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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Abraham: Keystone XL cops – incompetent at all levels

US Department of State report on Keystone XL climate impacts displays shocking incompetence

by John Abraham, "Climate Consensus - The 97%," The Guardian, April 16, 2014

Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada
Syncrude Canada Ltd's tar sand production facility in Alberta. Photograph: Veronique De Viguerie/Getty Images
Recently, the US State Department released yet another report on the environmental impacts of building the Keystone pipeline. The report is shocking in its ironic juxtaposition of real greenhouse gas emissions and the potential impact on the Earth's climate. It is also shocking because the State Department tells us the pipeline will be made to withstand climate change, but won't be responsible for those changes. The report reflects an incompetence of the authors of the report and a divorce of the report from common sense. It isn't just me who feels this way, other groups concur the State Department report is faulty.

First, the report does identify the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions which would travel through the pipeline. With an estimated 830,000 barrels per day, my calculations (reinforced by multiple published and white-paper studies) are that the associated emissions would be approximately 480 million kg CO2 per day. If you include the byproduct petcoke, which is being burned as a coal replacement (but is dirtier than coal), the numbers are even worse (520 million kg CO2 per day). There is some uncertainty because we are not certain what the actual transported product will be, how many barrels of bitumen, what the diluent is made from, what the mix of extraction methods are, etc.
All of this is equivalent to approximately 35-40 million passenger vehicles or 50-57 coal-powered plants. During a time we need to reduce emissions, exploitation of the tar sands and construction of the Keystone pipeline would do the reverse. We would be locked in for years of enormous greenhouse emissions. People who think Keystone is a minor issue don't understand science and they sure don't understand economics. The tar sands contain reserves equivalent to seven times Saudi Arabia. Full exploitation of that tar will raise world temperatures by 0.75 °F.
So, how does the report overlook these numbers (which they essentially agree with)? They say, "Stop! We don't want you to focus on the greenhouse gas emissions from oil through Keystone" (or from the tar sands for that matter). They want you to imagine a world where the oil would be burned anyways. If not piped through Keystone, it would come from some other source. If not from Canadian tar sands, someone else would supply the petroleum. This argument makes no sense. It is a little like a crystal meth dealer saying to the police, "I shouldn't be charged for the damage my drug caused because the users would have found meth, or cocaine, or heroin somewhere else." Such an argument is illogical.
We need to measure the emissions from Keystone and the tar sands directly. We should compare the impacts of pumping the world's dirtiest oil to making wiser use of the energy we already extract. For instance, if we increased passenger vehicle efficiency in the US by about 12%, we would save all the oil to be pumped through the Keystone pipeline, our planet would be cleaner, and the average US driver would be $250 richer each year. Who is against a thicker wallet and a cleaner planet?
The exploitation of the tar sands requires approval of Keystone. The Canadian government continues to tell us the oil will get to market anyway. If that is true then why do they need the pipeline? Why can't they build their own pipeline? Are there no competent engineers in Canada? If Keystone is denied, it will significantly change the economics of tar sand exploitation; it will send a strong message to the marketplace that tar sands are not the future fuel we need.
The principle reason for Keystone is to open tar sands to world markets that will pay higher prices for the tar. The main impact of pipelines like Keystone is to make petroleum companies in Canada richer. An interesting side impact will be that it will actually raise gas prices in the US. So, if you want to pay more for oil, if you want to build a pipeline that benefits foreign companies and provides little value to the US, go ahead approve the pipeline.
It has to be mentioned that two Secretaries of State and one President will have Keystone as their environmental legacy. You cannot be concerned about climate change and at the same time approve Keystone. An approval will mean that Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and President Obama are more about words than action. Right now, history is set to judge the conservative parties in the US very harshly for climate change. Time and time again, they have stood in the way of stewardship. They have denied science, attacked scientists, wasted precious resources, and enacted policies which hinder the advancement of clean and renewable energy. Right now, they own climate change. They own Superstorm Sandy, they own the droughts of 2011, 2012, and 2014, and they own the increase in insured extreme weather costs.
Approval of Keystone by Clinton, Kerry and Obama will make the ownership dual. No one will look back and remember regulations on coal plants or agreements on HCFCs. They will remember the cowardice on Keystone. They will remember a decision which should have been an easy one made by people who knew the problem. Those memories will haunt the Democrats not only in the future but immediately, in the next election cycle. On the other hand, if the Clinton/Kerry/Obama decision is the right one, they will find a groundswell of support from the populace including voters and donors who fight continuously for environmentally conscious legislators.
Let's hope that the current decision makers have the courage to do what is right. Let's hope they listen to the scientists who have been pleading for decades to take action. This is the time, this is the issue, and this is their legacy.

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