tank report is a fun one to read, not too thick thinking-wise and it makes some intriguing arguments about the trade-offs in choosing green policies vs. introducing increased energy security risks thereby. What the report is not is a hard look at the relative greenhouse emissions of the various fossil fuels. So where did the think tank report get its greenhouse emissions information? Upon digging carefully, its source looks like a 2009 DOE summary report on just that subject with the title of "Consideration of Crude Oil Source in Evaluating Transportation Fuel GHG Emissions," by Gerdes and Skone, which in turn is itself based on their 266 page detailed analysis of Green House Gas ("GHG") emissions, "Development of Baseline Data and Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Petroleum-Based Fuels," by Skone and Gerdes.

Here's a graph from Gerdes and Skone (2009) that lays it all for you: ghg

Note that there is still this slop here on the use of the term crude. Maybe people in this field are more sloppy in its use than an old used up earth scientist like me.

(''Note added 3/20/13: The more I read on this subject, the more it becomes clear that making the distinction between crude and bitumen is a non-issue and I should not have faulted Nocera on this. The confusion lies in the nature of bitumen that is converted into a liquefied product that can be pumped out of a well or through a pipeline. Technically there appear to be at least four types of liquefied bitumen product. The amount of GHG emissions associated with these on a well-to-refinery basis varies greatly. The amount of processing and GHG emissions to make these different bitumen fluids into fuels also varies, but after these are made into fuels like gas or diesel, the well to post-refinery GHG emissions are not that different from one another. This implies that one should be relying on the well-to-wheel and well-to-tank (post-refinery) GHG estimates when trying to compare bitumen sources with other fossil fuel sources like crude oil. Well-to-refinery GHG estimates should be avoided when discussing bitumen sources like Canadian oil sands.')'

The DOE peer-reviewed reports are solid analysis and avoid all of the downfalls that such studies are often victim to, as extensively cataloged in a very fine study of GHG analyses and models, the Congressional Research Service's 2012 "Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions" report. If you're up to the slog through some seriously thick info on GHG emission estimates and how people approach and misapproach the subject, this is the piece to read.

Hierarchy of Sources Quoted

New York Times: "A Scientist's Misguided Crusade"


Wall Street Journal: "Chavez Throws Stones, But Ignores Own Environmental Sins"


Wall Street Journal: "Oil Sands: Energy Security Outweighs Environmental Harm, Report Says"


The Council on Foreign Relations (think tank): "The Canadian Oil Sands Energy Security vs. Climate Change"


US Dept of Energy: "Consideration of Crude Oil Source in Evaluating Transportation Fuel GHG Emissions"


US Dept of Energy: "Development of Baseline Data and Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Petroleum-Based Fuels"

That's going through a cascade of five sources before arriving at the original reputable study which developed reliable data on GHG emissions. That study concluded that not only is Venezuelan crude cleaner on the well-to-wheel basis than Canadian oil sands, so is even Venezuelan bitumen.

Grades for the New York Times' Joe Nocera: A+ for style, grammar and punctuation; D for citation and references because he used a crappy tertiary reference but he bothered to cite it in a form appropriate for his publication venue.


Gerdes, K., and Skone, T. J. (2009), Consideration of Crude Oil Source in Evaluating Transportation Fuel GHG Emissions, National Energy Technology Laboratory (Report) DOE/NETL-2009/1346, US Dept. of Energy, (http://www.netl.doe.gov/energy-analyses/pubs/Life%20Cycle%20GHG%20Analysis%20of%20Diesel%20Fuel%20by%20Crude%20Oil%20Source%202.pdf ; accessed 3/6/13).

Johnson, K. (2009 May 22), Oil Sands: Energy Security Outweighs Environmental Harm, Report Says, Wall Street Journal, (http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/05/22/oil-sands-energy-security-outweighs-environmental-harm-report-says/ ; accessed 3/6/13).

Levi, M. A. (2009), The Canadian Oil Sands Energy Security vs. Climate Change, Council Special Report No. 47, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, (http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Oil_Sands_CSR47.pdf ; accessed 3/6/13).

Nocera, J. (2013 Mar 4), A Scientist's Misguided Crusade, New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/opinion/nocera-a-scientists-misguided-crusade.html? ; accessed 3/6/13).

Skone, T. J., and Gerdes, K. (2009), Development of Baseline Data and Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Petroleum-Based Fuels, National Energy Technology Laboratory (Report) DOE/NETL-2009/1360, US Dept. of Energy, (http://www.netl.doe.gov/energy-analyses/pubs/NETL%20LCA%20Petroleum-Based%20Fuels%20Nov%202008.pdf ; accessed 3/6/13).

Swartz, S. (2009 Dec 16), Chavez Throws Stones, But Ignores Own Environmental Sins, Wall Steet Journal, (http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/12/16/chavez-throws-stones-but-ignores-own-environmental-sins/ ; accessed 3/6/13).