Go figure: Giant dirty oil pipeline is a climate problem

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.

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