Friday, November 01, 2013

Jonathan Chait Is Wrong

Jonathan Chait is wrong, for many reasons.  Joe Romm and Charlie Pierce do the dozens on Chait's politics, Eli is going to take a minute to talk loonies. Chait's argument is that opposition to Keystone is a distraction, that the central issue for the Obama administration is regulation of power plants.

My view, which I laid out in a long feature story last spring, is that the central environmental issue of Obama’s presidency is not Keystone at all but using the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants. 
Eli pointed out that the Obama administration was going to use regulation as a club, oh about four Brian already discussed Chait in May.  Chait cites the Congressional Research Service which reported that the pipeline itself would raise US emissions only by a small amount.  OTOH, as Simon Donner points out, development of the oil sands adds enough carbon to the atmosphere to take us through a 6 C world. Many argue that if Keystone is not built, the Canadians will build pipelines east and west to export the oil.

Eli, Eli, as he said, looks at the loonies.  Oil extracted from tar sands is expensive oil, ~$85/bbl to produce as an estimate.  Then you have to refine it, but refining the bitumen from the tar sands is itself expensive, and can only be done at refineries that have a special, expensive piece of equipment called a coker for refining heavy oil.  Most of the refining capacity for heavy is in Houston, where it was built up for handling the heavy oil from the Oronoco basin (e.g. Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago).  This econopolitical fact drives the relationship between Venezuela and the US.  Both parties need each other economically.  The cost of the refined bitumen probably has to be below $100/bbl to justify investment, and the $85/bbl for extraction leaves a very small margin for refining.

The Keystone pipeline would be the most economical way of moving the bitumen to Houston.  Shipping via other methods, such as pipelines to the Canadian coasts and then by ship to Houston, or by tanker to Houston (rail or truck), or building new cooker units at Canadian refineries, simply puts the cost of tar sand oil well beyond what the future prices of oil are thought to be.  Thus, development of the tar sands depends crucially on the Keystone pipeline being built.

A useful thought on the issue is the failure of alternate energy policies in the Carter administration (1976-1980).  No one was going to seriously invest when the Saudi's could turn on the tap and produce at a cost below (then) of $1/bbl.  Other sources of oil were developed, not when discovered, but when production costs from those sources were lower than the projected cost of oil in the future.

Anybunny seeking more detail should read Derek Leahy at the Canadian deSmog, and Simon Donner at Maribo.  They are Canadians, not loonies.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I appreciate your analysis of the tar sands oil situation, but I don't think that you are right. I would be astonished if they weren't developed just because Keystone were not built. Nobody has figured out how to stem the world's thirst for oil, and higher prices seem baked in. At best, you might get a slight delay.

Susan Anderson said...

Thanks for the resources, excellent stuff.

I do get tired of the discouraged stuff, however. It is to remind you all that we've been giving up to get along for almost four decades now. Obama et al. have taught us that moving the goalposts because the other guy is going to move them anyway is not an effective tactic.

Miguelito said...

It's far more complicated than what you're portraying.

Mined bitumen needs about $65 to 75$/bbl WTI to make a 10 to 15% rate of return. In-situ bitumen (which you produce through steaming it through wells) needs $50 to $60/bbl to earn a 10 to 15% ROR. This includes a discount for the product because bitumen is of lesser quality than Cushing light oil. These are not "marginal" projects that are easy to knock out of production with a simple increase in differentials between the Gulf Coast and Western Canada. They get pretty good returns.

The projects that start getting marginal at $95/bbl WTI are the mining and upgrading projects, where they mine the bitumen and then convert it to synthetic crude oil (which don't have a big discount based on crude grade). However, those that were planned are now getting canceled because it's just better economics to mine it or produce via in-situ methods. That doesn't mean this bitumen won't be produced, because it can still be mined. It just won't be upgraded.

In short, simply knocking Keystone XL out of the game isn't going to slow much down unless you stop all other transport options from growing, rail and other pipe. The economics are pretty good.

