A head-to-head comparison demonstrates the overwhelming superiority of renewable energy over the Keystone XL. If approved, the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline will carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast in Texas. In addition to risks from spills and potential water impacts, the pipeline will facilitate the mass extraction of Canada’s global warming causing tar sands.
The Earth is getting warmer and we know that this will have calamitous costs, we also know that fossil fuels are the principle source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Increased levels of GHGs have significant harmful impacts on our health, our environment, and our climate.
We are currently on track for catastrophic global warming if we continue with business as usual. If we want to have a shot at keeping global temperature increases under the internationally agreed upon upper threshold of 2 degrees Celsius, we must radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.
We cannot afford to add more than 310 gigatons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, if we are to keep warming within two degrees C. We have already emitted 530 gigatons of carbon, and according to the IPCC’s latest report we can only add a total of 840 gigatons of carbon, that leaves us with a carbon budget of 310 gigatons. We will not be able to stay within our carbon budget and move forward if we move ahead with the Keystone XL.
To keep global temperatures below this threshold we will need to abandon much of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. This is particularly true of tar sands oil which has a far higher emissions profile than traditional oil.
If we are to meet growing energy needs, we will need to ramp up our use of renewables. While this entails considerable investment, it is far less than the combined costs of a significantly warmer world.
Emissions from the tar sands
If approved the Keystone XL pipeline will be a game changing contributer to climate change causing emissions. According to the NRDC report, tar sands oil emits 81 percent more emissions than conventional oil. If the Keystone XL goes forward a Sierra report claims it will generate 181 million metric tons of carbon, an emission load which is the yearly equivalent of building 51 new coal-fired power plants or putting 37 million additional cars on the road.
The State Department report
The State Department’s latest report on the Keystone XL does a very poor job of detailing the pipeline’s emissions, oil spill risks, and threats to water resources. The NRDC showed how the pipeline would increase U.S. carbon emissions by between 935 million and 1.2 billion metric tons over the project’s 50-year timeline. This is far more than indicated in the State Department’s report.
The Canadian province of Alberta, home of the tar sands, has a long history of pipeline explosions and spills. In the case of the Keystone XL, a spill could jeopardize a number of rivers and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water and irrigates agriculture in parts of eight states. In 2013 alone, TransCanada, the company charged with building the Keystone XL, had 14 U.S. spills in a single year.
Pipelines are not only dangerous for the environment, they also kill and injure people. Since 1986, according to a ProPublica investigation, U.S. pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people, injured over 4,000, and cost nearly $50 billion in property damages.
The State Department report claims that Canada’s tar sands will be exploited whether or not the pipeline is built. However, this is refuted by a Sierra article which states that the Royal Bank of Canada believes blocking Keystone XL would significantly inhibit Canada’s tar sands development.
Overview of the benefits of renewable energy
Renewable energy provides substantial environmental and economic benefits, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists this includes:
- Little or no greenhouse gas emissions: According to data aggregated by the International Panel on Climate Change, life-cycle global warming emissions associated with renewable energy which includes manufacturing, installation, operation and maintenance, and dismantling and decommissioning are minimal. A study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) explored the feasibility and environmental impacts associated with generating 80 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050 and they found that global warming emissions from electricity production could be reduced by approximately 81 percent.
- Improved public health: Implementing renewable energy and transitioning away from fossil fuels will significantly reduce air and water pollution from fossil fuels which lead to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. There is evidence to show that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy can increase worker productivity, decrease premature mortality and significantly reduce overall healthcare costs.
- Vast inexhaustible supply of energy: The 2012, NREL study found that renewable energy can supply 482,247 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually which amounts to 118 times the nation’s annual electricity consumption.
- Stable energy prices: Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy is providing affordable electricity across the country right now, and can help stabilize energy prices in the future. While renewable facilities require upfront investments to build, once built they operate at very low cost and, for most technologies, the fuel is free. As a result, renewable energy prices are relatively stable over time. Prices will also benefit from the increased competition that is afforded by scaling renewables. Further, renewable would decrease costs to utility companies that currently spend millions of dollars on financial instruments to hedge themselves against fossil fuel price volatility.
