Joe Nocera Is Still Wrong and “Very Unfair” About the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. McKibben, Hansen and I Explain Why.
"Joe Nocera Is Still Wrong and “Very Unfair” About the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. McKibben, Hansen and I Explain Why."
We must leave the overwhelming majority of unconventional fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming, but Nocera wants to open every spigot
CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands as Nocera advocates — represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear. [Estimated reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011).]
But he is still very wrong, and he didn’t represent McKibben’s position well at all. Nocera’s new arguments are more elaborate. Since you see them a lot from centrist economist types, I will respond in some detail — with the help of McKibben, who explains here what he was trying to explain to Nocera and why Nocera’s final paragraph is “very unfair.”
I’ll also show that Nocera holds the environmental costs of the pipeline up to a considerably different standard of analysis than he does his hand-waving assertions of the supposedly vastly larger non-environmental benefits of Keystone. A leading expert on life-cycle greenhouse gas analyses of the tar sands responds to Nocera’s lowball estimate.
Nocera goes astray almost immediately:
Here’s the question on the table today: Can a person support the Keystone XL oil pipeline and still believe that global warming poses a serious threat?
To my mind, the answer is yes.
I know what you’re thinking. Since when does Nocera “believe that global warming poses a serious threat”?
If Nocera really believes global warming poses a serious threat, you’d think he’d write about it regularly. But his first Keystone article never mentioned warming and dismissed all environmental concerns. Nocera wrote a long piece on the Chevy Volt last year and never mentioned warming or CO2 at all.
If you google his name and “global warming,” you’ll find 2008’s “At Exxon’s Can’t-Miss Meeting,” in which he touts the widely debunked nonsense peddled by physicist Freeman Dyson and dismisses knowledgeable people who express science-based views as trying to “push Exxon Mobil toward their belief system — their global warming religion.”
Needless to say, folks who “believe that global warming poses a serious threat” do not generally use the phrase “global warming religion.” That was a key reason I called him a member of the climate ignorati. The science says that global warming is an existential threat (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization” and literature review here).
Heck, the International Energy Agency, a staid and conservative group of economists and the like where Nocera should feel at home, says the world is on pace for 11°F warming and “Even School Children Know This Will Have Catastrophic Implications for All of Us”
So Nocera lacks any “street cred” to either pose or answer the “question on the table today,” as he has never shown any indication that he believes global warming poses a serious threat — and indeed he has written in the past as if he does not. In his first Keystone piece last week he wrote:
Along with the natural gas that can now be extracted thanks to hydraulic fracturing — which, of course, all right-thinking environmentalists also oppose — the oil from the Canadian tar sands ought to be viewed as a great gift that has been handed to North America. These two relatively new sources of fossil fuels offer America its first real chance in decades to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.
Now that doesn’t sound much like a climate realist. Apparently Nocera wants us to think he is concerned about the global warming threat while simultaneously embracing full exploitation of unconventional oil and gas. The analysis by James Hansen (and others) — previewed here and summarized in the chart at the top — makes clear that those two views are in fact incompatible. [See also Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field “May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas.]
That’s a key reason why all the folks best known for worrying about the threat posed by global warming oppose the pipeline.
Let’s dive into the piece itself.
Nocera’s piece continues:
The crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, which the pipeline would transport to American refineries on the Gulf Coast, simply will not bring about global warming apocalypse. The seemingly inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of deeply ingrained human habits, which will not change if the pipeline is ultimately blocked. The benefits of the oil we stand to get from Canada, via Keystone, far outweigh the environmental risks.
Talk about moving the goal posts and misstating the problem and handwaving. First off, no individual pool of carbon can “bring about global warming apocalypse” by itself. But in combination with the conventional coal, oil, and gas we are burning unconstrained — a policy Nocera appears to endorse wholeheartedly — then, yes, the tar sands will be a clear contributor to impacts that deserve the label apocalyptic. Nocera would know that if he bothered to talk to real climate scientists like Hansen.
Blocking the tar sands isn’t about changing “human habits” — it’s about blocking access to a vast pool of carbon that needs to be left in the ground. Obviously if you frame all efforts to stop catastrophic climate change as attempting to change “deeply ingrained human habits” then you can hand wave all action away.
And speaking of handwaving, Nocera never actually quantifies the supposed “benefits of the oil we stand to get from Canada.” That’s probably because such quantification is difficult if not impossible, since those benefits are minimal.
In fact, Nocera simply asserts that tar sands oil and shale gas gives us a chance to become “no longer beholden to OPEC.” But that may be the sloppiest statement Nocera has written on this subject. He knows that the price of oil is set on an international market. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry up to 900,000 barrels of oil a day. That’s a little over 1% of global supply (and 4% of U.S. supply, assuming we got it all, which we won’t) — it will have no significant impact on the price of oil or OPEC’s ability to control price (neither will shale gas). Now, if Nocera is really proposing a vast expansion of tar sands oil significant enough to be even, say, 10% of global oil supply, well, then that would be precisely what opponents of the pipeline have been arguing — that it opens the door to levels of tar sands exploitation that would in fact make a major contributor to climate catastrophe.
