James Hansen, NASA’s lead climate scientist, says if TransCanada Pipeline’s Keystone XL mega-project connecting Alberta tar sand producers to Gulf Coast refineries is approved, it is game over for the planet.

It certainly won’t be game over Alberta’s oil patch or the thousands of North American steel workers who will build the massive pipeline. And I rather doubt it will be game over for the planet. If Hansen is worried about emissions growth, he just has to look at where the global economy is heading these days.

Least Hansen forget, recessions are good for emission reduction. In fact, they’re the best things for them. The deeper the recession, the better it is for the atmosphere.

When the former Soviet Union crumbled and the Russian economy de-industrialized and shrank, its emissions fell by a staggering 30%. And emission reduction wasn’t even a goal of the Russian government. As well, the emission reduction during the recent U.S. recession was greater than what would have been mandated by the now defunct Waxman-Markey Climate Change Bill.

Considering the vast majority of emissions from gasoline come not with its extraction and processing but when you turn on your car’s ignition and start burning the oil in your engine, maybe we should be more concerned about the number of cars are on the road as opposed to the source of their fuel.

Here there is reason for real optimism.  While there are 240 million oil guzzling vehicles still on the road in America, the number has plateaued and it will soon start to decline. Annual U.S. vehicle sales, once over 17 million units, are now running around 12 million, and they were running below the scrappage rate during the last recession.  When that happens, there will be fewer cars on the road. Fewer cars, in turn, translate into fewer emissions no matter where they are getting their gasoline.

There are still some basic issues about the pipeline project. But the real issues are not so much environmental as they are economic.

Will the pipeline connection to the Gulf Coast simply be a conduit for Canadian oil to be trans-shipped to foreign markets and capture more favorable world pricing? If so, how does that help America?

Or will the flow of 500,000 to 900,000 barrels a day through the Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast be sufficient to bring down bulging inventories of stranded, land locked oil in Cushing, Oklahoma and eliminate, or at least substantially reduce the huge price spread between Brent and West Texas Intermediate?

If it doesn’t, and the over $25 per barrel spread between U.S. domestic oil prices and world oil prices persists, new pipelines will be built in Canada to provide a more direct connection to global oil markets.

One way or another, it is oil price differentials, not James Hansen’s concerns, which will ultimately determine the flow and direction of oil from Canada’s tar sands.

  • Anonymous

    Great points as always. I wonder if it’s ever possible to have a growing economy and emissions reductions.

  • Notavaylable

    “And I rather doubt it will be game over for the planet.”  I rather suspect that Hansen knows a whole hell of a lot more about that aspect than you do.

  • Anonymous

    It’s always interesting to see the focus on North America.  It’s the GLOBAL auto usage that is the issue.  But if you choose to ignore the rest of the planet so be it.  Nice to see a Canadian with the  myopic perspective of the average American. 

    I suspect the “game over” perspective has to do with extraction of Alberta’s oil.  I fully understand Canadian greed at the massive cost to the environment but Alberta oil extraction is a catastrophe of epic proportions. 

    And last, I’d clarify with James Hansen as to the basis for his statement.  It’s always fun to specutlate but it is just that, speculation. 

  • JB

    I suspect that the oil price differential to which you refer will remain.

    It is just a matter for the US to strategically secure an oil supply at the smallest possible cost for its economy.

    The Canadian government will not be allowed to massively ship its oil to China or elsewhere outside continental North America and the current Canadian government has been very accommodating in that regard. After all, it somehow has to pay for the protection that the US military is providing. If the US military did not exist in its present form, the Canadian government would a long time ago have received an offer that it could not have refused from China for a number of Canadian strategic resources…

    A key issue is for how long will Canada be able to massively extract Alberta tar sand oil? Massive quantities of natural gas and of water are needed in that regard. With the US already getting 2/3 of the yearly Canadian natural gas production, proven natural gas reserves in Canada are down to 10 years… Without natural gas, you cannot boil out the tar sand oil and send it into any pipeline. Without natural gas, millions of Canadians will even freeze to death during winters and it is not shale gas production that is going to change much in that regard… Does that mean that Alberta will be willing to build nuclear power plants to substitute for natural gas in the production of tar sand oil? If that is the case, Alberta better start soon building those “nukes” because it will take about 10 years to do so if you include the time needed for the environmental studies and for the related public hearings… and good luck with that process within the present post-Fukushima context and with the recent privatization of AEC.

