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Hansen’s Oil Sands Facts are Lost in Space

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted May 11, 2012

To hear it from environmental activist James Hansen, development of the oil sands in Canada will usher in the apocalypse, “game over for the climate,” as he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.

It’s a frightening thought, but unfortunately for Mr. Hansen, it’s not grounded in realistic assumptions.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Hansen has proclaimed “game over” if the oil sands are developed. In June 2011, Hansen penned a letter calling the oil sands a “monster,” the development of which would mean “game over” in the global effort to control carbon emissions. Hansen wrote that the oil sands contain “at least” 400 gigatons of carbon, which would equate to adding about 200 parts per million (ppm) to the atmosphere.

But in his recent op-ed, Hansen now states that the oil sands contain 240 gigatons of carbon. What changed?

The reasons are likely numerous, but a significant one came from Andrew Leach, who pointed out last summer (right after Hansen published his letter) that to get the carbon content Hansen claimed, you’d have to burn 2.4 trillion barrels of oil – or about 40 percent more oil than the total in-place resources found in the Canadian oil sands. It’s worth noting that the new figure Hansen uses – 240 gigatons – is 40 percent lower than his original claim. Leach also noted that it would take until the year 3316 to get the amount of oil out of the ground that Hansen is referencing.

Moreover, total oil in place does not indicate how much oil will be produced. Although technologies are constantly evolving to allow for greater recovery rates, the oil sands in Canada are estimated to hold about 170 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves, with as-yet undiscovered, technically recoverable resources being pegged at about 320 billion barrels, or about 86 percent less oil than what Hansen suggested in his original “game over” model.

What’s even worse about Hansen’s doomsday scenario is the “solution” he offers to rectify it: a new tax on carbon that could raise energy costs for consumers, who might not be able to purchase as much, decreasing demand. Hansen specifically references “the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price” as something that would, somehow, “stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners and losers.”

How a new tax to be collected and distributed by the federal government will “avoid enlarging government” is anyone’s guess.

Finally, Hansen assumes that efficiencies have completely flatlined and will not improve – a hypothesis that doesn’t even pass the laugh test, much less empirical evidence. As just one example, congressionally mandated increases in fuel economy through 2025 will substantially reduce U.S. gasoline consumption. This, combined with increased oil supplies from Canada through the Keystone XL pipeline, would allow the U.S. to reduce oil imports from unfriendly countries like Venezuela – with the added advantage of the environmental benefits pipelines offer over other forms of transportation.

In short, Hansen’s “game over” scenario suffers from significant flaws in its assumptions, and the fix he proposes for his wild projection could actually create additional and unnecessary economic pain to American consumers.

The truth is that development of the oil sands – and the approval of the Keystone XL – will create tens of thousands of new jobs, significantly grow the economy and further enhance America’s energy security. And as U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has said, companies developing the oil sands are “making great strides in improving the environmental impact of the extraction of this oil and will continue to do so.”

Not so frightening now, is it?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.