The Climate Impact of Keystone XL? About 0.0001°C/yr

Last month, a group of 15 climate scientists (included the now disgraced Peter Gleick) sent a letter to Congress expressing their displeasure over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. President Obama has weighed in against approval, but Congress wants a green light to allow construction of the1,700-mile, $7 billion project.

Most recently, Bill Clinton weighed in forthe pipeline, indicating just how deep the positives of the project are for the U.S. and world oil market.

So why are physical scientists getting political about a market-friendly pipeline to deliver oil from the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to various refinery locations in the Midwestern U.S. and ultimately the Gulf Coast?

The letter (reprinted at the end of this post) states that in addition to the local environmental impacts of oil sand mining (see here and here for a first-person account from Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey of the operation), burning such oil “on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.”

The 15 climate scientists added:

When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the earth’s climate and its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy—and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.

What Is the Climate Impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

As a climate scientist myself, I can profess to knowing the same thing that the 15 signatories know about what the impact that carbon contained in fossil fuel reserves will have on the climate. And I can (as can they) calculate how much of an effect the Keystone XL pipeline will probably have on global temperatures. For some reason (hmm?) the 15 climate scientists chose not to include that information in their letter to Congress.

But here it is: The rise in global temperatures resulting from extracting and burning the oil delivered by Keystone XL at full capacity is about0.0001°C/yr.

Keystone XL by the Numbers

The Keystone XL Pipeline was to deliver about 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to U.S. refineries.

Various estimates have been made of the total carbon dioxide associated with producing and burning a Keystone XL-delivered barrel of oil (or the products derived therefrom, such as gasoline) for energy, and they generally arrive at a number somewhere around 0.62 tons of CO2 per barrel (see here for a derivation of that number).

Multiplying the amount of CO2 per barrel with a production of 800,000 barrels a day, 365 days a year, gets you an annual total CO2 emitted to the atmosphere from oil delivered by the Keystone XL Pipeline of 181 million metric tons.

How much “global warming” does that get you?

In a previous Master Resource article, I calculated, based on observations of CO2 emissions and temperature changes during the past 50 years, that it takes about 1,767,250 million metric tons of CO2 emissions to raise the global temperature 1°C.

In fact, I think I suggested that everyone should jot this number down and pin it to a convenient place for ready reference next time someone was throwing around CO2 emissions reductions expected to result from some regulation.

In this case, instead of using it to calculate the “savings” in global temperature rise from some perspective emissions control regulation, we can use it to calculate how much additional global warming that the oil flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline will produce when burned.

To do so, we take 181 mmtCO2/yr and divide it by 1,767,250 mmtCO2/°C. And we get 0.0001°C/yr, that is, one ten thousandths of a degree Celsius of temperature rise from the Canadian tar sands oil delivered by the Keystone XL pipeline each year.

Obviously, the climate scientists who wrote to Congress must have other concerns than the inconsequential and undetectable global climate change that would directly result from the Keystone XL-delivered oil.


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