The average "energy returned on investment," or EROI, for conventional oil is roughly 25:1. In other words, 25 units of oil-based energy are obtained for every one unit of other energy that is invested to extract it.
But tar sands oil is in a category all its own.
Tar sands retrieved by surface mining has an EROI of only about 5:1, according to research released Tuesday. Tar sands retrieved from deeper beneath the earth, through steam injection, fares even worse, with a maximum average ratio of just 2.9 to 1. That means one unit of natural gas is needed to create less than three units of oil-based energy.
"They have to use a lot of natural gas to upgrade this heavy, sticky, gooky almost tar-like stuff to make it fluid enough to use," said Charles Hall, a professor at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Hydrogen from gas heats the tar sands so the viscous form of petroleum it contains, known as bitumen, can be liquefied and pumped out of the ground. In this way, Hall said, gas helps turn tar sands "into something a bit closer to what we call oil."
As many as 40,000 protesters from 30 states descended on the White House on Sunday and demanded that President Obama kill the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. By the estimates of organizers, it was the biggest protest march for climate change action in the nation's history.
In about 18 cities from Boston to Los Angeles, thousands more participated in solidarity rallies—and helped garner unusual nationwide media attention for an issue that has typically slipped under the local media radar.
It is probably the most influential paper on climate science today. But few outside scientific circles even know it exists.
Though just six pages long, its dense, technical writing makes it largely incomprehensible to non-experts. And yet this paper is transforming the climate change debate—prompting the financial world to rethink the value of the world's fossil fuel reserves and giving environmental activists a moral argument for action.
That's because behind its complicated terminology is a simple question that affects every aspect of society and business: How much time do we have before the burning of fossil fuels pushes the climate system past tipping points? In a worst-case scenario, about 11 years at current rates of fossil fuel use, according to the paper.
"Once you hear the numbers, at least for me, there is no more room for wishful thinking, for speculation or for doubt," said Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group 350.org. Last year, McKibben plucked the science from popular obscurity and used it in a Rolling Stone article and speaking tour to stoke the moral case for carbon controls.
The paper, "Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C," was published in April 2009 in Nature, the prestigious science journal. It was the work of researchers from Germany, the UK and Switzerland, led by Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact.
2/13/13: This story has been updated to include a statement by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
WASHINGTON—In President Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, the theme of confronting climate change played more a supporting than a starring role.
Obama urged Congress "to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and to act before it's too late."
And he said that if a recalcitrant and divided Congress "won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
But the president made no explicit promise to environmental advocates who had been hoping, since his soaring words on climate at his inauguration, that he would pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions that spew from existing power plants, or perhaps block the Keystone XL pipeline they so abhor.
Instead, the speech was another inflection point along the curve of his presidency: an assertion of his willingness to bypass Congress on big issues, but also a reminder that he must juggle competing priorities, including jobs, guns, immigration, health care, spending, taxes and global affairs.
In October 2011, when most politicians were doing everything they could to avoid speaking publicly about climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse gave a 23-minute speech on the Senate floor detailing the perils of carbon pollution.
"Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change," said the Democrat from Rhode Island. By failing to act, he warned, the Senate was "earning the scorn and condemnation of history."
Since then, Whitehouse has continued to address the issue, and over the past year has made a point of discussing climate change in weekly 20-minute speeches whenever the Senate is in session.
When the nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system, agreed last week to dramatically limit power plant emissions, they ushered in a stricter phase of carbon regulation for the Northeast. But they also paved the way for a boom in clean energy investment for the region.
According to a recent analysis, the amount of money generated from the tougher scheme is projected to more than double by 2020, sending an additional $2.2 billion of RGGI money to state coffers—much of that to clean energy industries.
Since RGGI began over four years ago, the program has generated more than a billion dollars for the cash-strapped states that have participated. States are required to use at least 25 percent of their proceeds in efficiency and other programs that benefit consumers. But actually, 80 percent was spent on energy savings, renewable electricity and ratepayer assistance.
Now states are planning to cut the total amount of carbon dioxide that power plants can emit by 45 percent—a move expected to increase the price of emitting carbon by five-fold, boosting revenues.
Massachusetts, one of the RGGI states, is predicted to rake in an extra $350 million from the change during the next several years.
Michigan regulators agreed last week to allow Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. to replace a 160-mile segment of an aging line that in 2010 spilled more than a million gallons of crude oil.
The decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission disappointed local landowners who had hoped for more scrutiny and oversight of the project.
"I am concerned with the haste with which this project has proceeded," said Jeff Insko, an English professor at Michigan's Oakland University who started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog for concerned landowners. "It's been fast-tracked both by Enbridge and the regulatory body here in Michigan. And given Enbridge's history in our state, it seems to me prudence and caution ought to guide us, and they haven't."
The 2010 spill from Line 6B contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has been difficult to clean up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently asked Enbridge to remove submerged oil from several miles of the riverbed, a task that Enbridge is resisting. The price tag for the cleanup has already reached $810 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
2/6/13: Paragraph 11 of this story has been updated to include more information from FEMA.
When the federal government released updated flood maps for the New York City region last week, residents were shocked to find that the number of houses and businesses in the region's flood zone had doubled since the maps were last revised, in 1986.
But it now appears that those maps might have underestimated the extent of New York's flood risk, because they don't factor in the effects of future climate change. Scientists say that by the 2080s, sea levels off the city's coast could rise by as much as five feet from melting glaciers, making storm surges more severe and causing floods much further inland than the new maps indicate.
The maps also don't incorporate data from Hurricane Sandy, which caused catastrophic flooding in the nation's financial capital. Many structures destroyed by the superstorm are not included in the newly drawn flood zones.
If future sea level rise had been taken into account, the flood zone would likely have been much larger, said Philip Orton, a physical oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, who served as a technical reviewer on the updated maps.
2/5/13: This story has been updated to include information from PHMSA received after publication.
Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators had clear guidelines for how quickly they must respond to accidents—but federal regulators don't have the data they need to establish those rules, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent arm of Congress.
The first few minutes and hours after a pipeline accident are considered crucial for effective cleanup and damage prevention. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's 400,000-mile network of large volume transmission pipelines, requires only that operators respond in a "prompt and effective" manner.
The GAO urged the agency to replace this open-ended regulation with performance-based standards—specific, measurable goals that would make it easier to determine when operators have been negligent. To do that, PHMSA would have to set different rules for different types of pipelines depending on their contents, location, operating pressure, pipeline diameter and other factors.
Matthew Cook, a GAO senior analyst and a co-author of the report, said that to create those rules, PHMSA must first determine how fast operators are currently responding to accidents. But the GAO report warned that PHMSA's existing database, where pipeline accident information is filed, is incomplete and often inaccurate.
China and the United States, the world's two largest economies, are responsible for emitting nearly half the planet's carbon dioxide emissions. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world's biggest CO2 polluter due to its hardening coal addiction. Per capita, however, America's carbon footprint is far bigger.
Both countries still have large fleets of coal plants and growing, but relatively tiny, renewable electricity sectors. Both have goals for lowering their global warming emissions—though none would match the scale of the climate threat. Scientists say the world's output of greenhouse gases must peak around 2016, and then decline to stop at the critical 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by century's end. Projections show both countries' emissions will peak sometime after the mid-2030s.
Using the latest figures available, InsideClimate News culled federal and international energy data to tell the story of the world's two biggest polluters.