    As for the climate change issue, it is true that when economically and technically extractable fossil fuel reserves run out related carbon dioxide emissions will cease… Several other major sources of greenhouse gases will however remain. In that regard, Hansen is very concerned with the potential breaching of a specific greenhouse gas threshold that could start a runaway release of major anthropocentric underwater and underground methane reservoirs. Such a runaway release could lead to the relatively rapid emergence of planetary surface conditions that cannot sustain most of the presently existing Earth life forms.  I would suggest in that regard that you take some time to look into the specific issue of atmospheric oxygen depletion and on the recent evolution of the planetary atmospheric oxygen budget. 


  • Rojelio

    I think James Hansen, Bill McKibben and a few others view the pipeline as providing a fuse to a megacarbon bomb that they don’t want lit. Too bad the rest of humanity doesn’t share their concerns.

    Are you sure about recessions being so bullish for the environment? The economy has been crap since at least 2008, but in 2010 humanity set a global record for CO2 emissions.

  • Rojelio

    I think James Hansen, Bill McKibben and a few others view the pipeline as providing a fuse to a megacarbon bomb that they don’t want lit. Too bad the rest of humanity doesn’t share their concerns.

    Are you sure about recessions being so bullish for the environment? The economy has been crap since at least 2008, but in 2010 humanity set a global record for CO2 emissions.

  • Instincts

    Jeff is merely stating fact here folks.  It is fact that price differentials will determine how/where Canada will market its tar sand oil.  He’s not saying that combustion of global oil inventories hasn’t or isn’t having profound environmental impacts via emmissions.

    But I do think that neither Jeff or others shouldn’t underestimate the ultimate consequences of Canada piping all or most of its tar sand oil to provide the U.S. with the ‘life boat’ that it so desperately wants, so that it can continue to take the ‘easy road’ rather than commence significant changes toward sustainability as many EU nations have been light-years ahead of N.A. in achieving.  In that regard, I’d advise anyone, including you Jeff, not to be too hasty in writing-off what Hansen really is implying here.

    Yes, a dampened world economy will spell various percentage decreases in energy use and emmissions, but it is net actual or absolute energy use and resulting emmissions that really matters here.  And Chindia and other better-off nations will be the ones that offset any decreases in energy use and emmissions that occur elsewhere.  And even with a likely absolute decrease in global hydrocarbon energy supply/use and concurrent decrease in such emmissions, that doesn’t mean that burning every diminshing last drop of world fossil hydrocarbon stores won’t necessarily spell ‘game over’ for the planet, even knowing that emmissions will decrease in the process.

    My read on what Hansen is conveying is that here is an opportunity for North America to smarten up, employ some responsible foresight, do what’s right and ultimately inevitably necassary in years to come, and (sooner than later) join those advanced EU nations who so desperately would like to see North America join them in leading the world into a future that is more sustainable, and when done right, ultimately will be more profitable and brighter for ours and future generations.  It simply cannot be a brighter future for 7 billion people with the highly skewed, corporate/Wall Street controlled world we live in now.  Nor could even a fully balanced sustainable world support that many people — hardly a fraction of that many.  That part (massive population decrease) is the ugly truth that inevitably will occur in a world of finite fossil energy stores and with a biosphere that has an upper limit to its resiliency to an artifically supported human population of 7 billion.