Plus, you say Keystone XL is "cheaper", but that's not necessarily the case. Other pipes might be marginally more expensive, but not much so to have a substantial impact.

However, bitumen by rail is surprisingly competitive. Putting bitumen in a pipeline requires diluent, which is relatively expensive and takes up about 30% of the total volume, alot of that diluent also being consumed in the refining process. Bitumen by rail, however, doesn't need any diluent, meaning the producer doesn't have to buy diluent and then dilute their product, meaning they get far more for their product when it arrives at refinery. Plus, rail can make it pretty much anywhere in the U.S., potentially increasing the number of markets it can reach. The economics of rail are really competitive with pipe, far more so than people are letting on.

And, even if you stop bitumen growth, let's not forget that the U.S. is sitting on its own carbon bomb of tight/shale oil (not to be confused with oil shale), which will just help fill the void if no oil sands production makes it to the U.S. Gulf Coast. In just five years time, it's raised U.S. production by about 2.5 million barrels per day, which is more than what the oil sands are currently producing (and took decades to get there).

All in all, going after Keystone like this has been a foolish waste of energy and time. Certainly, it's rallied the troops, no doubt about that. But transport by rail is growing fast and other pipelines are being planned and going through the regulatory process. And, if Keystone is rejected in the end, all you'll have accomplished is pushing many moderates to vote Republican (there's big public approval for Keystone XL just as much as there's public support for policy to reduce GHG emissions) and then forget about any big-P carbon policy for at least the next four years.

How would that time and energy have been better spent? Undermining the Republicans, somehow (hell, buy ad time for Tea Party candidates to show America just how nutty they are). Public education on climate change. Instead, all we got was a circus.

Anonymous said...

It's usually the clueless naysayers who know nothing about the issues that claim "it will never work".

..and usually those who are doing nothing that are the quickest to claim others are "wasting" their efforts.

Quite frankly, what difference does it even make what these folks think?

We will find out soon enough if the effort (which has already been expended,by the way) has been "wasted".

It makes no difference that some self-styled "expert" claims on a blog that "rail will work just as good".

I find it hard to believe that Keystone and Canadian government officials would be pushing so hard for Keystone if the latter were actually true. It would make no sense.

But hell, let's just do the experiment and see, shall we?

Anonymous said...

Clueless naysayers and/or shameless shills :)

Miguelito said...

And now I'm looking at that figure, the one trying to show how we'll be doomed if all those projects are finished, way over a 6-degree world. Game over.

Unfortunately, that's not how markets work. Nor is it appropriate to use the IEA's data this way. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the IEA's models work, where an oil price projection determines future oil supply, the marginal barrel getting pushed out when any slightly cheaper supply comes online.

That is, if bitumen rose to the level of about 6.5 million barrels per day, the bitumen surplus to the production levels indicated in the various temperature scenarios would simply push marginal oil out of the marketplace somewhere else by keeping it in the ground. I.e. world oil production would largely be unchanged and the net effect on emissions in the world would be zero.

It's the same reason why, if you stop bitumen production, other oil will simply come online to replace it somewhere else. Again, the net effect on emissions largely being zero.

Not to mention that the production of facilities currently operating or in construction would probably be declining by the time 2035 rolled around, meaning the total daily production in 2035 would not be 6.5 million barrels per day, but something less, maybe alot less.

If Pat Michaels or Anthony Watts pulled some BS by using analysis inappropriately and out of context like that figure does, that analysis would get ridiculed (and rightly so).

But sure, keep blaming the tar sands. If you really want to get something done in the world and the U.S, go after tailpipe emissions.

Miguelito said...

Sorry to go with the extra comments, but I think the best analogy for trying to stop bitumen production as a way to slow climate change, as well what happens if bitumen production is above the levels forecasted levels by the IEA, is water vapor.

Sure, you can force some water vapor into the atmosphere locally, but we know that it won't stay unless the temperature change is permanent. Thus it, or water vapor someplace else, will simply precipitate out to bring humidity back to an equilibrium of what the global temperature will support.

