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The Lamest Analogy In The History Of Energy And Climate

by Michael Levi
February 14, 2012


Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress and Joe Nocera of the New York Times have gotten into quite the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline — and I seem to have gotten caught in the middle.

Nocera’s Saturday column quotes me thusly:

“The argument you hear is that because [Keystone XL] increases greenhouse gas emissions, we shouldn’t tolerate it.  Well, so do the lights in my house.  You have to be discriminating.”

Here’s Romm’s response:

“Seriously. That may be the lamest analogy in the history of energy and climate. Nocera is actually analogizing the GHG emissions increase from 900,000 barrels a day of dirty tar sands oil with flicking on the lights in your house!”

Yes, seriously. Upon reflection, the analogy turns out to be even better than I previously thought.

Let’s do some numbers. The GHG emissions increase from substituting 900,000 barrels a day of “dirty tar sands oil” for the typical barrel of oil consumed in the United States is, at most, about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. This estimate is based on assuming a 15% increase in per-barrel emissions, which is the upper limit given by the expert that Romm cites; I’m setting aside the fact that we’re actually talking about less than 900,000 barrels, since part of what would be carried isn’t bitumen, but rather lower-carbon dilluent.

On the other hand, residential lighting generated (PDF) 137 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for the United States in 2008. So yes, flicking on the lights in our houses is actually a lot worse for the climate than substituting “dirty tar sands oil” into the energy mix.

(Side note: If you believe that the circa 900,000 barrels would not back out any other oil – something that, to be blunt, is totally implausible – then the maximum emissions increase from adding that oil works out to about the same as the annual emissions from U.S. residential lighting.)

Does that mean that we should prohibit people from turning on their lights? Of course not – that was my point. Even the most anti-economist types implicitly weigh costs and benefits all the time when they think about what constitutes wise climate action. None of them advocate going to a lightless society, because the costs would clearly outweigh the benefits.

So it isn’t enough to just say “there’s a ton of carbon there” in order to argue that we shouldn’t do something. You can do that with way to many things – including, yes, turning on your lights. As I told Nocera, we need to be discriminating: there are big pools of carbon that are worth burning, and there are big pools of carbon that aren’t. Well meaning people can disagree as to whether 900,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil falls in the former category or the latter one. The mere fact that the pool in question is big isn’t enough alone to place it off limits.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Diane Beere

    Bottom line for pipeline, is it predicted that we will have a glut of oil, so much oil, that we’d not know what to do with it all? I don’t see that claim made for tar sands on the billboards. The claims that stand out are that it’s messy, dirty, extremely difficult to process and more than that the conveyance for the tar sands interrupts our land invasively from Canada to Texas. Not in my house, keep it in Canada.

  • Posted by MartinJB

    That is one lame analogy! Turning on your lights, leaves you without light. Not using the tar sands leaves you using other sources (as long as they last, or until clean alternatives come on line). If you want to compare turning out your lights to something, compare it to the carbon in the Alberta tar sands staying in the ground. Then compare the decline (we better hope!) in carbon intensity of lighting to the continued high carbon output over years and years as petroleum comes out of the Alberta tar sands. Every source of carbon we keep in the ground is one less slug of CO2 entering the atmosphere.

    A lame analogy, indeed!

  • Posted by MartinJB

    Oops. Should have been “Turning OFF your lights….” or “Not turning on your lights….” [sheepish grin]

    But the point still stands.

  • Posted by Dan

    You seem to be rather aggressively not getting the point. The point is that if you concede that we must not let CO2 levels exceed, say 550 ppmv, than in order to meet that goal we need to *stop using oil, coal and natural gas*, almost completely, over the next 30-50 years. So *any* investment, public or private, in infrastructure that pumps oil, gas, or coal out of the ground, is a mistake, to be avoided by whatever political mechanism is most efficacious: NIMBY, carbon tax, regional carbon trading, whatever. The goal of energy policy for the next few decades is simple: to direct as much of the energy investment stream as possible towards construction of the cheapest low-carbon energy sources available. Building nuclear power plants counts; building PV panels counts, building wind turbines counts. Building oil pipelines doesn’t count. If the result of failing to invest in fossil fuel extraction is an increase in the price of fossil fuel energy, *that’s a good thing*.
    Do you disagree with the goal of preventing CO2 levels from exceeding 550 ppmv? If not, what part of this is unclear? Why are you arguing that it could possibly be a good thing to invest money in extraction of fossil fuels?

  • Posted by jim harvey


    The reason that it’s a good thing to invest money in fossil fuels is that the economic activity they generate can fund the carbon free energy sources you’ve mentioned.

  • Posted by John Gordon

    Try asking this question.

    At what Carbon tax rate is the Keystone XL economical?

    If you think through the answers you might see this differently.

    [ML: See this study I published three years ago for an answer.]

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