Ontario natural gas strategy will make environmental implications of Keystone pipeline irrelevant

Environmentalists who make a big deal out of opposing the proposed expansion of the Keystone pipeline do so on the grounds of the sheer amount of carbon it represents. The proposal is about extending the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas; it already crosses the Canada-U.S. border.

The Canadian version of the Sierra Club in late June republished a letter by assorted environmentalists and activists calling for civil disobedience in opposition to the plan to expand Keystone from Cushing Oklahoma to Houston Texas.

The letter, co-signed by climate scientist James Hansen among others, calls Keystone “a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent.”

Nice rhetoric, and it is difficult to tell what’s the bomb—Houston, where the pipeline would end, or Hardisty Alberta, where it begins. Either Houston or Hardisty could be the bomb, since activities at both of them involve gargantuan amounts of carbon. I’m Canadian, so as far as this post is concerned, Hardisty is the bomb.

Hardisty is where synthetic crude made from oil sands bitumen enters the pipeline. The process of making syncrude is fascinating, and a testament to ingenuity and innovation in large scale mechanical and chemical engineering.

But it is also highly CO2-intensive. This is for two reasons. First, it takes a huge amount of heat to steam bitumen out of sand. That heat is provided primarily by burning natural gas. Combustion produces CO2.

Second, syncrude manufacture requires massive amounts of hydrogen to “lighten” the liquid bitumen, which is naturally very carbon-heavy. That hydrogen is manufactured by splitting natural gas via steam-methane reforming (SMR). The steam in SMR is produced by boiling water, which is itself heated by burning… natural gas. The second stage of SMR releases CO2 as a process product. It is estimated that this accounts for 50 to 60 kilograms of CO2 for each barrel of syncrude.

That is a pretty big part of the carbon bomb in Hardesty.

Now, if environmentalists are offended by the sheer amount of carbon involved in the Keystone pipeline, and by far most of that carbon (actually, CO2) comes from using natural gas, then why do most of these same environmentalists advocate expanding the market for the very same substance—natural gas—in Ontario?

Most “green” lobbyists will turn blue and twist into all sorts of interesting rhetorical shapes before they will admit they actually support massively expanding the use of a carbon-heavy fossil fuel. But that is exactly what they are doing. Though they pretend that Ontario can wean itself off coal-fired power generation by adopting renewables like wind and solar, they know wind and solar cannot provide more than a tiny amount of the actual replacement power. They know that by far most of the replacement power will come from natural gas, the very same substance that is causing oil sands greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket.

James Hansen, the most prominent signatory of the above-mentioned letter, is a strong advocate of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, the Sierra Club, which republished the letter Hansen co-signed, is stridently anti-nuclear. In Ontario, Sierra opposes new nuclear build and favours, incredibly, natural gas.

Does anyone realize there is a major disconnect in Sierra’s—and every other mainstream environmental lobbying organization’s—position on Keystone? If the effort to block the expansion of Keystone succeeds, the same natural gas that would have made that syncrude run from Hardesty to Houston will just get dumped into the air, as CO2, in Ontario. What’s the difference?

If the current anti-Keystone effort succeeds it will have been a symbolic victory at best. Canadian syncrude is flowing into the U.S. as I write this and has been since TrnasCanada, the owner of Keystone, converted the line from natural gas to crude. So blocking the expansion from Oklahoma to Texas will only prevent syncrude from efficiently moving to refineries on the Gulf Coast. But it will eventually get to those refineries.

The “greens” know this, of course. Which makes their anti-Keystone efforts also symbolic. If they actually block the Cushing to Houston line, big deal. Life will be more difficult for refiners on the Gulf Coast and that is about it. Oil sands syncrude will still get manufactured, refined, and burned in cars.

I think the anti-Keystone campaign is, for mainstream environmental lobbies, all about convincing their rich donors that they are doing something useful. (And when I say “rich donors” I mean rich. The Sierra Club’s U.S. CEO, Carl Pope, makes a six-figure salary, and the website Muckety lists his relationships as including the National Petroleum Council.) What they are actually doing—possibly on behalf of oil and gas industry funders—is facilitating the expansion of natural gas use in Ontario. By doing so, they are undercutting James Hansen, who was good enough to lend his public support to their cause. Shame on them.

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12 years ago

Parker Gallant has some choice words for the green lobbyists in Ontario. Personally, I don’t think Ontario will have a coherent energy policy unless these ENGOs are removed from positions of influence.


Jeff S
12 years ago

Might I ask for a point of clarification? What is the purpose of extending the pipe to Houston? Will Houston be a new source, pumping (oil?) into the pipe, or a destination, where it will be extracted from the pipe and “consumed”? It sounds like Houston would be a consumer, but I’m not sure.

What does Houston being a consumer of syncrude have to do with increased consumption of Natural Gas? I get that NatGas is used in the process of bitumen extraction and processing, but wouldn’t burning just straight natural gas, while still producing carbon, produce a lot *less* carbon than using NatGas to extract bitumen (which has a lot MORE carbon that you are then extracting from the ground), then using more natural gas to process the bitumen?

By opposing increased consumption of bitumen, even if they are in favor of burning NatGas for power plants, wouldn’t that still lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions?

Jeff S
12 years ago
Reply to  Jeff S

Replying to myself because I’ve thought a bit more about your post. I guess the point about blocking the expansion to Houston being ‘symbolic’, and that the syncrude will be sold into the U.S. *anyhow* is a good point. But, I still think that their position is not quite as contradictory as you claim – if they could actually *shutdown* the pipeline and somehow cause the syncrude to never be extracted and burned (something which probably is not going to happen in any case), it does seem like that would leave a lot of carbon in the ground. But as you say, the pipeline exists, and will be selling syncrude anyhow.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Jeff S

I get that NatGas is used in the process of bitumen extraction and processing, but wouldn’t burning just straight natural gas, while still producing carbon, produce a lot *less* carbon than using NatGas to extract bitumen (which has a lot MORE carbon that you are then extracting from the ground), then using more natural gas to process the bitumen?

Jeff, we’re talking about two different activities. One is transportation fuel manufacturing (i.e., syncrude production and crude refining), the other is power generation. The green lobby opposes nuclear-based power generation, which is 100 percent CO2-free, in favour of natural gas-fired generation, which emits CO2 at a rate of 300 to 600 grams per kilowatt-hour generated (counting only generation emissions, not lifecycle).

Put briefly, here is the comparison:

Amount of GHGs emitted by power plants, in grams CO2 per kWh
Nuclear: 0
Gas-fired: 300-600

The “greens” have decided that it’s better to dump those 300 to 600 grams of CO2 into the air than to dump zero CO2. All the noise about the Keystone pipeline is just noise, and they know it. They know they cannot prevent Alberta syncrude from being refined in the U.S.

My point is that the god of thermodynamics doesn’t really care whether CO2 that is dumped into the atmosphere comes out of an oil sands upgrader or a steam-methane reforming plant, or out of an Ontario power generating plant. CO2 is CO2.

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