Meanwhile, if you remove water vapor locally, unless it's supported by a global temperature fall, water there or someplace else will evaporate to again restore that humidity equilibrium.

It's simplistic, but if you think of oil prices as being something akin to global temperature, it goes to show that shutting off production in one area will simply cause production to rise in another. Alternatively, higher than expected oil production in one area will simply cause production drops in others to maintain that balance of what the market can absorb.

Anonymous said...

me thinks miguelito doth protest to much

Miguelito said...

Anonymous said:

"me thinks miguelito doth protest to much"

I'm sorry, I thought short and shallow critiques that ignore the basic fundamentals of how things work were supposed to be exclusive to the climate denier cloud.

Anonymous said...

you just seem to be really 'invested' in the argument.
much more than me.

Miguelito said...

Anonymous said:

"you just seem to be really invested' in the argument. much more than me."

Nice trolling. I don't own a single energy stock or bond. While I have mutual funds with energy components, they're not the primary component. So try again.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Anonymous - You do realize that your comments are just content free insults, right? why don't you sit back and let the adults have a conversation if you have nothing to add.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

If you actually want to do something that might work, work for carbon taxes.

Miguelito said...

Yeah, I like carbon taxes. It'd work great for fuels like gasoline and diesel. It can be applied to electricity from coal and gas when it's sold wholesale into the market. And it generates revenue that can be used to help renewable energy and nuclear compete better.

I've always thought of something like a cap and trade as becoming a massive clusterfark in terms of bureaucracy and regulations. And, the more regulations you need, the easier it is for somebody to find a way to undermine them.

Obama's approach of going sector by sector (increasing mileage standards for cars and setting emission limits for power plants) will work in the meantime, and it's not like he has any other choice, but it's probably not the most efficient way to get where we need to go.

Miguelito said...

I came across some more recent costs on the oil sands.

Seems that $50 to $75/bbl WTI for in-situ projects is the norm.

Mining is from $70 to $100/bbl WTI.

Mining and upgrading? Forget it. $100 WTI and more.

Table 3.5 at:

So, my point largely stands. Most projects actually have pretty good returns at WTI prices and you'd need a really big and permanent differential to stop alot of bitumen production in the long term. This, of course, would require stopping many new pipes and cutting rail off at the knees. For that, I wish you good luck, especially since, as I've already said, it won't matter for squat in terms of emissions in the end unless you kill off demand.

Anonymous said...

Keystone should be killed because it is not in US national interest, period (Americans take on the risk with little benefit, since the oil is destined for the world market)

Like it or not, that it be "in the US National interest" is supposed to be the overriding criterion for a Presidential permit.

It's not hard to imagine that some Canadians supporting Keystone (like Miguelito) might (just might) have a slightly different interest (more to gain and much less to lose) than the Americans who live along the pipeline route who will have to live with the aftermath of the inevitable spills.

Note that one need not have a direct interest (oil stocks, etc) to benefit as a Canadian since the Alberta and Canadian national government will get royalties and taxes from oil sands extraction.

If rail is just as good, fine. good luck with that. Go for it. Just don't transport it across the US.

Miguelito said...

Gosh, I'm so sorry for spamming this thread today, but it's an interesting topic.

Here's something else to chew on: the bitumen with the highest GHG footprint is the stuff that's in-situ, because, to extract it, you need lots of steam as heated by natural gas. It's also the vast bulk of the extractable bitumen resource and the least expensive to produce. In-situ bitumen is also finally out-producing mined bitumen for the first time and is expected to be the biggest contributor to bitumen-production growth in the future.

In other words, stopping Keystone XL isn't going to slow development of this resource by very much. It's the marginal stuff that will be cut and that can be easily replaced by production from somewhere else in the world, rendering a net-emissions impact of about zero.

Anonymous said...

Maybe as a Canadian, Miguelito should focus his "concerns" on his own country first.

