Assessing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impact of New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

SEI Discussion Brief

Author(s): Erickson, P. ; Lazarus, M.
Year: 2013

Global demand for energy continues to grow, with corresponding impacts on fossil fuels use, greenhouse gas emissions, and the global climate system. Policy-makers in several countries have designed and introduced policies to limit demand for fossil fuels, but at the same time, new infrastructure investments – among them coal mine expansions, new coal and gas export terminals, and major oil sands and heavy oil extraction facilities – are poised to significantly increase the supply of fossil fuels.

The potential implications of these supply investments for global GHG emissions have become an increasingly pivotal factor for decision-makers and the public. However, there is a dearth of well-accepted analytical approaches to questions such as these.

How should the incremental emissions impact of new fossil fuel supply infrastructure be measured? In the case of Keystone XL, some have chosen to count all the emissions from burning oil that will flow through the pipeline, while others have argued these emissions should not be counted at all, because the oil would otherwise still get to market somehow. Other analytical approaches are also possible, such as considering the incremental impact of added oil supplies on global oil prices, and thus on global oil consumption. In general, as with Keystone XL, the few analyses that do quantify emissions impacts of adding or removing fossil fuel supplies from the market diverge widely in perspectives taken, methods used, and results obtained.

Given the stakes involved, and the importance of sound decision- making, it is crucial to better understand the emissions implications of fossil fuel infrastructure investments, and of the methods and perspectives used to quantify their impact. This discussion brief provides an overview of the approaches used to date and their findings, and makes suggestions for further work.

Download PDF