President's Blog

Leave It in the Ground
by President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

April 3, 2013

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Oil, coal, and natural gas fueled the Industrial Revolution, enabling our society to develop sophisticated technologies that have bestowed upon us convenience, comfort, health, and prosperity. In essence, the technologies of the last 150 years have unlocked the prehistoric sun’s energy, which plants made into organic matter during the time of the dinosaurs, which then gradually, during millions of years, was converted to fossil fuel deep in the ground. By digging up and burning that fossil fuel, we have powered our rapid rise to unprecedented human well-being. While there is still poverty and hunger in the world, we are, on average, better nourished, living longer, better educated, and enjoying creature comforts never dreamed of by previous generations, all of which could not have been possible without cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels.

The time has come, however, when we must acknowledge that the unintended price of this tremendous advance in prosperity is a change in the Earth’s climate that is so extensive and profound that it will undermine the prosperity that we have come to expect. We can no longer risk taking advantage indefinitely of the full bounty of fossil fuels available to us. If we burn all known reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, we will warm the earth by more than ten degrees Fahrenheit, creating a world unfit for civilization and the life support systems of the Earth upon which we depend. Our children and grandchildren will ask how we could have been so short-sighted and selfish.

While we cannot stop the use of these fuels overnight, we must wean ourselves from them as quickly as possible and move to low-carbon sources of energy. The best place to start is to leave in the ground those fuels that are the most costly, inefficient, and environmentally damaging.

This is why 29 leading scientists, including three WHRC scientists, and led by WHRC Board member, Dr. William Moomaw, have sent to the US Department of State their comments on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Keystone XL pipeline. The comments highlight several flaws in the EIS that underestimate the environmental and health impacts of this unwise project. This project is proposed to carry petroleum products from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to a port on the Texas Gulf Coast. The views expressed by the signatories are their own rather than those of their affiliated institutions. I am personally pleased to join this group of my distinguished colleagues, who are motivated to present their science to inform policy on this important matter. The full statement of the scientists’ comments is available for download here.

Tar sands are a terribly inefficient means of capturing energy. While conventional oil production in the US yields about fifteen times as much energy as must be invested to extract it, processing the bitumen of the tar sands returns only four to six times as much energy as needed for extraction and processing. Significant quantities of natural gas must be burned to liquefy the tar sands, so the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production, thus contributing more to climate change than most other sources of fossil fuel.

Tar sands production also destroys vast areas of boreal forest and consumes huge quantities of water from local rivers. The water mixed with toxic wastes is dumped into tailing ponds that already cover nearly 70 square miles. Rejecting the XL Pipeline will reduce direct damage to terrestrial ecosystems and water bodies and protect many species that live and pass through these habitats, including tens of millions of migrating North American birds.

Oil production in the US has been increasing and demand has been declining. Hence, the additional oil from Canadian tar sands is not needed within the US and would most likely be exported.

Some have asserted that Canada will go ahead with the tar sands extraction and transport even if the pipeline is not built through the US, but that is not at all clear. Not building the pipeline may indeed prevent most of the tar sands from being exploited. In any case, the US should not be the facilitator of such inefficient and destructive abuse of natural resources.

If there was ever a source of fossil fuels that ought to be left in the ground, this is the one.

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