After all, his own government has gone off the proverbial deep end when it comes to emissions increases and energy resource exploitation.

And we Americans are perfectly capable of deciding what is best with regard to a pipeline that will cross hundreds of miles of our farmlands and aquifers, thank you very much.

Just sayin'

If this seems like I am pissed that this fellow is pretending* to tell Americans what is best, it is that I am.

*and pretending is all he is doing. Anyone who has read what the interested parties themselves say about the critical importance of pipelines to tar sand development knows that the idea that rail is somehow a viable alternative just waiting to be exploited should keystone be killed is just utter nonsense.

Migeulito calls the effort to kill Keystone a "circus" which essentially means he is calling people like Bill McKibben and Jim Hansen clowns.

It's pretty clear who the real clown is in this case and it ain't Jim Hansen.

Anonymous said...

"Nice trolling."

..said the concern troll (Miguelito)

Miguelito said...

If Eli's pension fund benefits from investment in oil and gas companies, does that make him some sort of shill?

All I'm doing is pointing out the naivety of believing that stopping Keystone will do much, if anything, to control GHG emissions.

And I fully believe that the Canadian government's lack of action on GHG emissions has been absolutely pathetic. We're an international embarrassment and I won't defend their lack of action. We should be doing something but we aren't. I haven't voted for the federal Conservatives in 15 years and won't in the next election. They've proven themselves anti-science and very ideology driven rather.

That doesn't change that treating Keystone by itself as some sort of "keystone" in stopping the rise of GHG emissions is a pretty poor strategy.

Anonymous said...

"All I'm doing is pointing out the naivety of believing that stopping Keystone will do much, if anything, to control GHG emissions"


Anyone can see from what you have written above that that is NOT all you are doing.

In fact, you made a point of denigrating the Keystone opposition (and, by extension the people involved -- Jim Hansen and countless thousands of Americans) calling the effort a 'waste of time" and a "circus".

You also implied (again with no evidence) that it has actually been somehow "counterproductive".

"That doesn't change that treating Keystone by itself as some sort of "keystone" in stopping the rise of GHG emissions is a pretty poor strategy."

That's just a straw man.

Folks like Jim hansen and Bill McKibben are under no delusions that stopping keystone by itself will stop the rise of emissions.

In addition, as I indicated above, there is an argument to be made against Keystone that is completely independent of the GHG issue.

Namely, that it is not in US national interest, threatening farmers and aquifers along the route.

But of course, you have conveniently ignored the fact that what you call a "circus" includes quite knowledgeable folks like climate scientist Jim hansen and many thousands of Americans who are concerned not only with climate but with the issue of spills.

And whether you admit it of not, your comments above have ALL the trappings of concern trolling.

Anonymous said...

If Eli's pension fund benefits from investment in oil and gas companies, does that make him some sort of shill?"

As I indicated above (and you conveniently ignored), you benefit as a Canadian by the mere fact that your government benefits (from royalties and taxes).

And just as importantly, you take on NONE of the risk associated with piping the oil hundreds of miles across American farmland and aquifers.

As far as i am concerned, as a Canadian you can do whatever the hell you please with your god damned tar sands. No one is stopping you.

You made it quite clear that the oil will get to market one way or another.

We Americans can even provide you with the opportunity for you to foul your OWN land and water -- by killing the Keystone pipeline.

Just don't expect US to foul OUR land and water for you and your crackpot government, OK?

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

While I agree that Keystone itself would have negligible impact on CO2 emissions in and of itself, there is nonetheless strong motivation to oppose it precisely for the reasons its proponents trumpet--namely the jobs it will bring.

One of the most worrisome trends I see at present is the emergence of the US as a petro-state. This is occurring at a time when the evidence that climate change is a serious concern is becoming so incontrovertible that even troll #1 cannot continue to deny it. And yet, if millions of jobs in the US depend on demand for petroleum, denial will continue to be a political force in the country.

We cannot solve this problem if the most technologically advanced infrastructure on the planet is not all in to solve it.

