The Keystone XL pipeline debate and the entire oil sands discussion is being framed as a choice between energy security and climate security. This false dichotomy masks the real issue: How to manage the climate effects of the shift from conventional oils to unconventional oils like oil sands — projected to comprise 40 percent of global oil supplies by 2040.

Environmentalists say approving the Keystone XL pipeline would lock the world into a global warming trajectory that guarantees economic destruction, widespread human suffering and species extinction.

Skeptics, even some who admit to concern about climate effects, say Keystone is not the problem. Instead, they suggest we focus on larger, structural issues — urban sprawl, inefficient energy use and inadequate investment in renewable fuels. The benefits of getting oil from our friends to the north rather than the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries outweigh any environmental worries.

Deborah Gordon
Gordon was director of Carnegie’s Energy and Climate Program, where her research focuses on oil and climate change issues in North America and globally.
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Both sides are right. Stopping the pipeline, by itself, won’t prevent global warming. Keystone XL, however, really is a big deal for what it portends about the growing climate risks of our oil dependence. What matters is not simply the quantity of oil we consume but the carbon intensity of all new petroleum supplies — starting with oil sands.

Oil sands are a new breed of fuel. They are heavy, complex, carbon-laden and nothing like conventional oil. Locked up deep in the earth — bound tightly to sand, tar and rock — oil sands are nature’s own carbon capture and storage device. When they are tapped, we risk breaking open this natural carbon-fixing system.

New unconventional oils are poised to “recarbonize” global petroleum supplies. Though they have been recognized as new sources of hydrocarbons, according to the Energy Department, unconventional oils have yet to be strictly defined. Their common characteristic is that they can’t be produced by conventional means, just pumping liquids out of the earth.

Unconventional oils require new energy-intensive production techniques and are generally much higher in carbon content and other contaminants. This heterogeneous bundle of burgeoning resources ranges from the bitumen in oil sands to tight oils in deep shale rock fissures and must be liberated by hydraulic fracturing. There’s also kerogen, an immature oil fastened to rocky oil shales, ultradeep oils buried as remotely as 10 miles below the water’s surface and new liquid oils derived from intense chemical transformations of coal and gas.

There are major gaps in our knowledge about the effect of this paradigm shift to new fossil fuels. Unconventional oils are a major departure from business as usual in terms of their emissions, chemical complexity, geographic locations, cost structure, global markets and societal risks.

The truth is that we don’t know how much carbon the oil sands and other unconventional oils will release into the atmosphere. This fundamental uncertainty must be addressed before we increase the rate at which they’re tapped. An unconventional oils information clearinghouse is needed to build public understanding of their varying carbon footprints. Only then can we make wise public decisions about their increased use.

We urgently need better information to guide the development of sound fiscal and regulatory policies for the new oils and to avoid an emissions pathway that could breach the 2 degrees Celsius safe threshold of warming agreed to by world governments.

Unconventional oils take us into the great unknown. We are still in the dark about just how devastating their effect could be on climate stability. This is why the oil sands debate is so timely — and important.

This article originally appeared in Politico.