How I learned to start worrying and hate the tar sands pipeline

Bill McKibben arrested at White House

Hopey changey: Wearing an Obama '08 button, Bill McKibben gets arrested to encourage the president to keep his campaign promise to protect the climate. Photo: tarsandsaction via Flickr.

I’m their target audience. I already care about climate change. And I don’t like Big Oil. Yet, it took Bill McKibben and more than 150 other activists getting arrested at the White House for me to finally care about the tar sands pipeline.

Before that, I had five reasons to leave this particular issue to somebody else:

  1. Pipelines are boring. With the Environmental Protection Agency reporting up to 24,000 oil spills each year, plenty of crude must mess up dry land, but it lacks the drama of an offshore disaster like the Exxon Valdez or the Deepwater Horizon. Meanwhile, TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, got a similar one approved by the US government in 2009 with hardly a peep from greenies. So this time, aren’t climate activists just using what’s essentially a commodity piece of equipment in the oil industry as an excuse to revive their movement after the failure of cap-and-trade in 2010?
  2. It’s not in my backyard. Like the 99.9% of Americans who don’t live in one of the rural areas that the pipeline would cross on its route from Alberta to the Gulf coast, it’s easy to dismiss it as a NIMBY issue for Nebraskans or people on the Gulf (who, bless ’em, always do seem to get the short end of the oily stick). Where I live in Appalachia, we’ve got our own local issues with dirty energy to get upset about, from mountaintop removal coal mining to hydrofracking gas from the Marcellus Shale.
  3. High costs alone will kill tar sands. As a peak oil guy, I know that tar sands have a terrible energy return or EROEI. Even if they build the pipeline now, tar sands oil delivers such a poor energy return that sooner or later the industry will realize it’s just not worth the trouble of digging up the bitumen, processing it and then pumping it out of Canada. Then, the companies will shut down the pits in Alberta and either rip out the pipeline or just let it rust away on the prairie, as harmless as a ’63 Ford pickup on cinder blocks.
  4. Will it make much difference to the climate? NASA’s James Hansen, who clashed with his bosses in the Bush Administration and isn’t afraid to hold Obama to account, warns that developing all the oil in the Athabasca tar sands will mean “game over” for the climate. But if America doesn’t buy the tar sands oil, won’t the Canadians just build a pipeline to their Pacific coast so they can sell the oil to China, releasing the carbon anyway?
  5. Terrible name. Keystone XL Pipeline is dishwater dull. Couldn’t they have called it something like the Highway to Hell, the Klimate Killer or, a choice for the key 5- to 8-year old demographic, the Poop-line?

Arrested development

So I have to admit that it did take McKibben, along with Gus Speth (who advised Jimmy Carter on the environment and co-founded the NRDC) and lots of ordinary folks from around the country, getting thrown in the pokey to make me take notice.

Since I’m not lining up to get arrested, they’re braver and more committed than I am, and I’m awed by their courage. I’m also impressed by their organization, recruiting protesters from around the country and then dressing them not in tie-dyed T shirts and Free Tibet caps but in suits and ties and skirts and blouses, eschewing the hippie aesthetic for the all-American cred of the Civil Rights movement. Their talking points are pretty tight too — just check out this Tar Sands Action video.

Then, I was pissed off that the Park Police decided to go hard on the demonstrators, holding them in jail for 48 hours despite a previous understanding with McKibben’s group to play the usual catch-and-release. Even worse, the officers’ orders may have come from the White House. Is Obama trying to send a signal to the green movement to back off because he just wants to approve the pipeline and play nice with Big Oil, environmental voters (and the environment!) be damned?

That would be the same Obama who promised, when he was nominated, that his administration would ensure “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

And all the while, McKibben had his people wear Obama ’08 buttons to show that they supported the guy. At least, the original hopey-changey version we all voted for back in the day.

So if all these protesters — and they’re not just the usual twentysomething activists, but also soccer moms in their fifties too — thought it was worth getting arrested to stop the pipeline, then I thought maybe I should take another look at the arguments against it. As puts it:

You probably know that building the Keystone XL pipeline is a terrible idea. The oil it will carry from Canada’s tar sands will travel all the way from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Think: oil spilling all over America’s heartland. Think: way more CO2 all over the atmosphere, since the tar sands are among the most carbon-intensive of all the fossil fuels.

Why it’s the keystone of disaster

Tar sands mining can already be seen from space, which makes it an international environmental crime that goes far beyond Alberta and Canada. And if that pipeline gets built, once the first barrel of oil flows through it, we risk soaking thousands of American acres with oil so gooey that the federal government has admitted it doesn’t know how to clean it up. It’s an issue that goes far beyond Nebraska or the Texas Gulf coast.