Ultimately, the jobs of the future must be green jobs. The US does itself no favors by anchoring itself to a 20th century energy infrastructure rather than creating the infrastructure that will dominate in the 21st century.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

The most technologically advanced infrastructure on the planet still looks pretty shabby to me. In fact, it looks more like a ghetto slum, and those manicured lawns are silly.

You must need new glasses.

exusian said...

Miguelito, how about we look at a different way to use opposition to Keystone: as a lever to get a carbon tax passed in both the US and Canada. Implement a carbon tax in exchange for letting the pipeline be built. This would drive up the market cost of the bitumen, making it uncompetitive and slow development of the tar sands, at least for a time.

Kevin O'Neill said...

Miguelito is correct. While Keystone XL gets all the publicity, other means are already in place and being expanded. Superior, Wisconsin is home to an Enbridge refinery (formerly Murphy Oil) and pipelines to North Dakota and Cananda are being expanded - and to southern Wisconsin.

A summary of the Enbridge expansion projects says:

"Expansion of the Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs from Hardesty, Alberta, to Superior, the U.S. portion of which was completed in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion. While sometimes reported as a new pipeline, the project is really a $240 million effort to increase the amount of oil running through the existing pipe. Enbridge is planning a series of pump station and other upgrades to increase capacity from the current 450,000 barrels a day to 570,000 barrels a day in the first phase and to 800,000 barrels a day by 2016 — about the same as the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline and carrying the same kind of oil."

Stopping Keystone XL is a waste of time and resources if all the other avenues aren't shut down at the same time.

Miguelito said...

"Miguelito, how about we look at a different way to use opposition to Keystone: as a lever to get a carbon tax passed in both the US and Canada. Implement a carbon tax in exchange for letting the pipeline be built. This would drive up the market cost of the bitumen, making it uncompetitive and slow development of the tar sands, at least for a time."

Apparently, it's already moving this way. The Conservatives finally realized that, if they want easier access to the U.S. market, they have to make the product more palatable. Word is there will be some sort of carbon levy, but I'm not sure what form it will take nor how much it would be. Those rules were supposed to have been released by this summer, but the Ministry that's drafting them now has a new minister, so I'm not sure when they'll debut or whether there will be something different than a carbon levy.

Anyways, I think this is a great thing, because we really do need to get a handle on our upstream emissions.

Though, again, not just for bitumen, but the entire oil and gas sector. Better still would also be similar rules in the U.S. and better than that would be in the entire world. I'm hoping all oil production will become less economic. Singling out bitumen will just make people find other sources and produce them instead.

Anonymous said...

"While Keystone XL gets all the publicity, other means are already in place and being expanded."

The hilarious thing is that folks like Kevin and Miguelito give this as a rationale for giving Keystone the OK.

If it really "doesn't make any difference " whether Keystone XL gets a permit, why are TransCanada and the Canadian government pushing so hard for it?

The argument folks like Kevin and Miguelito is making is simply illogical.

Also, if it really "doesn't matter" as they insinuate, Obama should deny the permit for Keystone XL because there are other considerations besides the climate one which are in themselves reason enough to deny the permit.

Kevin and Miguelito really need to think about what they are claiming because it makes no sense. In other words, it's nonsense.

Kevin O'Neill said...

Anonymous - Really, learn to read. Where did I said we should give the OK to build Keystone XL? Don't bother rereading my post, I'll save you the time, I didn't say anything remotely close that could be paraphrased to mean we should give them the OK.

What I pointed out is the opposition will be pointless if there are alternatives to Keystone that are not *also* stopped. I also gave a specific example with the Alberta Clipper pipeline that *already* exists and is being expanded to nearly Keystone in size.

Now, if you want to know why advocates want to build Keystone, that's pretty basic - follow the money.

EliRabett said...

