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Sierra Daily

Nov 03, 2011

"Game Over"?

This Sunday, thousands of Americans will circle the White House in an attempt to get President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry half a million barrels of dirty Canadian tarsands oil a day from ravaged Alberta to refineries in Texas. If the pipeline is built, warns NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen, it will be "game over" for attempts to maintain a stable climate. In case anyone asks you to run the numbers while you're ringing the White House, the invaluable RealClimate has done the math for you, courtesy of Dr. Ray Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago.

652x420_maintileAssumptions: A climate model in which we have a 50-50 chance of holding temperature increases under 2 degrees Centigrade if we keep cumulative carbon emissions under 1 trillion metric tons. The bad news is that we've already added half that to the atmosphere. Proven reserves of conventional oil stocks add another 140 gigatonnes (i.e., billion metric tons), and natural gas another 100. Coal adds an unholy 846 gigatonnes (pushing us into "game over" territory already). Tarsands bitumen could add up to 230 further gigatonnes, depending on how much could be developed. Pierrehumbert cites a study by the National Petroleum Council saying that new technology could push that number to 70 percent, in which case, "Yes, the Keystone XL pipeline does tap into a very big carbon bomb indeed."

But not all at once.

The pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels per day, and assuming that we’re talking about lighter crude by the time it gets in the pipeline that adds up to a piddling 2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years. However, building Keystone XL lets the camel’s nose in the tent. It is more than a little disingenuous to say the carbon in the Athabasca Oil Sands mostly has to be left in the ground, but before we’ll do this, we’ll just use a bit of it. It’s like an alcoholic who says he’ll leave the vodka in the kitchen cupboard, but first just take “one little sip.”

If President Obama hears us this Sunday, he'll put a stake through the heart of this project before it gets going. If not, it may be left to the market to do the honors. Here's Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the rapidly approaching day of cost parity of fossil fuels with solar:

[Solar's] price has come down 50 percent in the last five or six years, it's going to come down by another 50 percent, and we think there's a chance it could come down by 70 percent. At that point, you're talking about wholesale electricity at utility scale, at 6 or 7 cents levelized cost per kilowatt hour--that's as much as you would have to spend for any fossil fuel plant without subsidy."

The world's dirtiest oil, or clean solar power? This is a decision we can make right from the start.

--Paul Rauber

Image: David Dodge, Pembina Institute, http://www.pembina.org/oil-sands

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