from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Lamest Analogy In The History Of Energy And Climate

February 14, 2012

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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.