FWIW Miguelito is depending on a couple of what ifs. First, if the bitumen can be directly loaded into the tank cars (and sucked out). Right now the tankers are carrying dilutent loaded bitumen so that it can be delivered to the railhead, and also unit trains. How well unit trains loaded with bitumen are going to be received in Canada after the Lac-Mégantic disaster and the October 19th crash in Alberta may be an open question.


It must amuse OPEC to see others taking the lead in energy cost inflation by marketing bitumenous sand and shale oil while free flowing crude still remains in the ground. The higher regulated markets price dilbit, the more hinest to gosh oil producers can get for sweet crude.

Jeffrey Davis said...

"Was it ever possible that they should renounce
their lovely way of life; the variety of their
daily amusement; their magnificent theatre ..."

from "Julian and the People of Antioch" by C.P. Cavafy

Fossil fuel: more addictive than crack cocaine.

Anonymous said...

"FWIW Miguelito is depending on a couple of what ifs"

Just a couple?

How about "His entire "Keystone makes no difference" argument is a giant collection of what ifs? (what if other large pipelines could be built across Canada? what if rail could be massively expanded? What if alteranative refineries for the tar sands could be built? etc)

Miguelito's argument has been debunked countless times by folks who have actually studied the issue and noted the huge problems with building alternative (east/west) pipelines across Canada and/or using rail.

Rather than simply claiming "rail is just as good" etc, they have actually noted the monumental task involved in transporting tar sands on the scale of keystone by rail -- and the monumental task of ramping up the rail to begin with.

There is a very good (ie, logical) reason why TransCanada and the Canadian government are pushing so hard for Keystone XL.

It ain't because they have nothing better to do, but it IS because they have nothing better (than Keystone).

The fact is, right now and for the forseeable future, Keystone XL is the ONLY game in town for significantly ramping up tar sands output from Alberta.

Anyone who claims otherwise is simply in denial of the reality, either because they have no clue or because -- as looks to be the case with Miguelito* -- they are shilling for tar sands).

Despite his denial of any direct benefit (what else would he do?), his "argument" looks a great deal like the arguments that TransCanada and the Harper admin are making are making (because they are scared *hitless that the Keystone XL approval might not go through)

Just my opinion, but I don't think that is an accident, just like I don't think it is an accident that "Miguelito" always seems to "show up" like clockwork (at Rabett Run and elsewhere) when talk to turns to Keystone.

Anonymous said...

It appears to me that Kevin has a point above, that if plans go ahead for Enbridge to enhance their pipeline capacity from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin... by 2016 it will have the same capacity as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And the Calumet refinery (they bought out the Murphy crowd in late 2011) located in Superior, though it only has the capacity to process 45,000bpd of dilbit presently, could presumably be ramped up to handle much more with the prospect of that much mazuma coming its way?

An elephant in the room in this conversation, no?

Anonymous said...

Enbridge is another big if -- and also, not incidentally, the source of the largest and costliest land spills in US history (1million gallons spilled and 3/4 billion dollars and counting for clean up)

An expansion would still have to get approval (albeit not Presidential permit for border crossing) but it might be reasonable to think it might encounter some resistance, no?

Kevin O'Neill said...

Anonymous says: "The fact is, right now and for the forseeable future, Keystone XL is the ONLY game in town for significantly ramping up tar sands output from Alberta.

Anyone who claims otherwise is simply in denial of the reality..."

No, this is factually wrong. As I've already pointed out, the Alberta Clipper line *already* exists, DilBit is already flowing from both ND and Alberta to the Enbridge refinery in Superior.

The existing pipeline is being expanded to Keystone XL size. While the proposed expansion requires both state and federal approvals, it's far more likely to be approved than Keystone XL. 1) because it's an expansion and not a new line, and 2) because it has nowhere near the visibility and vocal opposition that Keystone XL has.

metzomagic points out that the Superior refinery can be expanded. metzo may not be aware that before the sale to Enbridge, Murphy Oil had planned a $5 billion expansion of the Superior refinery. I would be very surprised if Enbridge isn't planning a similar expansion. So metzo is right on the money as far as possible expansion is concerned.