Ending the Debate on Keystone

In his February 10th essay, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera asked a simple question: “Can a person support the Keystone XL oil pipeline and still believe that global warming poses a serious threat?” Joe answers “yes,” with the logic that this one pipeline alone will not bring about a global warming apocalypse, which is ultimately caused by “deeply ingrained human habits.” He was on the defensive as a result of his prior column “Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL,” in which he defends Canada’s decision to court China as an alternative market for its Tar Sands oil in the face of Obama’s refusal to approve the XL Pipeline under political duress. “At least one country in North America understands where its national interests lie. Too bad it’s not us.” Joe is a balanced and thoughtful observer of business and Wall Street, but I disagree with him on XL. If one believes as I do that global warming poses a “serious threat,” i.e., a threat of potentially and even likely catastrophic consequences, then the XL pipeline provides a useful and timely “line in the sand” that can be used to call the question, and alter the course of the global economy before it is too late. Let’s review the two issues that are the focus of Joe’s second column. The first is whether Tar Sands oil is all that bad and whether it alone will doom the planet as leading climate science authority Jim Hanson suggests. I don’t know whether tar sands oil emits only 6 percent more greenhouse gases than other oil as the IHS Cera study Joe sights suggests or 17-20 percent more as I heard from environmental leader Bill McKibben. The point is the absolute volume of carbon in this massive reserve, the equivalent of 150 parts per million in the atmosphere, when added to existing “proved” reserves, will undoubtedly doom life as we know it on the planet if it’s all produced and burned. Marginal differences in quality and efficiency do not alter the hard boundaries of absolute scale limits. When faced with absolute limits, it only makes sense to prioritize high quality (low carbon) fuels, focus on efficiency, and find alternatives fast. The efficiency or use of energy sources will never solve the scale limit issue. That’s the big deal. The stunning truth points to a far more difficult challenge that the politicians, economists, and columnists are failing to see. Unless we solve the technical challenge of carbon sequestration, a feat that appears to be fading from the imagination of even the technology optimists, then even before the expansion of Tar Sands production, the world already has proven reserves in the process of coming out of the ground in the decades ahead that exceed our carbon budget by a factor of 5 times. In other words, as I have described in “The Big Choice,” we can choose to burn the fossil fuels we already have and likely cause irreparable damage to the planet by blowing through the 2 degree Celsius warming limit that climate scientists tell us is the tipping point, or we can choose to abandon 80 percent of the global fossil fuels already discovered and find alternative means to power our restructured and less energy-intensive economy. I call this our “big choice” because at current market value, that 80 percent of what would become “stranded assets” is worth about $20 Trillion. No wonder the fossil fuel interests will stop at nothing to promote denial. So where to start? I can think of no better place for America to lead than in our own backyard on a project whose scale matters. Tar Sands. There’s no easy way down folks, so we simply need to decide whether to engage in the serious decisions in front of us. Greece failed to do so with their unsustainable fiscal path. We see the results. Our energy/carbon path represents a “bio-capacity deficit” that makes the consequences of the present financial crisis cascading across Europe appear modest in comparison. Joe’s second issue relates to trade. One argument against the XL Pipeline is that the oil would cross America on its way to Gulf Coast refineries, and then head to Europe, doing nothing for our “national security” interest of sourcing oil from friendly allies as pipeline supporters claim. Here, Joe rightly points out that the trade flows of this oil will probably not deviate much from existing patterns. But this is missing the point. The oil market is now a global market. Global supply and demand is what sets world prices, plus or minus a transportation charge, subject to temporary logistical constraints. So whether tar sands oil goes to the US or China, the price we all pay over time will not vary by a significant degree. However, the future will likely look quite different than the past. This is the vital message of running into limits on an unsustainable path. We will choose to take one of two paths, either actively or passively: Business as usual: Global energy demand will continue to grow. We will fail to materially curb our burning of fossil fuels. We will set in motion irreversible climate change that will impact the lives of our children for sure and likely ourselves (most would suggest this is already the case). Oil will become scarce and the global “free market” will function no longer. Having access to Canadian oil will be seen as a US asset, ensuring us vital supply either by negotiation or by annexation. But it will be clear to all that the world is on a frightening path, and our “non-negotiable” SUV lifestyle will be the furthest thing from our minds. Smart path: We will understand, as our military and security establishment now does (another essay on that here), that our unsustainable economic system poses the greatest threat to our national (and global) security. We will start making hard decisions in line with a vision of a sustainable future, one important decision at a time. Deciding not to expand Tar Sands production when the challenge is how to decide which existing resources to strand in the ground, and how to share the consequent financial and social burdens, will be one of the easier of these decisions. So my question back to Joe Nocera is, what do you mean by “a serious threat”?