Citizen Action Monitor

Dr Jim Hansen: Further exploitation of tar sands will have “disastrous global climate impacts.” Urges scientific community to join “this fray now.”

No 186 Posted by fw, June 4, 2011

This post’s title is taken from Dr James Hansen’s June 3, 2011 urgent appeal to the scientific community to “get involved in this fray now.” The “fray” to which Hansen refers is a proposed project now before the U.S. Department of State to approve “a huge pipeline to carry tar sands oil (about 830,000 barrels per day) to Texas refineries.

Here is the full text of Dr Hansen’s message to the community to get involved (with my added subheadings and text highlighting):

Silence is Deadly by Jim Hansen

Dr James Hansen

The U.S. Department of State seems likely to approve a huge pipeline to carry tar sands oil (about 830,000 barrels per day) to Texas refineries unless sufficient objections are raised.

The scientific community needs to get involved in this fray now. If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster.

“Objections, by themselves, are very unlikely to stop the project”

Although there are multiple objections to tar sands development* and the pipeline, including destruction of the environment in Canada and the likelihood of spills along the pipeline’s pathway, such objections, by themselves, are very unlikely to stop the project. (*Asserted impacts include: irreversible effects on biodiversity, the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and Caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities).

Tar sands exploitation would make it “implausible to avoid disastrous global climate impacts”

An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.  The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (AR4) report) to contain at least 400 Gigatons of Carbon (GtC) (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2).

The only way OUT is to leave unconventional fossil fuels IN 

Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm.  However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize climate. (See, for example:  Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?  and The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future).

“If tar sands are thrown in . . . it is essentially game over”

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge.  However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.  There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.

Governments remain oblivious to the facts

Governments are acting as if they are oblivious to the fact that there is a limit on how much fossil fuel carbon we can put into the air.  Fossil fuel carbon injected into the atmosphere will stay in surface reservoirs for millennia.  We can extract a fraction of the excess CO2 via improved agricultural and forestry practices, but we cannot get back to a safe CO2 level if all coal is used without carbon capture or if unconventional fossil fuels are exploited.

Where to get information about this project. And where to submit informed comments

A document describing the pipeline project is available here U.S. Department of State Keystone XL Pipeline Project and here. The public is invited to submit comments at the Keystone XL Project EIS Official Comments Page.  Comments are due by this Monday 6 June, 2011.

Here’s is what Hansen included in his submission to the State Department

I am submitting a comment that the analysis is flawed and insufficient, failing to account for important information regarding human-made climate change that is now available.  I note that prior government targets for limiting human-made global warming are now known to be inadequate.  Specifically, the target to limit global warming to 2°C, rather than being a safe “guardrail”, is actually a recipe for global climate disasters.  I will include drafts of the Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change,  Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications  and The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future. We will submit revised versions of all of these papers for publication this summer.

I also will comment that the pipeline project does not serve the national interest, because it will result in large adverse impacts, on the public and wildlife, by contributing substantially to climate change.  These impacts must be evaluated before the project is considered further.

“A large number of objections [from the scientific community and public] could have an effect”

It is my impression and understanding that a large number of objections could have an effect and help achieve a more careful evaluation, possibly averting a huge mistake.  Brief pointed comments may be just as well as longer statements.

Jim Hansen


  • The link between Keystone XL and Canadian oilsands production by Danielle Droitsch, April, 2011, The Pembina Institute. This 16-page briefing note outlines evidence that the Keystone XL pipeline would drive upstream oilsands production and counters arguments that the pipeline would not impact oilisands production. As Canadian crude supply grows, Keystone XL will be viewed as essential for moving that supply to multiple and new U.S. markets.
  • Wikipedia’s Keystone Pipeline article provides information under the following headings: the History; Route; Description; Partnership; Lawsuits; Criticisms; Political issues; Leaks; References; and External links
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