Strange logic on the Keystone XL

As the end game on the Keystone XL pipeline approaches, various pundits and editorial boards have argued that we should move forward with the pipeline.  The Keystone XL extension of an existing pipeline would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama is likely to make a decision on whether or not to allow the pipeline to be built within the next month or so.  These arguments make a few key points, which I will review here by focusing on two recent editorials.  The twisted logic in these leaves me wondering if the authors really think that their audience is incapable of parsing the truth.   I find it inconceivable that thoughtful readers can endorse this pipeline while simultaneously knowing how important it is that we address climate change.

Map taken from Cornell University Global Labor Institute study, Pipe Dreams, 2012.

(1) The Washington Post editorialized that the new safeguards proposed for new sections of the pipeline, which will traverse a route that avoids ecologically sensitive lands, have addressed the primary environmental concerns.   The editorial remarks that “Mr. Obama should ignore the activists who have bizarrely chosen to make Keystone XL a line-in-the-sand issue, when there are dozens more of far greater environmental import.”

Astonishingly, this editorial does not mention anthropogenic climate change.  Apparently WaPo editors believe that the pollution threat from leaks and spillage are the only environmental issues involved.  This omission gives lie to the statement that Keystone XL is an arbitrary line-in-the-sand.  The oil from the Keystone XL is arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet, given that its refining produces substantially more greenhouse gas emissions than that of conventional oil.  A new report from Greenpeace lists the Alberta tar sands as one of 14 carbon bombs, and notes by 2020, the tar sands … would add annual emissions of 420 million tonnes of CO2, equal to those of Saudi Arabia.  Moreover, a byproduct of refining tar sand oil is petroleum coke, which will be sold to enhance the combustion of coal fired power plants, adding even more to potential emissions.  Various estimates have suggested that if we burn even 50% of the oil in the Canadian tar sands, it will push us substantially toward the 2˚C global average warming that my colleagues have argued is the limit that civilization can reasonably tolerate.  The Canadian tar sands are by most estimates the second largest known source of oil on the terrestrial planet.  If this is true, then opposition to the Keystone XL is hardly arbitrary.

In contrast, in March 2012 a paper in Nature Climate Change suggested that the emissions from the tar sands would have only a trivial impact on global temperature. Assuming that the estimate in this paper is correct, I would argue that the tar sands remain an appropriate target for activism because we simply must stop new sources of  oil from being developed.  As the eminent climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert at the University of Chicago has remarked, mining the tar sands with the intention of using this as an interim source of oil while we decarbonize the economy is analogous to the alcoholic who puts the vodka in the cupboard while promising to drink only a little bit.  Certainly, it is correct to say that coal is enemy number one when it comes to carbon emissions, but this does not mean that we should ignore the tar sands.  In my opinion, all sources of dirty energy are worthy of our attention at this critical time in the history of our species.  Further analysis that clarifies the paper in Nature Climate Change can be found here.

(2) A recent Nature editorial makes the claim that the tar sands will be burned anyway, and thus there is no point for Obama to not approve it.  Astonishingly, Nature argues that by approving the Keystone XL Obama would bolster his credibility within industry and among conservatives, presumably increasing the chances that a carbon tax would pass Congress.

First off, Obama has repeatedly tried and failed to appease and gain credibility with the conservative wing of Congress.  (How’s that been workin’ for ya, Barry?)  Clearly, using the Keystone XL as a way to gain ground with conservatives is an absurd suggestion based on the history of Obama’s failures with Congress during his first term.

The argument that the tar sands will be mined and burned regardless of whether or not Obama approves the pipeline is unconvincing in several aspects.  For example, the Canadian proponents of the pipeline have argued that the Keystone XL is critical to their ability to export the oil.  This suggests that exporting this oil may not be a foregone conclusion.  Secondly, it is obvious that the Canadians have not resolved their own disputes about how to transport the oil.  Native peoples have effectively blocked the oil from moving west to the Pacific, and the cost of the route east over a combination of rail and pipeline is likely to make the market value of this oil less competitive.

Embedded but unstated in the argument that the oil will be used regardless of the pipeline approval is the notion that a large amount of that oil would be sold in the U.S. market.  There is considerable evidence that this is not likely to occur.   The refineries on the Gulf Coast are largely export facilities, and by far the largest market for this oil is overseas.   Indeed, the Canadians are intent on exporting the oil by ocean, it just so happens that a southern route to the Gulf is the least costly way to get the oil to a coastline.  Similarly, various proponents continue to raise the issue of the jobs that the Keystone Xl would create as a potential boost to the U.S. economy.  Speaker John Boehner famously stated that the XL would create over 100,000 jobs.  Here again, the evidence shows otherwise.  According to a study by researchers at Cornell University, the number of jobs may be as few as 2,500-4,650 mostly unskilled, temporary positions in the U.S.  The permanent, skilled workforce that would result from the pipeline would be trivial in the context of our overall rate of unemployment.

Nature refers to the scientific community as advocating a price on carbon.  Indeed we do, but mention of this in reference to the Keystone XL in this editorial is a non-sequitor.  Nature goes on to remark that “the Obama administration might be able to put the United States on track to meet its Copenhagen commitment to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.”  This statement is bizarrely out of place in this editorial as it is utterly unclear what this has to do with approval of the Keystone XL.  As a scientist, I have always expected more from Nature, one of the top-ranked scientific journals in the world.  I can’t help but wonder if this editorial is the opinion of one or two senior individuals on the staff.  It is arguably poorly written and inadequately reviewed.

What is most troubling about both of these editorials is that they seem oblivious to the scientific fact that we have very little time to begin aggressive mitigation of emissions if we are to salvage a livable planet for our grandchildren and beyond.  The impact of failure to act will have consequences that will last a millennium.   There has never been an environmental threat with this degree of urgency or potential for devastation.  A line in the sand?  Indeed, I hope so.  Given the dubious logic of these arguments, if we won’t take a stand on the Keystone XL now, it is hard to imagine what might move us.