On Assessing Keystone XL: Set Wrong Standard, Get Wrong Answer

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Common Dreams

On Assessing Keystone XL: Set Wrong Standard, Get Wrong Answer

Recently, the White House reiterated that the test for approving the XL Pipeline was, “ … that this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” which is what the President said in his climate speech in June at Georgetown University.

And guess what? That’s precisely the conclusion reached by the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released by the State Department on January 31st . What a coincidence.

Obama may yet surprise us, but this whole thing is shaping up as an exercise in sophistry designed to allow him to approve the XL despite ample evidence that it would be an environmental disaster.  It’s also a spiritual, moral and ethical outrage.  But more about that later.

Let’s star with the sophistry.  The gist of the SIES is that one way or another, an equivalent amount of oil this dirty – and it is dirty – will be produced anyway, so there can’t be any impact.  You know, kind of a “pipelines don’t kill people, people kill people” argument.

There are a number of specific flaws to this reasoning and one big one.  Let’s start with the specific ones.

One basis of this SEIS’s reasoning is that absent the pipeline, the dirty oil will be transported by rail.  But a study by Reuters reporter, Patrick Rucker, found that rail could be prohibitively expensive.  At the very least, relying on rail would reduce the amount of economically recoverable bitumen from the tar sands, and therefore cut carbon.

Others have suggested that it could be transported to the Pacific via British Columbia, but given strong opposition from First Nations, and the general public there, it appears unlikely. Indeed, even if the BC public changed its opinion, the land controlled by the First Nations would require a such a tortuous route that a pipeline would be close to impossible. 

Finally, the Energy East Pipeline – much of which is already built – has been cited as a way to transport this crud to Atlantic ports.  But there are two reasons this makes no sense.  First, there are very few refineries in Europe or the eastern US that have the capacity to handle the heavy, sour crude that comes from the tar sands, and second, growth in these markets is very slow, if not static.  In essence, the Energy East Pipeline would be transporting dirty crude oil that isn’t needed to refineries that can’t handle it.

Never mind that the track record for transporting oil – whether by rail, ship or pipeline – has been empirically demonstrated to be hazardous to people, wildlife, and local economies; and never mind that exploiting the tar sands is turning one of the largest pristine wildness areas left in the world into a moonscape; and never mind that attempts to restore the ruined land have failed; the bottom line is that the key assumption in the SEIS is wrong.   Without the XL pipeline, the Athabasca tar sands are land-locked, and unlikely to be used as extensively as with it.  Which means the pipeline would substantially increase carbon.

Now for the big flaw. 

The IPCC’s  Fifth Assessment Report concluded that we must leave most of the proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.   Many scientists believe the IPCC’s Assessment – which is a consensus document – is excessively conservative, and that the amount of green house gas emissions which would trigger catastrophe is much lower.  Either way, if we don’t leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground, we will trigger an environmental and ecologic catastrophe. 

Let’s examine the numbers … The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report established a carbon budget that says we can release no more than 1000 gigatonnes of carbon if we are to stay below a 2C increase – a figure which the IPCC says gives us a 66% chance of avoiding catastrophe. 

Since we’ve released about 565Gtc already, and since the effect of other greenhouse gasses have to be factored into the allowable temperature increase, we can only release about 270 more gigatonnes of carbon from fossil fuels.  This means that as much as 80% of proven reserves must stay in the groundSo at most, we have something like 25 more years of fossil fuel use left before triggering catastrophe.

In reality, this is so optimistic it would make Pollyanna appear a pessimist.  Here’s why:

2 degrees is too much -- 2 degrees Celsius is unlikely to avoid catastrophe  according to a team of top scientists led by James Hansen, and the geologic record supports them;

Uncertainty – Even if 2 C is the “right” number, do we want to plan our future based on a 66% chance of avoiding catastrophe?  Is there any other human endeavor in which those sound like good odds?

Feedbacks --The IPCC budget did not include feedbacks – as I noted here just 3 generally accepted feedbacks could add 2.5 C by themselves by 2100, and there are as many as 12 positive feedbacks that could make it worse. 

Obviously, we have to begin to get off fossil fuels immediately, and to do that, we have to leave most of it in the ground.  How does spending billions on new infrastructure designed to transport the dirtiest oil ever produced to expanded markets square with that? Wouldn’t it make more sense – and have a lower environmental impact – to leave this stuff in the ground and burn existing supplies of cleaner oil as we make the transition to clean renewable energy? 

And how can the White House suggest that the test for approving the XL pipeline is whether it accelerates our ride to climate hell, death, and disaster? 

Suggesting that the world’s dirtiest oil will be exploited anyway, and that, therefore, we might as well be the ones that enable it, is like saying since genocide is going to occur anyway, it’s not immoral to facilitate it. 

One last thing.  The word “catastrophe” has been sprinkled around this article like flies on dung.  But let’s look behind the litany of specific woes global warming will cause --  including killing more than 100 million people within the lifespan of nearly everyone reading this -- and examine the full extent of the tragedy it implies.  Because in the end, this is as much a spiritual and moral tragedy as it is an economic and ecologic one.

Some 3.8 billion years ago the first life forms emerged on Earth, and a magnificent experiment began. We humans exist – tenuously – because at this precise moment, the carefully wrought balances of energy, material, chance and time produced the one physical world and climate that allows us to survive and the ecosystems we rely on to prosper.

All the magnificent life forms we take for granted; all the exquisite natural systems that make our oxygen, provide our food, and feed our souls are a product of that 3.8 billion year journey. 

We are now wiping them out like a flashflood roaring through time.  Some life forms will survive this massive destruction; we might even be among them.  But it will be a poorer, meaner and less prosperous world for the creatures who do manage to survive it.

In the end, the question this SEIS doesn’t answer, is: Does it make sense to permit construction of a pipeline carrying the world’s dirtiest oil if using oil will kill millions of people, and destroy the global ecosystems we rely on to support us?

The answer to that question, Mr. Obama, is the standard which should govern your decision, not whether a fundamentally flawed SEIS says the XL will not make an already untenable situation worse.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.

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