13: Like a bad boyfriend who won’t go away

Richard Heinberg, 24 July 2012 <[email protected]>

The controversy over whether to green-light the building of the Keystone XL pipeline to connect Canada’s tar sands with refiners on the Gulf coast may not be much in the news anymore, but it’s far from gone. A House Republican bill introduced yesterday would jumpstart the project if approved. While the Senate is likely to kill the bill, and Obama would refuse to sign it, the project itself has backing from unions and polls suggest most Americans are in favor. The XL controversy is not going away.

The pipeline debate is often framed in terms of whether the jobs it will create justify its environmental risks. Let’s ignore those risks for the moment. Forget climate change. Forget leaks. Forget potential damage to streams and aquifers. Now does the pipeline make sense?

Not much.

First, the jobs: just how many are we talking about? Probably the most authoritative source of data in this regard is the Final Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL from the State Department, which tells us that building the pipeline and pump stations “would result in hiring approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers over the three year construction period.” But after that, only 20 permanent employees would be needed to operate Keystone XL. Indeed, a Cornell University study has concluded that the project would kill more jobs than it created, partly as a result of higher oil prices. So the jobs argument is a red herring—especially in light of the news that roughly three times more jobs are created in the renewable energy industry than in the fossil fuel industry per dollar spent (according to research at the PERI Institute at UMASS Amherst).

Profit is the understandable industry objective here, not jobs. More specifically, industry insiders acknowledge the goal of Keystone XL is to remove a glut of unrefined petroleum accumulating in Cushing, Oklahoma at the terminus of the current Midwest pipeline system. Because of that glut, US oil prices have for the past few years lingered around $15 per barrel lower than the international price. Bottom line: the industry wants Americans to pay more for oil.

So why should we want the pipeline, if that’s the case? Now comes the geopolitical argument: because it offers the promise of a secure supply of oil. We’d rather import crude from Canada than Venezuela or the Middle East.

Granted, Canadians are likely to remain dependable business partners for the foreseeable future. But tar sands oil is not the same as conventional petroleum. And this difference has practical, economic implications that trump geopolitics.

When energy analysts measure and compare the qualities of differing energy sources, one of their key criteria is the ratio between the amount of energy invested in production and the amount of energy produced. For conventional oil, that ratio used to be in the range of 100 to 1—a spectacular energy profit that helped fuel the industrial boom of the 20th century. As the petroleum industry has chewed through the low-hanging fruit of easily accessed oil, that ratio has gradually fallen.

With tar sands, the energy return on energy invested is an abysmal 5 to 1, according to analysis by Herweyer and Gupta. (For reference: anything below about 10 to 1 puts us back into the pre-industrial energy profit range.) Tar sands producers make money largely because they are using cheap natural gas as an energy input with which to make higher-priced syncrude. While the financials work as long as oil prices remain high, from an energy policy standpoint the exercise makes little sense. If all our energy sources had such a dismal return on energy investment we’d be producing much of our energy just to fuel the next increment of energy production; we’d have little left over to power cars, planes, and tractors.

Because the easy oil is gone and prices are high, lower-grade resources (like tar sands) that were previously uneconomic are now profitable. Accountants who know nothing about energy analysis tell us this is a good thing because the quantity of low-grade fossil fuel resources is so immense. But as these make up a larger part of our energy mix, the overall quality of our energy declines.

Jobs don’t justify the Keystone XL pipeline. It will raise fuel prices for Americans. And it further locks us into a future of declining energy quality and increasing cost.

So, even ignoring environmental risks, the pipeline makes little sense.

But we cannot afford to ignore those risks, as they imply real and enduring costs.

As long as we delude ourselves that replacing depleting easy oil with expensive, low-quality bitumen is good energy policy, we succeed only in delaying the necessary transition to a viable future of energy conservation and renewables. Wouldn’t it be a wiser move from a cost, jobs, environmental, and energy security perspective to invest our money in needing less oil?

But breaking up is hard to do. One place to start is to stop subsidizing TransCanada and the other oil companies who get billions of our tax dollars.