    North America, right now, has an opportunity before it to choose whether to join advanced EU nations to be the ‘turtle’, or to keep trying to (pointlessly) fight China and other rising nations to be the ‘hare’ in this race that really only leads to a cliff of self-destruction.  No nation could possibly beat China in that type of race in the current world situation.  But the global socio-economic ‘growth’ model that once seemed to be the way to the silver-lined future is now known by many to lead to crash.  Short of taking control of other nations’ dirt, water, minerals, energy sources, etc., China will crash-and-burn a whole lot faster than it took the Western world to crash-and-burn, simply by virtue of numbers and the finite laws of this planet (or any planet for that matter).  We need to listen to what Denmark, Germany, Norway and other advanced EU nations have to tell us in this regard.

  • k.cobley

    Either taxation is imposed on emissions to lower them or nature will impose it’s own solutions.
    Natures solutions will prove unsatisfactory for most.

  • Ethical OYL

    Hansen and other chronic alarmists have a lot of explaining to do as to why we have flat to declining temperatures despite rising CO2. This after $100 billion has been spent worldwide on faulty, useless computer models. So as usual on to the next scare…methane. Shuffle shuffle.
    The current CERN results on cloud nucleation have the alarmists on the run.

  • http://twitter.com/platinumshore Platinumshore

    Hoping more R&D is put into freight and shipping transportation, especially cargo ships, else the great global exporting of our pollution and carbon/oil usage over the last few decades might reverse, if Chinese manufactures suddenly decide to move ‘closer to the world’s biggest consumer’. Things might be bad growth wise in America, but least we forgot where most of the spending goes – from the consumer. Bye bye PEAK DEMAND.

  • Anonymous

    Well who knew. The new profit James Hansen from the USA, has predicted that the world will end and it will start in Alberta Canada. Hysterical Armageddon statements from a NASA scientist is out of line.

  • sskauai

    Ignoring the published scientific opinons of the vast majority of credible, peer reviewed, “Scientific Organizations” is not very ethical and just plain lazy Ethical Oyl!?

    The recent CERN results are an interesting step toward understanding cloud science but as stated in “Real Climate” (a blog actually run by real Climate scientists)    “It is eminently predictable that the published results will be wildly
    misconstrued by the contrarian blogosphere as actually proving this
    link. However, that would be quite wrong.”

    Get some insight into scientific analysis of the CERN results at  http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/08/the-cerncloud-results-are-surprisingly-interesting/ and get real!

  • Ethical OYL

    With peer reviewers including Mr. Tricks and “Hide the decline” Hockey stick men populating the “real scam” website, I look elsewhere for credible information. Gore’s extravaganza of a few days ago looks like Custer’s last stand for AGW.
    My simple question remains unanswered.
    Now sea level looks like it is going into a rapid decline as per NASA satalite data last few years . Another nail in the coffin.

  • Jeffberg

    The tarsands currently make up 5% of Canada’s emissions.  Canada makes up about 2% of world emissions.  That means that the tarsands make up 1/10 of one percent of world emissions.  Climate change or no climate change the people of Alberta are never going to vote for a shut down of the tarsands because of world emissions.  

    What they might vote for, if they were ever given the opportunity, is a greater share of the economic rent that the tarsands represent.  (The 1996 Declaration of Opportunity created a 1% royalty on tarsands. There ain’t a single tinpot dictator out there getting anywhere near that little.  Norway by contrast is getting over 50% of the economic rent, and Venezuela is doing what it can to match this rate. The Saudies long ago passed it.) What they also might vote for is getting the corporations to be on the hook for remediation to the substantial damage that this mining represents.  (So far about 2/10ths of one percent of the land has been remediated) What they might vote for is the corporations paying for the massive infrastructure deficit that the tarsands have created. (So far sitting around $7 billion)So far instead, as usual, we are socializing the risk and privatizing the profit.  And the profit isn’t   even going to Canadians.  As has been said before, “Canadians are the worst colonials.”