None of this will provide any meaningful energy to consumers, since the net energy of tar sands is so poor. But that doesn’t mean the tar-sands-and-pipeline Ponzi scheme couldn’t limp along for ten or twenty years on taxpayer subsidies, Enron-style accounting and industry hype that all hide what a boondoggle it is.

That’s plenty of time for a bad spill. And plenty of time and resources wasted that America could be investing in energy ideas that really work, like installing solar panels or insulating houses instead of feeding Big Oil’s bottomless greed for short-term profits.

So, to my peak oil and homesteading friends, who think that the imminent collapse of industrial capitalism is a good enough excuse to be apathetic about pretty much any issue of national politics at all, I’m not letting you off the hook on this one.

And even if the pipeline goes through, China (or any other country with enough demand) could still get the oil. Since oil is an internationally traded commodity, the oil companies can sell it to whomever they want. With the Panama Canal due to be widened in the next few years, larger tankers will be able to call at Gulf ports in the future to ship oil back to Asia.

If activists can stop the pipeline to the US, the carbon may stay in the ground a bit longer. That would give the climate movement some breathing room to try other tactics to slow down tar sands development or stop it entirely (which looks like a tall order now, but could be possible in the future if activists continue to get public opinion on their side). In a coup for McKibben, the New York Times ran an editorial this week against the pipeline, saying if it’s built, “greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector as a whole will rise by nearly one-third from 2005 to 2020 — even as other sectors are reducing emissions.”

America vs. Big Oil, again

Tar Sands Action web site

While I’m into saving energy as much as Amory Lovins is, I know you can’t just fight Big Oil by using less of their product or by staging some kind of private boycott. Using less oil is good in itself, but won’t do much to stop the Keystone XL. If you don’t fill up your tank this week, somebody else will fill theirs, whether they’re in Cleveland, Chongqqing or Chennai, creating yet more demand for oil.

So we can’t just approach this from the demand side. We need to attack the supply side.

I hope the brave protesters will keep on kicking Big Oil’s ass and keep on relentlessly dogging Obama about the pipeline. He alone will decide this one; the approval doesn’t need to go through Congress, so the president can’t blame Boehner or Michele Bachmann or the Tea Party. Activists are absolutely right to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. Let it be a hot summer and an even hotter fall for him until he says he won’t approve this poisonous pipeline of satanic slurry.

For the rest of us, here’s what says we can do to help:

  1. Sign the petition to President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline — they’ve already past their initial goal of 35,000 signatures and are hoping to add as many names as possible before giving it to White House officials on September 3rd.
  2. Send in a solidarity message or photo to the people taking action at the White House.
  3. Take part in Moving Planet — a worldwide climate rally on September 24 — and “move beyond all fossil fuels in the loudest, most beautiful way possible.”

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Thanks for your analysis. I’m leaving today on Amtrak with four of my ecovillage neighbors here in Portland, Oregon to participate in civil disobedience on Monday the 29th. We decided that we wanted to do the action together as a community, and have received a lot of support, both from within our community, and otherwise. Here’s a link to my blog post on the decision-…how-an-intentional-community-supports-climate-activism/

    Seems like the police are toeing the line again after being dressed down by the judge. The police said that the decision to hold the first protesters was an attempt to dissuade others from coming and disrupting the MLK events. Ironic, eh? Now we just get to do this action in the face of huge crowds, potential hurricane, and maybe an aftershock or two!

    • says

      Barbara — Good for you and your neighbors to make the trip all the way from Portland to join the protests in DC. I’m very glad to have personal contact with someone who’s going to be at the event. And you are so right about the irony with MLK. If Dr King were alive today, I wonder how he’d take it?

  2. Babun says

    If the tar sands wouldn’t provide any meaningful energy to consumers, it wouldn’t get produced. EROEI is a lot like ROI (the financial one) and if you’re implying the thing is maintained merely by subsidies i suggest you try and back that up with some facts.

    I’m sure it’s bad for the environment, but don’t let yourself be fooled that it would be produced if it did nobody any good.

  3. Erik Curren says

    Babun, according to Robert Rapier in the link I put in the article, to get gasoline from tar sands takes 2.5 times more energy than to get it from light crude. That means that you get less than half the bang for your energy buck for tar sands compared to conventional gasoline. Meantime, Professor Charles Hall says that tar sands gives an energy return of about 5 to 1, which in his opinion, does make it viable, though much less so than today’s light crude.

    Now, will future high prices for light crude make tar sands worth the extra trouble? With all due respect, I think it’s easy to equate EROEI with financial ROI, but that there may be problems with that. As Forbes puts it: “In the real world, however, investors don’t care a fig whether they earn positive Eroei. What they care about is dollar return on dollar invested. And the two aren’t the same–nowhere close–because different forms of energy command wildly different prices.”

