Go figure: Giant dirty oil pipeline is a climate problem

December 19, 2013

Keystone XL could dramatically increase climate pollution.  So suggests an important new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute, available here.

The authors have identified and fixed a critical flaw in how the question of net climate impact is generally analyzed.  They’ve shown that big capacity additions in global markets have price effects that tend to sustain and expand demand and therefore production over time.  Intuitively, this seems straightforward, but many economic models miss this effect.

In a sane world, this would not be news.  The pipeline is designed for the express purpose of mainlining up to 830,000 barrels per day of extremely carbon intensive fuel into global energy markets.  It should hardly be surprising or contentious that climate-wise, it sucks.Dog bites man

And yet the President raised the question in his historic June climate speech, promising to reject the permit for Keystone if it “significantly exacerbates the problem of climate pollution.”  At the time, the State Department’s scandalously flawed draft EIS had already given us reasons to worry that he would arrive at the wrong answer.

This part of the President’s speech was a big surprise – the pundits said he would avoid KXL like the plague.  But we still don’t really know what he meant.  It’s been a bit of a Rohrschach test for climate advocates.

Eric de Place at Sightline thought it means we’re toast.  This freaked me out, because Eric’s a flippin genius.  However, I remain hopeful – if only by sheer will – that the President’s climate test on KXL will turn out to be a watershed, and a good one.  Just the fact that he made climate impact a dispositive test is huge, a genie that can’t be rebottled.  Regardless of what he meant or how he intends to apply the test, it establishes and highlights a vital principle for climate action:  first, we have to stop making it irrevocably worse (the Keystone Principle).  (The principle has conspicuously not been applied to other critical federal actions, like environmental review of coal export, or coal leasing.)

The claim that KXL will not meaningfully increase climate pollution rests first on the assumption that the Alberta tar sands will be fully exploited, with or without the pipeline.  This has been roundly and repeatedly refuted.  But what bugs me most about it is the implicit fatalism.  The tar sands are one of the largest global carbon pools that must remain in the ground if we are to stabilize the climate before it spirals out of control.  Assuming that they will be fully vaporized is simply capitulating to climate disruption, and to the fossil-fueled tyranny that keeps us careening toward this cliff with no accountability, no policy, no democratic control of our institutions.  It seems like an innocent analytical assumption, but it amounts to ratifying Jim Hansen’s dire warning:  Game over.

Surely that is not what the President meant when he posed this test, toward the end of his rousing climate speech, in which he effectively said for the first time, Game On.  When he talks about Keystone now, his message is basically, “Settle down.”  He complains that everyone is overblowing it:  the proponents vastly overstate its economic benefits, while opponents exaggerate its climate impacts.  He seems irked that this has become a defining test of his resolve on climate.   He gets cover from liberal opinion leaders like Eric Chait, who contend that Keystone is the wrong fight.

Like Joe Romm, I strenuously disagree; I think it’s a fair and appropriate and vital test.  Keystone is both a conspicuous example and a powerful symbol for the single most important and immediate thing we must do to execute a winning climate strategy:  stop making long-term fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make the problem not just worse, but completely intractable.

But whether Eric Chait or Joe Romm or even the President himself thinks Keystone is the ideal test of his commitment to responsible climate action is now completely beside the point.  The emerging climate movement made it the real-world test.    The only question left is whether the President will pass or fail it.

Decarbonizing our future

December 16, 2013

Give me an “R” for Reason!

Sid Morrison is one of the most gifted and gracious leaders I have ever met, a Republican who puts a high value on science, collaboration, and solutions.  While I don’t share his enthusiasm for nuclear power, I admire and appreciate his relentless quest for the common ground where knowledge, compassion, and public policy meet.  He and I teamed up on the op-ed below, which ran in the Seattle Times today.

Decarbonizing our future

Sid Morrison and KC Golden

WE have met the enemy, and it is not us. It is not civilization. It is not energy production per se. It is carbon. It’s our excessive reliance on energy systems that dig ancient carbon — fossil fuels — out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.No C

The science is clear: carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere at levels that disrupt the climate. This is not a theory. It’s simple physics, and its impacts are happening now.

The snowpack that anchors our power and water supplies is dwindling over time. Forest health is declining and wildfires are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Ocean acidification is eating away at the marine food chain. Around the world, extreme weather events are taking a growing toll on life and property.

A primary driver of these changes is the carbon that’s released when we burn fossil fuels. For the last 150 years of human development, economic progress has been linked to increasing fossil fuel consumption. Now, we must break that link, both for our own long-term prosperity, and for the billions of people around the world who need a pathway out of energy poverty.

The authors differ in our perspectives on energy technology and policy. One of us chairs the executive board of Washington’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The other is a longtime advocate for energy efficiency and new renewable energy sources. But on this we agree: We can and must rise to the challenge of decarbonizing our energy system. And we believe that the Pacific Northwest is the place to prove it can be done.

If the Northwest were applying for the position of “pioneer for a carbon-free future,” we’d bring an impressive resume to the interview. We have a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy, anchored by the Bonneville Power Administration and the region’s locally controlled public power systems. Our private utilities are among the nation’s most innovative, with deep experience in energy efficiency and with a growing portfolio of carbon-free energy assets. We’re blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played leadership roles in the aviation, software and Internet revolutions.

Perhaps better than any region on Earth, we are qualified to blaze the trail to a carbon-free future. But we can’t do it by resting on our laurels. We need to think forward and big: How can we scrub the carbon out of our power supplies, replacing aging coal plants with carbon-free resources? How can we squeeze more work out of existing supplies, making every unit of energy go further and deliver more economic value? How can we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system and drains money out of our local economies?

Here again, the authors would emphasize different practical answers to these questions. But we enthusiastically align together on the need for new policies that focus clearly on the carbon challenge. We don’t have to agree on whether solar or nuclear technology is better in order to support a firm public policy commitment to systematically reduce carbon pollution from energy production.

Such a policy commitment would align the laws of the land with the laws of physics — limiting carbon pollution to safe levels and letting energy markets respond to the true cost of carbon. It would allow nuclear, solar, wind and other carbon-free technologies to compete fairly with fossil fuels, without having to swim against the unfair economic tide of free and unlimited carbon dumping.

It would let the authors go back to slugging it out for their preferred energy strategies, with greater confidence that the winners would be those that deliver on the decarbonization imperative in the most economically and environmentally sound way.


Note:  Sid and I had planned to publish this earlier in the month.  Never one to pass up a rhetorical flourish, I suggested we add a World War II hook for Pearl Harbor Day, to convey the urgency of the climate threat.  Sid humored me, “….go ahead, even if you have throw in WWII.  We won that one!” 

Here’s the ending we would have used had it been published earlier in the month:

“This Pearl Harbor Day, we’d do well to remind ourselves:  the once-vague global threat of climate disruption is now on our shores.  And the first step toward winning this war for solutions is clearly identifying the enemy and committing ourselves to the cause:  decarbonizing our energy system.”