There is an excellent diary on DKos by A. Siegel entitled "NYTimes should be embarrassed. Almost certainly isn't ..." I read it with great interest. It dissects a New York Times artricle written by Joe Nocera in support of the Keystone XL Pipeline. I read Mr. Nocera's article and was especially taken by this statement: "And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small." I could not believe there was any support for such a brash statement. Turns out, if you follow his link, there isn't. I explain below.
Nocera's statement that the climate change effects of tar sands oil are "pretty small" links to a June 18 2012 Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, entitled, "Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Turns out this is a really devious article intended to deceive anyone who doesn't take the time to read it with care. Apparently Mr. Nocera was either one of the careless readers, or he is intentionally helping to spread the misleading information contained in that report. This analysis will take a little time, so please bear with me, I think it's worth it.
The report states that it is intended to address the issue of whether building the Keystone XL Pipeline will increase the emission of greenhouse gases, referred to in the report as "GHG emissions". The report is not an independent analysis of the issue, instead it reviews data from previous studies of the proposed pipeline.
The report contains a "Scope and Purpose" section which states that it compares publicly available assessments of greenhouse gas emissions data in order to address
congressional concern over the environmental impacts of Canadian oil sands productionincluding both
a broad understanding of the global resource as well as a specific assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline...The report states that it provides
tools for policymakers who are interested in using these assessments to investigate the potential impacts of U.S. energy policy choices on the environment.So the report identifies its purpose as providing tools to assess the impact U.S. approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline would have on the environment. No limitation there, just very broadly, "the environment".
Next the report gives a detailed description of the various ways to measure total greenhouse gas emissions from a project like the Keystone XL Pipeline, the broadest being "well to wheel". This broad measure is meant to include all emissions resulting from the project, from extraction of the tar sands through treatment, transportation, refinement, and finally consumption (combustion in a gasoline engine). Other, shorter timelines necessarily exclude some of the emissions that would result from this project. Only "well to wheel" captures them all.
If you look at Figure 1 on page 3 of the report, you'll see other, shorter timelines. The only one of importance is "well to tank". That timeline includes all of the "well to wheel" timeline except for the last step of combustion in a gas engine. So the difference between "well to wheel" and "well to tank" is that the former includes consumption by the end-user and the latter does not.
Much later on, at page 9, Figure 2, the report has some interesting data that show "well to wheel" emission of greenhouse gases under different reports. These are supposed to be annual emissions. Notice that each bar has a blue section and a tan section. The smaller, blue section shows the "well to tank" emission of greenhouse gases. The larger tan section shows how much greenhouse gases are released through actual combustion in an engine. You can see that the amount of emissions released through combustion is two to three times the amount of emission released through the entire rest of the process. Burning the gas is what releases the most CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
The first bar in Figure 2 indicates the U.S. Average greenhouse gas emissions from oil production and consumption, based on a 2005 EPA estimate. The bar shows a total of 91 units of greenhouse gas emissions from "well to wheel" with 18 of those units coming from the "well to tank" part of the process (blue) and the last 73 units coming from the actual combustion of the gasoline (tan).
The next interesting part of Figure 2 is the part dealing with "SCO" (synthetic crude oil) and "Dilbit" (diluted bitumin). These are apparently the primary methods of extraction that would be used for the Canada tar sands. The six bars in each group - SCO and dilbit - supposedly show what six different studies have determined will be the annual greenhouse gases emitted if the XL pipeline is approved and those methods of extraction are used. In Dilbit they range from 103 units to 116 units per year, much more than the 91 units emitted from U.S. oil production and consumption. In SCO it's worse, 108 to 120 units per year.
Now comes a critical point, note how the tan sections of these SCO and Dilbit bars are almost identical, 73 to 75 units of greenhouse gas emissions resulting just from end-user consumption/combustion. And note how these numbers are almost identical to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from U.S. production based on the EPA 2005 figures. In other words, the actual combustion of the oil from the Canada tar sands results in the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the combustion of other sources of gasoline.
The difference between the U.S. 2005 average and the SCO/Dilbit" processes doesn't come from the final combustion, it comes from all the steps that lead to final combustion. These steps short of combustion are represented by the blue sections of the bars. See how they range from a low of 29 to a high of 46. If you throw out the 29 in Dilbit and the 33 in SCO as "outliers", they average to 41 units of emissions per year through these methods of extraction, treatment, refinement and transportation. Compare that to the U.S. average of 18 (in the blue section of the U.S. average bar) and you can see that the process of removing, refining and transporting oil extracted from tar sands results in much more greenhouse gas emissions than the same steps involved with other sources of oil.
So what does this report do with this information? What does it say about the impact of "U.S. energy policy choices on the environment"? It completely sidesteps the issue of the impact on the environment and instead focuses on the impact on the "U.S. Carbon Footprint for the Keystone XL Pipeline". This is the name of the penultimate section of the report. At the bottom of page 25, the report concludes that if the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, the total greenhouse gas emissions produced by the U.S. would increase by only .06% to 0.3%. But by doing this, the report intentionally ignores all the extra greenhouse gases that will be produced in Canada if the pipeline is approved. The report stated that its purpose was to analyze "the potential impacts of U.S. energy policy choices on the environment". But you cannot analyze the impact on the "environment" if you ignore what would be produced in Canada. You cannot give a fair assessment of environmental impact when you ignore the location where all the increase in greenhouse gases will occur.
One sidenote, although the increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is small compared to increased emissions from Canada, it would still be significant. The report states that it would be equal to an extra half a million to 4 million passenger cars on the road. At a time when our greenhouse gas emissions should be decreasing, any such increase should be unacceptable.
And now back to Mr. Nocera. He cites this study as the only support for his statement that "...the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small." Just like the study itself, he takes data indicating a small increase in U.S. greenhouse gases emissions, ignores a huge increase in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, and proclaims that we have nothing to worry about from the Keystone XL Pipeline, the environment won't be any worse off. False, false, false. And I bet he knows it.
EDIT On the subject of "won't the tar sands be developed even if the pipeline is not approved?", that is an assumption made in the Congressional Research Service Report. At the bottom of page 1 and continuing onto page 2, the report states:
In the Final EIS, DOS supported the claim that while the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project may contribute to certain transboundary and continental scale environmental impacts, it may not substantially influence either the rate or magnitude of oil extraction activities in Canada or the overall volume of crude oil transported to and refined in the United States.However, buried in footnote 6 the report admits the following:
Several of the studies, however, question this finding, and in particular, whether the production of Canadian oil sands crude would be economically viable if not exported through pipelines to the United States. See, for example, Natural Resources Defense Council, “Say No to Tar Sands Pipeline,” March 2011, at http://www.nrdc.org/....I haven't read the article referred to in the footnote, but it is my understanding that extracting and processing oil from the tar sands is very expensive per unit of oil retrieved, more expensive than drilling in the ocean. The only way that oil from the tar sands can compete with other oil is if it can be delivered cheaply through a pipeline. If it had to be shipped in tankers it could not compete with oil drilled from the ocean. So I don't believe it is a given that the tar sands would still be exploited without the Keystone XL Pipeline.