    Much of what makes tar sands even close to cost-competitive now are significant subsidies from the Canadian govt, totaling $1.59 billion in 2008. This kind of corporate welfare really hides the true cost of an energy source, and without taxpayer handouts, tar sands oil would be much less price competitive. Also, natural gas is a major input in tar sands production, and should prices rise in the future (as they will inevitably at some point), tar sands oil will also become more expensive.

    Finally, internalizing environmental costs (toxics cleanup and carbon emissions) would surely make tar sands oil totally non-competitive on price. This doesn’t look likely to happen soon. But politics could go in that direction if McKibben and his allies keep bringing so much attention to tar sands.

    Of course, net energy was only one point among many in my article. On the main issue, I agree with McKibben that the environmental impact is reason enough to fight tar sands. I also think that their poor energy return is another reason to fight them — if we gave renewables as much help as the Canadian govt gives tar sands, then they’d be that much closer to being cost competitive in the future. So tar sands oil is not only unconscionably dirty. It’s also just not that good an energy source. We can do better. Much better.

  4. Patrick says

    “Tar sands mining can already be seen from space” is a bit bombastic, isn’t it? Everything that’s more than a couple of square metres can be seen on Google Earth; my house, your car, that big tree over there…

    I’m an Albertan, and almost all of us make our livings in a way that is derived from the oil and gas industry. The Alberta (and Canadian, by extension) economy depends on that oil money to run, and if America doesn’t want it the governments will move mountains (quite literally) and sideline citizen opposition in similar ways you note above to pump it to China. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it’s the reality of the situation; the rest of the world seems to fail to realize that as long as it’s a valuable commodity, my government and private industries going to work on exploiting it. When the natural gas used to run the in situ operations and to frac the tar runs out, they’ll build nuclear reactors. There’s too much money to be made to just shut it all down.

    What needs to happen is to make oil worthless, then it’ll all go away and Alberta will go back to being a 2nd rate agricultural producer. Until then, this province is going to keep developing it, no matter who complains about it. That’s just the hard reality of it.

    • says

      Patrick, the tar sands operations can be seen from space without the magnification of Google Earth: “The toxic tailing lakes are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The toxic lakes in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space” (Source: And I do take the economic impacts seriously. With your govt pouring so much money into tar sands, then it must be a real economic stimulus. Pity they’re not spending all that money on clean energy instead. That could also create good jobs in Alberta. Finally, I think even if the pipeline is built, the oil could still be sent to China, via ships that call at the Texas Gulf Coast and go through the widened Panama Canal. So there’s no guarantee that, if the US accepts the environmental risks of the pipeline, that we’ll even enjoy the energy benefits. It could just mean profits for the oil companies. But stopping the Keystone XL will certainly slow down the process, which will give time for activists to try other angles to stop tar sands. I do hope oil will become worthless someday. I just don’t think that will happen soon enough to help the climate, without some kind of collapse of the global industrial economy.

      • Patrick says

        With all respect, “seen from space” doesn’t mean what it used to; it means anything more than a square metre or so(to us civvies, mil-spec satellites are better than that), not mega-structures. Even your second link relies on Google Earth; are you suggesting that it’s visible with the unaided eye from space? Because you haven’t actually demonstrated that at any point here, and the colloquial “seen from space” is the high-resolution satellite photographs Google Earth uses. I still think this is purely an emotional argument without any real substance.

        As for the rest, I’m sympathetic; I work as a scientist for an NGO monitoring our environment in the province. I’m a peak-oiler. You and I both know that unless the world “powers down” and stops using oil there is no alternative energy that’s going to allow business as usual. I’m a pessimist; I’m certain that business as usual is going to be maintained at all costs and our societies will be dragged kicking and screaming into a post-oil era.

        So in the analysis where does that leave us? In my mind, activists aren’t going to stop the tar sands. There’s too much money to be made up there so it’s going to go forward, hell or high water. The real question then becomes how it’s developed and at what pace. It sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but the industry *needed* those geese to die on that pond for the world to wake up and start applying pressure to clean up their business and develop it more responsibly. They were allowed to operate without real scrutiny and oversight and so awful things happen, like strip mining and dead geese. The NGOs need to (and many are, at least here) get to the negotiating table and make sure they’re part of the, err, solution. By solution, I mean “How is development going to play out?”, because the No Development scenario is laughably optimistic/naive.

        As for the climate change/global industrial society part? Here’s the brass tacks; nobody’s willing to internalize the climactic costs unless everybody does, and that’s not going to happen because there’s more money to be made if you don’t. Nobody that matters is going to take a handicap and risk their economic development. Therefore there’s no conceivable way that a business as usual scenario can play out without devastating the climate.

