Sunday, October 28, 2018

Controversial? Expand pipelines to help solve Climate Change

When I was at the Los Angeles Climate Reality training, an announcement came out that stated that the Trans Mountain (Kinder Morgan) Pipeline project had been stalled by the Canadian Supreme Court.  This announcement was met with cheers (less oil getting to market equals fewer global emissions, yes?).  Here are the details:

Allow me to spark a likely controversial discussion.  I am not sure that limiting pipeline capacity is in the best interests of reducing climate change.  In fact, it is my argument that the carrot of expanding pipeline capacity could provide regulatory agencies enough leverage to extract significant clean energy funding, and put substantial carbon-reduction policies in place, that would not otherwise be possible without this opportunity.  Now, in the case of Alberta, expanding the pipelines (both the Keystone XL, and the Trans Mountain) will allow for greater Canadian oil to get to market.  Both of these expansions have been heavily criticized.  So how could they *possibly* be good for climate change?

Allow me to explain my thinking.

First, a quick diversion - the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline met the most resistance from First Nations groups, regarding the location of the pipeline and concerns over local environmental damage (ie, pipeline leaks).  I’m almost uncomfortable with the attachment of the phrase “Indigenous Groups” to the media articles - *all* property rights should be protected and I suspect that if these were white farmers unwilling to relinquish their land that the discussion would be very different — historically, marginalized groups with low political power have often borne the brunt of “progress”.  Local environmental spills are a concern, and may well be significant in their own right (the Supreme Court of Canada thinks so), but that won’t be part of my argument.

Now, back to Climate Change.

Here are my arguments (all figures in USD):

1) The amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere is a function of global oil consumption, which is a function of global oil demand, which is only weakly tied to oil prices.  Therefore, if Canadian oil were throttled, the oil burned globally will simply come from somewhere else.  The only question, then, is if the addition of the pipeline capacity would be enough to move global oil prices to increase global consumption.  My feeling is that it would not.

2) Canada has much more stringent worker safety and environmental regulations than many other nations.  Every drop of oil which doesn’t come from Canada may just as likely be produced from Angola.  Therefore, from an environmental protection concern, and from a global emission concern, if the carbon intensity of Canadian oil is less than that of other producing nations, then the CO2 emissions from a policy of throttling Canadian oil may well go UP.  Alberta and Canada are very serious about reducing methane emissions, with a goal of reducing methane emissions by 45% by 2025 - not a small goal, and not far away.

2a) This is a minor point, but worth mentioning.  An oil industry executive recently mentioned to me: “The only thing worse, from a potential leak perspective, than a new pipeline is a *really old* pipeline”.  My father worked as a welder’s assistant on the pipelines in Canada when he was in high-school — the Canadian pipelines are old, and represent increased environmental risk.  Furthermore, without pipeline capacity, the oil from Alberta is being sent to Texas via rail and trucks, which poses a greater risk of catastrophic failure, and much greater carbon intensity (those trucks aren’t running off of fuel cells).

3) The sad reality is that progress in the clean energy economy is driven by money, and here is where the opportunity lies.  Due to pipeline capacity restrictions, the price of oil in western Canada (the WCS - Western Canadian Select) price is trading a a 46% discount from WTI (West Texas Intermediate).  Earlier this year that was only a 15% spread.  There are some good figures here:

Roughly 2.8 million barrels a day of oil are produced in Alberta.  If Alberta could sell that oil at a 15% discount to WTI, that would be $33.5B/yr more revenue from oil sales, at the same quantity of oil.  Imagine if, say, 25% of that were pumped into clean energy development?  Imagine if the attraction of an increased $33B into the economy allowed the government to impose aggressive carbon reduction policies.  Humans are short-term thinkers, that’s always been to our peril.  Let’s use that to our advantage - provide a short-term carrot (increase pipeline capacity) with long-term policies that we need (aggressive carbon taxes or emission limits that restrict emissions quite quickly).

Now, my numbers might be a bit off.  This study (below) states that the Alberta government is losing $7.2B (CDN - $5.5B USD)/yr due to pipeline capacity limits, but seeing as the Alberta government only gets the oil royalties, I would expect that the $33B overall revenue number is correct.

So, that’s my proposal.  Find a way to increase pipeline capacity out of Alberta, respecting property rights of everyone (compensate all land-owners affected, and don’t target Indigenous Peoples' land), recognize that Canadian Oil has a lower carbon intensity than other producers, and that pipelines have a lower carbon intensity than other logistics methods such as rail and truck, and then use the revenue windfall as a multi-billion dollar investment program for clean energy deployment, and as a means of extracting the political will for aggressive carbon reduction policies.

This is a complicated problem, and I feel that it may be necessary to lose a few battles to win the war.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Our Time is Now

Here's a well laid out argument that encapsulates a lot of what I've been reading about and talking about for the past 20+ years.  This is our moonshot, our "Day After Tomorrow", our Cuban Missile Crisis.  Nothing is more important, on a short-term and long-term scale.

Monday, October 08, 2018

We have 12 years left to act on climate change, UN warns

A great article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

grim report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that if governments don’t act on climate change soon, more devastation is to be expected.

Denial vs Despair.

We have 12 years until we pass the carbon budget for 1.5C.

After 2C, we may never be able to solve this as the ball will start rolling down the hill.  This isn't a "chinese hoax" or "sunspots" or "volcanoes".  What I spend the rest of my life doing may be the last time we have to do anything.