Why Canadian Tar Sands are the Most Environmentally Destructive Project on Earth
[Editor's note: Today, scientists and advocates speaking at the National Press Club in Washington unveiled new research showing that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would damage the climate much more than previously thought, by dramatically expanding tar sands production and because it will lead to increased combustion of a particularly dirty form of oil. Two reports were presented today, including Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands revealing that current analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a high-carbon byproduct of the refining process that is a major source of climate change causing carbon emissions: petroleum coke—known as petcoke, and The Climate Implications of the Proposed Keystone XL Oilsands Pipeline from the Pembina Institute—a Canadian environmental think tank—revealing how the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would accelerate expansion of the tar sands and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman issued the following statement on these two reports: “The new reports show that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline is the key that will unlock the tar sands. If the pipeline is approved, the world will face millions more tons of carbon pollution each year for decades to come. After Hurricane Sandy, devastating drought, unprecedented wildfires and the warmest year on record in the United States, we know that climate change is happening now, we have to fight it now, and we must say no to this pollution pipeline now.”]
The Canadian tar sands have been called the “most environmentally destructive project on earth,” with good reason.
But what if we told you that a significant proportion of the climate impact from exploiting the tar sands has been overlooked?
That’s the story told in our latest report Petroleum Coke: the Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands.
It turns out that analysts have been examining the liquid fuels derived from tar sands bitumen and calculating the emissions associated with producing those light liquid fuels (i.e. gasoline and diesel), and adding the emissions from burning those liquid fuels to derive a “well-to-wheels” analysis of emissions.
On this basis alone, the European Commission has determined that the emissions from tar sands derived fuel are 23 percent greater than fuel from conventional crude used in Europe.
But tar sands bitumen is a semi-solid hydrocarbon. In fact a barrel of bitumen contains 24 percent more carbon than a barrel of conventional light oil. This additional carbon does not make its way through to the gasoline and diesel manufactured from tar sands bitumen. It is removed.
This "removed" carbon doesn’t disappear; far from it. In fact 15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen is converted during the refining process into a coal-like solid fuel called petroleum coke or "petcoke." This is considered a byproduct of tar sands refining and most analysts assessing the climate impact of the tar sands have to date dismissed the emissions from burning this petcoke.
They have done this partly because they have not developed a methodology to include petcoke emissions into their calculations of the emissions from the liquid fuels. Some have recognized it’s there and have raised it as an issue for further study.
But industry analysts including IHS CERA, which has published two studies on tar sands greenhouse gas emissions entitled Getting the Numbers Right, consider the emissions from burning petcoke as “negligible.” The assumption is that petcoke simply replaces coal and therefore there is no net emissions rise.
This is a convenient but entirely misguided assumption.
Petcoke is like coal, but is in fact dirtier. Petcoke has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal, emitting between 5 to 10 percent more CO2 than coal per unit of energy produced. A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.
So even if petcoke did simply replace coal, which is not the case, the net emissions from whichever activity the petcoke is fueling (eg: power generation) are higher.
But because petcoke is a byproduct refineries price it “to move.” It is selling into the market at around a 25 percent discount to coal.
Now we all know (don’t we?) the basic law of economics. More Supply = Lower Prices = More Demand. But growing supplies of petcoke are not only adding to the global supply of fuel for coal-fired power generators, they are undercutting coal on price.
Indeed industry analysts have shown that a typical 1 gigawatt coal plant can save around $120 million per year in fuel costs by blending petcoke with coal in their boilers. That sounds to us like a boon for coal-fired generators and a bad deal for cleaner fuels competing with coal in a tight market.
Our report reveals the following startling facts about the tar sands and petcoke.
- Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories.
- There is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.
- 15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke depending on the upgrading and refining process used.
- Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke.
- U.S. refineries produced more than 61.5 million tons of petcoke in 2011—enough to fuel 50 average U.S. coal plants each year.
- In 2011, more than 60 percent of U.S petcoke production was exported.
- Keystone XL will fuel five coal plants and thus emit 13 percent more CO2 than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.
- Nine of the refineries close to the southern terminus of Keystone XL have nearly 30 percent of U.S. petcoke production capacity, over 50,000 tons a day.
- The petcoke produced from the Keystone XL pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
- These petcoke emissions have been excluded from State Department emissions estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline. Including these emissions raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13 percent above the State Department’s calculations.
- Cheap petcoke helps the coal industry.
- As a refinery byproduct, petcoke is “priced to move,” selling at roughly a 25 percent discount to conventional coal.
- Rising petcoke production associated with tar sands and heavy oil production is helping to make coal fired power generation dirtier and cheaper—globally.
- From January 2011 to September 2012, the U.S. exported more than 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired power plants.
- “PetKoch”: The largest global petcoke trader in the world is Florida based Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch—the brother of Charles and David Koch.
- Oxbow Carbon has donated $4.25 million to GOP Super PAC s, making it the one of the largest corporate donors to super PACs.
- Oxbow also spent over $1.3 million on lobbyists in 2012.
As mentioned above, the impacts of petcoke on the local and global environment have not been considered by regulatory bodies in assessing the impacts of the tar sands.
Petcoke’s full impacts must be considered by the European Union in its debate on the Fuel Quality Directive, by the U.S. State Department in its consideration of the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline, and by Canadian, American and European governments in tar sands policies across the board.
Increasing petcoke use is a clear result of the increasing production of tar sands bitumen. Petcoke is a seldom discussed yet highly important aspect of the full impacts of tar sands production. Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.