        My ultimate analysis? Oil is number 1 until it’s gone. There are no viable alternatives to maintain an industrial economy without it. Alberta is sitting on the second largest reserves in the world. Tarsands are awful stuff, but there’s money to be made and money trumps everything. The US needs oil to carry on. Is it going to power down to a post-oil world before China and everybody else? No way, that’s geopolitical suicide and they’ve not realized their empire is over, so they’re going to do everything they can to keep the charade up. Where are they going to get the oil they so desperately need then? Alberta is right next door, it’s friendly and stable. Do I think it’s awesome and do I like it? Not even close, but those are the facts.

        As a sidebar, I don’t think it needs to be shipped anywhere in the unrefined form. I’d much rather they processed the goo down to the final “value added” products here, creating employment and whatnot here rather than shipping the sludge down the line so that Texas can reap the economic rewards of upgrading. But that’s a different topic.

  5. Babun says

    Erik, as you can see even from Mr Rapier’s article, there are quite varying estimates of EROEI, and EROEI in itself isn’t always a good argument (I think it is the amount of energy purchased that matters – if they have “free” energy, then by all means they ought to do it and as it does not affect the financial ROI arguing about EROEI would just be stupid in my opinion).

    Of course in general it’s obvious that Tar sands has both lower ROI and EROEI than regular oil. It’s however less clear, if this has much more practical meaning than simply defining a floor for prices at which tar sands operations pay off.

    If EROEI was more important than ROI, you would be making the assumption the companies are always getting subsidies or someone is losing money in the process. I don’t think that’s a reasonable assumption to make, especially without any facts to back that up.

    Now the subsidies you quote are from a greenpeace blog (I think the consideration of bias really deserves some attention when quoting information relating to oil eroei from the oil drum and environmental concerns from greenpeace by the way!). This source of this information can be tracked back to a GSI report (also from greenpeace) presented at a G20 summit in 2010. According to this paper, the subsidies have been delivered in the form of a “mix of tax breaks and royalty reductions”.

    According to this article
    however, there were apparently quite opposite movements in 2009 regarding oil company taxation and royalties, and it also claims in general (in the title) that “New investments in oil and gas are already taxed more heavily than are other industries”. This calls into question whether the tar sands is actually receiving any subsidies at all. I seem to recall some projects being cancelled/put on hold at the sands back in 2009 because of scant profits, which was probably a result of both this taxation and royalty business and the fact that oil prices were low.

    You also say that natural gas prices will affect prices in the tar sands, and that’s probably true, but it’s most likely a smaller effect than the “positive” effect to profitability because of higher oil prices. Because of the recent surge in shale gas, the near future for natural gas prices looks pretty good in my opinion.

    • Erik Curren says

      Sure, Babun, net energy is a complex subject. This discussion has actually encouraged me to finally get around to doing an article about the subject, in which I’ll interview Robert Rapier and others. I do think EROEI can be a useful check on market signals, which are often distorted by subsidies and politics. We need to judge energy ideas not only by how much they cost today but also by how much energy they deliver in the long run. Otherwise, we’d just burn coal and forget about solar.

      As to subsidies for tar sands, a Google search will show that it’s not only lefty green groups who complain about the huge giveaways from the Canadian govt to the Athabasca fiasco. The thing is bad enough from an environmental standpoint. If you’re not going to ban it as a crime against future generations, then at least let it stand on its own financially.

  6. Babun says

    And to make things clear, i’m not a pro business-as-usual kind of guy either. I’m more of a moderate peak-oiler, concerned about the issue but not overly so. I’m not convinced either that tar sands and other unconventional oil projects are the key to our energy problems either. But I still think even the supply side should be able to function without any constraints, because we need energy.

    Personally however, I’d like to see subsidies going more to demand-side solutions, making our everyday operations more efficient as it’s obvious that waiting for higher oil prices to develop new costly oil is also bad for the economy. Perhaps this time is not so far off, as it seems the global financial engine is sputtering. I suspect oil perhaps isn’t the main culprit now, but it just might be in the near future. Whether the signals actually get through is what worries me. The economy is naturally responding with creating alternatives to oil, when it probably would make more sense to invest in efficiency even more (mass transit, new innovative ways of personal transportation, and simply stopping some kinds of utterly mad operations like burning oil for electricity).

    I don’t think the current look-at-me-im-green kind of product development is what we should be going for. These are all about the looks and bling bling and image and less about “it just works”. We are just making more expensive gizmos for rich westerners. What we ought to be doing is making cheap stuff that just works for the Chinese and the Indians to limit the growth of their oil usage. And also making their industry (especially power generation) more efficient.

    • Jacki Becker says

      Please look at the Ellen McArthur Foundation especially the you tube cartoon on the Circular Economy
      She is really going for it with young people trying to think outside the box rethinking systems on a global scale since she circumnavigated the world single handed as a young girl she now wants to make a real difference to the planet she saw!

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