(Correction added 3/20/13)

I missed an editorial a few days ago but managed to catch up on my reading this morning, whereupon I spotted a new piece on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Just in case you don't know the details, the proposed pipeline will pump liquefied oil sands bitumen across the Alberta-Montana border and then head southeast across the Midwest toward Steele City, Nebraska. The article in question is "When to Say No," an New York Times editorial dated March 11, 2013. The subject of the editorial is the Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") issued a little over a week ago by the US State Department.

The following paragraph caught my eye:

To its credit, the State Department acknowledges that extracting, refining and burning the oil from the tar-laden sands is a dirtier process than it had previously stated, yielding annual greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent higher than the average crude oil used in the United States. But its dry language understates the environmental damage involved: the destruction of the forests that lie atop the sands and are themselves an important storehouse for carbon, and the streams that flow through them. And by focusing on the annual figure, it fails to consider the cumulative year-after-year effect of steadily increasing production from a deposit that is estimated to hold 170 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered with today’s technology and may hold 10 times that amount altogether.

There are several things wrong with this paragraph but I'll start with the one that I knew was incorrect even without researching. What's wrong is the statement that oil sand petroleum has an "annual greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent higher than the average crude oil used in the United States." That 17% rang a bell since it parallels a similar 17% mistake made in a Wall Street Journal blog from 2009 see my blog post from March 6 for m.... Seventeen percent also echoes numbers from various published sources discussing Canadian oil sand greenhouse gases ("GHG") including the State Dept. EIS itself:

WCSB (Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin) crudes are more GHG-intensive than the other heavy crudes they would replace or displace in U.S. refineries, and emit an estimated 17 percent more GHGs on a life-cycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States in 2005.

The important words here are "life-cycle basis." Modeling GHG emissions for any distinct source is usually done over the lifetime of all of the fossil fuel at that source in one lump regardless of how long it takes to deplete all the fuel there (e.g. Skone and Gerdes, 2009). The words "life-cycle" always refer to estimating all the GHG released "from cradle to grave," i.e. from untouched resource in the ground to final product for the entire life of a resource (Lattanzio, 2012). It is not an average with respect to a unit of time. A well-to-wheel ("WTW") GHG life-cycle estimate accounts not only for the GHG contribution from burning the fuel, but also accounts for the energy sources used to mine or extract the resource, pump it in pipelines or ship it by sea or rail, process it at a refinery and deliver it to the end-user customer. Using the life-cycle approach neatly dodges the problem of variable rates of production which every oil and gas field experiences due to the supply and demand conditions in the global marketplace for fuels.

The New York Times editorial made a mistake in calling the 17% GHG increase an annual rate of emissions. Whoever wrote it didn't understand the concept of life-cycle estimates for GHG. This becomes even more evident when the text goes on to say about the EIS:

by focusing on the annual figure, it fails to consider the cumulative year-after-year effect of steadily increasing production from a deposit that is estimated to hold 170 billion barrels of oil

The author of this editorial doesn't seem to know that the GRG life-cycle estimate of 17% was indeed based on the total extractable oil sand reserves for all four of the big Canadian oil sand deposits regardless of production rates or time. This leaves me wondering if the editorial author bothered to read the EIS at all since several EIS sections and one appendix were devoted to the discussion and comparison of well-to-wheel life-cycle GHG emissions for oil sand petroleum pumped through the proposed pipeline.

Correction and commentary added 3/20/13: I made a mistake which is why the paragraph above is struck out. I confused GHG footprint as discussed in the State Dept. EIS with life-cycle GHG estimates. But the NY Times quip about using an annual GHG figure vs. a total GHG footprint for total lifetime of the Alberta oil sands is still irrelevant. Why? Because the GHG life-cycle estimates are not annual figures. They are normalized, usually on either a per unit energy release or unit volume basis. Time is not a parameter when reporting GHG life-cycle estimates. One can convert GHG well-to-wheel or well-to-tank life-cycle estimates to annual emissions easily. It's simple if one starts with a life-cycle number reported on a per volume basis and then multiplies by the total amount of the fuel in question used annually. Alternatively, one could also estimate the total GHG footprint for a fossil fuel resource or any given industrial complex and then divide by the number of years that fuel source or industrial complex is expected to last, thus deriving an annual rate. Either way is a legitimate means to calculate an annual GHG emissions estimate.

The State Dept. EIS calculated the annual GHG emissions that would be introduced by the Keystone XL pipeline based on the assumption that the pipeline would be operating at capacity (830,000/barrels per day). Despite the fact that Canadian oil sands production is expected to double between 2012 and 2015, the capacity of the pipeline is a constant. Since the editorial is arguing against the pipeline, the lifetime of the Canadian oil sands is really moot. A recent Congressional Research Service study (Lattanzio, 2012) put this in a perspective that I believe most environmental activists would rather avoid. The numbers speak for themselves as to whether GHG-based arguments against the pipeline have any real substance. I will leave it to the reader to decide if the less than 1 percent annual GHG contribution of the Keystone XL pipeline to the annual US GHG emissions is meaningful:

The 2013 Draft SEIS analysis found that the potential range of incremental GHG emissions contributed by the pipeline would be 3.7 to 20.7 MMTCO2e annually. As the United States reported a total domestic GHG inventory of 6,865.5 MMTCO2e in 2010, the incremental pipeline emissions would represent an increase of 0.06%-0.3% in total annual GHG emissions for the United States.

The comment in the editorial about the destruction of forests appears to have been made in ignorance of Alberta's aggressive surface-mine reclamation laws. Many of the mines that were in production in the 60s and 70s are already on their way back to being forest. Also, only about 20% of the oil sands are mineable (Humphries, 2008); the remaining 80% can only be extracted through the use of down-hole in situ methods to convert the bitumen into a pumpible liquid. Since well fields are much less invasive than surface mines, preservation of Alberta's boreal forest will improve over time as oil sand production shifts from mining to pumping. There is a downside to oil sand mining and its subsequent reclamation. No reclamation method is capable of restoring the extensive peatlands that the surface mines must destroy to get at the oil sands

I find the whole Keystone XL Pipeline issue somewhat ridiculous, to be frank. The rest of the New York Times editorial makes further protests over the pipeline on the basis of the impacts it will have on groundwater aquifers and soils in the event of a spill. You would think from reading this editorial that no one had ever built a pipeline before or that there had never been a pipeline leak. The reality is that there are numerous large capacity pipelines already in existence - including two that are already pumping liquified oil sands bitumen from Alberta into the US - and their environmental impact to date is quite low. I've worked on pipeline leaks. They're bread-and-butter remediation projects. The thought that a spill might reach one of the big Midwest production aquifers is a bit silly since hundreds of feet and the presence of aquicludes like the Pierre Shale separate them. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal exists because the two pipeline from Canada currently in use are at full capacity and have been for several years now.

I'm really tempted to wonder out loud how people like the author of this editorial get paid to write nonsense like this instead of me? But since I gave up temptation for Lent, I will refrain from doing so.


Here's a NASA pic of the Athabasca oil sands mine in Northeast Alberta. Not exactly a garden spot.

AthabascaOilSandMine


References

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).

Humphries, M (2008), North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future, Congressional Research Service No. RL34258. (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34258.pdf, accessed 3/14/13).

Lattanzio, R. (2012), Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Congressional Research Service No. R42537 . http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42537.pdf, accessed 3/14/13).

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).