Inspection of recent paper by Hansen et al. reveals why the Keystone Pipeline project is sheer madness (click here to see the full paper). In this paper, the authors provide the figure shown below which explains the challenge before us.
The amount of carbon (in units of Gigatons) that has been emitted in the past and might be emitted in the future from the combustion of various types of fossil fuels is shown. These sources include conventional oil, gas and coal and unconventional oil and gas. The unconventional fossil fuels are those being developed by recently discovered means, such as the extraction of oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and the release of oil and gas following the fracking of shale deposits. The various colors in each column indicate the amount already used to date (dark purple), the readily available remaining reserves (light blue) and the amount probably available if we continue to look for more (yellow).
Before considering each of the columns in the figure, let’s first consider the central point made clear in this paper and elsewhere that in order to allow the Earth to remain in its present state of stability, mankind should not burn more than about 500 Gt of carbon total over its entire industrial period – which began about 160 years ago and will continue into the foreseeable future. With the emission of more than 500 Gt of carbon, the authors expect that the Earth’s climate will very probably leave its present stable state and enter into an unstable one that will subsequently drift into progressively warmer and distinctly untenable states in which human civilizations could no longer exist in their present forms.
Again, in order to avoid that hopeless condition, we must emit no more than about 500 GtC total between 1850 and some yet unknown future date when we do finally manage to terminate all carbon emissions.. So next, how much carbon have we emitted to date? The answer to that question is provided by the sum of the three dark purple bars in the figure above showing emissions to date of conventional oil, gas and coal. These are 130, 60 and 180, respectively, for a total of 370 GtC. So what does that leave us for allowable future use? The answer is 130 GtC (500 – 370), right? With that number (130 GtC) in mind, let’s now consider the various fossil fuels we presently have for future use.
Let’s first consider the readily available conventional oil and gas deposits shown by the light blue bars in the first two columns. These indicate that we have about 140 GtC of conventional oil and about 90 GtC of conventional gas readily available for our future use – for a total of 230 GtC. Oh, Oh! – what’s this? . We are allowed to use only 130 GtC in the future and we already have much more than that in the forms of high quality and readily available oil and gas. In fact, it looks like we will have to leave about 100 GtC of these prime supplies of gas and oil in the ground. So why is it that we are looking for more? Crazy yes, but it gets worse and then much worse.
Next, note the top yellow portions of the first two columns. If we continue to try harder and drill more, we can probably double our future reserves of conventional oil and gas. But again, why are we trying to find more sources of conventional gas and oil when we already have more than we can use.
And still worse as we move on to the 3rd column concerning conventional coal. Note that under its light blue bar, we have an enormous amount, about 550 GtC, of unused and readily available coal – just waiting to be scooped up and transported to power plants throughout the world. However, since coal generates only about half as much energy per CO2 molecule emitted as do gas and oil, and because of coal’s additional environmental and human health issues (particulates and mercury), and because we have plenty of cleaner and more energy rich gas and oil, why would we want to continue to use coal for power generation? All coal must be left in the ground and, no, carbon capture and storage has no chance of becoming financially viable.
And things continue to get even worse as we move on to the 4th and 5th columns where we see the new and so-called “wonderful new prospects” for future USA energy independence that is falsely promised by the developers of unconventional sources of oil and gas. Again, the reaction to this so called “good news” of any mathematically literate person should be: “what the hell! – why are we bothering with these more expensive and dirtier sources of gas and oil when we already have far too much of the best forms of fossil fuels already available”. In short, all unconventional gas and oil should be left in the ground.
So why, other than insanity, would we want to help another country transport relatively dirty and energy deficient tar sands oil to the international refineries on the Gulf Coast to then be transport to all markets of the world?
There is only one parameter mankind has under any control over in limiting the detrimental effects of global warming. That one factor is to limit our future emissions of CO2. That is all we can do. Therefore, we can afford to use only a portions of our existing reserves of gas and oil and nothing more. That’s it. So are we going to build the Keystone XL pipeline? While we clearly should not, I also know that “stupid does as stupid is” and we are still witnessing the rising power of “stupid” in our country’s leadership. For example, does everyone now realize that the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Affairs will be none other than the leading climate change denier of the Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma?. And now it appears that even some Democratic Senators might be selling out to the Keystone Lobby merely for some tiny political gains in the State of Louisiana. As the net stupidity and disregard of the public good by Congress grows, my remaining hope is that our President will stand tall in the midst of that stupidity and do the right thing. It has happened before. The example of Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Just as the continuation of human slavery into the 20th Century would have been madness, so is the continuation of fossil fuel use into the 21st Century.