Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Keystone XL

by Duncan Gromko

The Keystone XL pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf. The Obama Administration was suggesting that a decision on allowing the pipeline or not would come in March, but it now looks like the State Department won't decide until June at the earliest. This non-decision comes in the wake of 53 senators sending a letter to the President asking for quick approval.

Blocking the pipeline wouldn't halt development of the tar sands, but it would take away the primary market for selling tar sands.
Photo credit: Mclee
For those of the "drill baby drill" persuasion, this is seen as an obvious opportunity to reduce OPEC fossil fuel dependency. It seems like every right wing pundit mentions the pipeline when talking about President Obama's poor job/energy/growth policies.

However, for most environmentalists, KXL is the ultimate climate change nightmare. James Hansen, one of the country's top climate scientists, has called for the President to reject the pipeline, calling it "game over for the climate." Why? Turning tar sands into usable gasoline is a dirty, energy-intensive process. Producing gasoline from tar sands results in about 14% more CO2 release than conventional sources. And there is a ton of energy in the vast tar sands: roughly 1.63 trillion barrels of oil (although not all of that is technically recoverable). That's the equivalent of 240 billion metric tons of CO2 (for comparison, 570 billion metric tons have been released by human activity since the industrial revolution). So it's a lot. 

Drill Baby, Drill

The most rational rejections of the #noKXL movement that I've read have been written by Andrew RevkinMichael Levi, Severin Borenstein, and Roger Pielke. Basically the argument boils down to three points:

1) If we don't buy the Canadians' oil, they may just build a pipeline to the west coast and sell tar sands oil to China.

2) Tar sands aren't that much worse than other oil. The incremental emissions from burning Alberta's tar sands compared to normal oil (the extra energy required to turn tar sands into gasoline) amounts to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Jamaica, or less than 0.5% of global emissions per year. Keeping the tar sands in the ground isn't going to reduce domestic oil consumption. If we don't import tar sands from Canada, we'll just import it from OPEC. Global oil supply is fungible. And therefore...

3) Attacking energy supply doesn't make much sense. As long as there is demand, we'll seek new sources of fossil fuels. Since climate advocates have "limited political capital," they'd be best served advocating for policies that would reduce domestic demand (carbon tax, cap-and-trade, etc.).

Levi sums it up: "Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away [since it's more expensive to develop]; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we've got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved."

These are some good points. I do think the climate impact of the pipeline has been exaggerated. And without addressing demand, this is not a long-term solution or a climate fix. That said, I still think we should...

Block KXL

1) I think it's little weird to give the #noKXL people a hard time for advocating for something that will "only" reduce global emissions by 0.5%. That's a lot! We need to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2050. If a grassroots movement can get us 1% closer to that goal, that is a huge victory.

2) There are non-climate reasons to discourage tar sands development: devastating local environmental impacts of tar sands exploitation and the pipeline itself. I'm not going to do this aspect the justice it deserves in this post, however.

3) Delay of the pipeline is already having a measurable impact on tar sands profits. Investing in fossil fuels is starting to look riskier. Nick is going to write a whole post on this next week, so I won't steal his thunder.

4) Last, I think the real question here is: will advocating for #noKXL reduce the political capital of climate change advocates? This might have been a sticky issue before the election, but President Obama was able to push it back (and to be fair to the Drill Baby, Drill group I cited, they were mostly commenting pre-election). If the President decides to block KXL, will he be less likely to implement other climate policies? If President Obama and Congress called me up and offered me a choice between a) blocking KXL and b) opening the pipeline, but passing comprehensive climate change legislation, I'd say "Drill Baby, Drill," in a heartbeat.

But I don't think that call is coming (Mr. President, if you are reading this, just post in the comments section and I'll get back to you). Nor do I think that's the choice that #noKXL advocates are faced with.

As I argued in an earlier post about divestment, the important thing for climate advocates is to build a strong movement that sends a political message to our elected officials: "failing to act on climate will have a political cost." There needs to be passionate support for climate action in order to send this message. KXL has become a symbol for the climate movement. From Reuters: "The pipeline is also a litmus test for what you think is the most important problem in the early 21st century." If tens of thousands of people surround the White House on February 17th and tell the President with one voice that we want climate action, I think he'll be more likely to act on his promises in the Inaugural Address.

I don't know if #noKXL is going to block the pipeline, but I think it will increase the odds of executive and legislative action on climate. Cap-and-trade didn't generate any excitement, maybe something that is more tangible will get people into the streets. So far, Bill McKibben and 350.org have been incredibly successful in involving students and more generally shifting the national debate back to climate. I think criticizing the specific climate impact of the pipeline is missing the broader contribution #noKXL has made.

No, #noKXL and divestment aren't ideal issues for climate hawks to be advocating for, but we're in a deep hole here and we've got to start somewhere. There was a great interview with Congressman Waxman in Wonkblog this morning. It gives perspective on just how far Congress is from passing climate legislation, but hopefully #noKXL will eventually put that issue back on the table.

So, if you want to join me at noon on February 17th at the White House, let me know. And sign up here.

1 comment:

  1. That was an extremely clear introduction to the topic for someone with little background. Thanks a bunch and keep up the great work.