- Reliable and resilient energy system: Wind and solar are less prone to large-scale failure than fossil fuel powered systems because they are distributed and modular. To illustrate the point, a Renewable Energy World article cites a study which showed how Hurricane Sandy damaged and disrupted fossil fuel powered electricity generation and distribution in New York and New Jersey, while renewable energy projects in the Northeast weathered the storm with minimal damage or disruption. This is of great importance as we expect to experience more extreme weather due to climate change. Unlike fossil fuel or nuclear power, wind and solar do not require water to generate electricity which makes them better able to deal with issues of water scarcity.
Pros and cons of renewable energy
While there are many very serious problems associated with the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty bitumen it will carry, a balanced assessment of renewables make a strong case for clean energy. As summarized in an EEP article, renewable energy offers a slew of useful benefits.
Pros: U.S. onshore wind resources have the potential to generate almost 10,500 GW of electricity, 175 times more than the current installed capacity of 60 GW. Based on the average U.S. electricity fuel mix, a one MW wind turbine can displace 1,800 tons of CO2 emissions per year. With a wind power capacity of 300 GW, 825 million metric tons of CO2 emissions could be avoided annually. Most importantly, wind turbines generate very little emissions. Wind emits only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2E/kWh.
Cons: They generate noise pollution and can prove deadly to bats and birds.
Pros: Solar photovoltaic (PV) modules covering 0.6 percent of U.S. land area could meet national electricity demand. While solar PV modules produce no emissions during operation. Solar emits only 0.07 to 0.2 pounds of CO2E/kWh.
Cons: Solar PV modules require toxic substances (e.g., cadmium and selenium) in their manufacturing.
Pros: Biomass has low net C02 emissions in comparison to fossil fuels. At combustion, it releases only the CO2 it previously removed from the atmosphere.
Cons: Additional emissions are associated with processing. Land use is another problem as it requires 124 acres of land to generate one GWh of energy per year and using crop land to grow fuel can adversely impact global food production.
Pros: U.S. geothermal power offsets the emission of 22 million metric tons of CO2, 200,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 110,000 tons of particulate matter from coal-powered plants each year. Geothermal emits only 0.1 to 0.2 pounds of CO2E/kWh.
Cons: Some geothermal facilities produce solid waste such as salts and minerals that must be disposed of in approved sites, but some byproducts can be recovered and recycled.
Pros: Electricity generated from hydropower is virtually emission free. Hydroelectric power emits between 0.1 and 0.5 pounds of CO2E/kWh.
Cons: significant levels of methane and CO2 may be emitted through the decomposition of vegetation that is flooded by the dam. Other environmental concerns include fish injury and mortality, habitat degradation, and water quality impairment. However there are technologies that can help to minimize some of the adverse consequences including “fish-friendly” turbines and smaller dams.
Overall the pros of renewable energy far outweigh the costs.
Declining cost of renewables
The cost of renewable energy has been steadily declining and as we scale renewables this price will continue to decline. The more we produce the lower the cost. As it stands now wind power is currently competitive with fossil fuels and solar has achieved grid parity with coal. Long-term wind contracts are now more than 40 percent cheaper than they were just three years ago and the average price of a solar panel has dropped almost 60 percent since 2011. The cost of generating electricity from wind dropped more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012 and more than 80 percent since 1980. The cost of renewable energy will decline even further as markets mature and companies increasingly take advantage of economies of scale. These costs could be further reduced with the help of standards. A 25 percent renewable electricity standard would lead to 7.6 percent lower electricity prices by 2030.
Renewable energy currently provides only a tiny fraction of its potential electricity output in the U.S. But a plethora of studies have demonstrated that renewable energy can be rapidly deployed to provide a significant share of future electricity needs.
Rather than supporting Canada’s exploitation of the tar sands, the U.S. should be resisting their northern neighbor’s reckless obsession with hydrocarbons. In addition to scaling renewable energy, the most important single thing that the U.S. can do is to deny Canada a market for its dirty fuel.
While the rampant exploitation of Canada’s tar sands oil means “game over” for efforts to combat climate change, renewable energy offers a secure, clean, and healthy solution to America’s energy needs.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.