When I tried to make that case on Tuesday, however, I was cast as a global warming “denier.” Joe Romm, who edits the Climate Progress blog, said that I had joined “the climate ignorati.” Robert Redford — yes, that Robert Redford — denounced my column in The Huffington Post. “Let’s put the rhetoric aside, and simply focus on the facts,” he wrote.
NOTE TO NOCERA: Calling you part of the climate ignorati does not mean I am casting you as a “global warming ‘denier’.” I reserve that term for people who spread long-debunked disinformation knowingly and/or as part of the broader anti-science disinformation campaign. The ignorati are, as Google quickly reveals, “Elites who, despite their power, wealth, or influence, are prone to making serious errors when discussing science and other technical matters.”
Actually, Nocera didn’t try to make that case. He never detailed the supposed benefits of the pipeline, and he called concerns about environmental risks posed by expansion of the tar sands “ludicrous.”
Yes, let’s. In particular, let’s focus on two issues that have become the cornerstone of the opposition to Keystone. The first is that the crude from the tar sands is, in Redford’s words, “the dirtiest oil on the planet” — so dirty, in fact, that it will dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions and greatly exacerbate the growing threat of global warming.
There is no question that oil from the tar sands will increase greenhouse gases. But by how much? According to a study by IHS Cera, a leading energy research firm, the oil from the tar sands emits only 6 percent more greenhouse gases than other, lighter forms of oil. (Environmental groups have tried to poke holes in the study, but even they don’t come up with the kind of increase that would doom the planet.)
No and no.
First, the IHS Cera analysis isn’t transparent, and therefore it isn’t very useful. It isn’t just enviros who have issues with it. I interviewed one of the country’s foremost authorities on comparative lifecycle GHG analyses of the tar sands, Adam Brandt. He is in Stanford’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, and author of the December 2011 study, “Variability and Uncertainty in Life Cycle Assessment Models for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Canadian Oil Sands Production.”
I asked him why IHS Cera was on the low side of most other analyses and what he thought was the best range to use. He said, “I am not sure of exactly what CERA did in their study” and “I have a hard time commenting on numbers that CERA derives, because I can’t see what they did.” He says:
There is a lot of variability depending on the oil sands project in question. I think a reasonable range for the existing oil sands projects is a 5%-30% increase over the California baseline value. When speaking to reporters, I cite a baseline industry-average increase of 10-15% compared to the California baseline.
Second, again, to avoid catastrophic global warming we need to leave the majority of hydrocarbons in the ground — and the overwhelming majority of unconventional fossil fuels in the ground. The tar sands is at the top of the list of unconventional fossil fuels that need to be left in the ground, particularly if you’re talking the kind of exploitation needed to actually have any impact whatsoever on U.S. energy security — see Hansen slams Keystone XL Pipeline: “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”
X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel. [Graph source: Farrell and Brandt, “Risks of the oil transition,” 2006.]
What’s more, there is plenty of oil being produced today with the same greenhouse gas consequences as the oil from the tar sands. As Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “The argument you hear is that because it increases greenhouse gas emissions, we shouldn’t tolerate it. Well, so do the lights in my house. You have to be discriminating.”
That may be the lamest analogy in the history of energy and climate. Nocera is actually analogizing the GHG emissions increase from 900,000 barrels a day of dirty tar sands oil with flicking on the lights in your house! And remember, Nocera wants a lot more oil than that.
How bad is this analogy? Many people choose to get their electricity from renewable sources — so for them turning on the lights don’t even increase GHGs. The point is people don’t have any choice about the dirty tar sands oil — but Obama does.
The second argument is that the tar sands oil won’t help the United States because it is all headed for export. This is perhaps the silliest argument of all. Right now, most of the big refineries on the Gulf Coast export around 20 percent of their refined product. Why? Because every barrel of crude oil is converted partly to diesel and partly to gasoline — and the rest of the world is far more reliant on diesel fuel than we are. The gasoline remains in the United States. Keystone wouldn’t change that equation one bit. Normally, one wouldn’t have to point out that exporting high-value products is good for the country. But, of course, improving our trade balance is irrelevant when you’re facing the apocalypse.
Actually, it isn’t a silly argument because Nocera titled his piece “The Politics of Keystone.” Exporting this oil is a political killer. But in any case, Nocera is willing to hand wave away all the environmental arguments because Keystone would enrich U.S. refiners?
You want to know another little secret about the tar sands? It’s already coming here, thanks to existing pipelines — and it is already doing us a great deal of good. The influx of Canadian oil is partly why our imports from OPEC are at their lowest level in nearly a decade. And because the crude from Canada is selling at a steep discount to Saudi Arabian crude, it is stabilizing the price at the pump.
Another handwaving argument. Let’s see if Nocera can find a study that says 900,000 barrels of tar sand oil will lower US oil prices over the long term. Good luck.
Consider an analogous case, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2009 report, “Impact of Limitations on Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Federal Outer Continental Shelf.” The EIA analyzed the difference between restrictions to offshore drilling and full offshore drilling, which means about half a million barrels of oil a day more in U.S. oil production in the 2020s and beyond. In 2030, US gasoline prices would be three cents a gallon lower. Woohoo!
Somewhat to my surprise, the most reasoned Keystone opponent I spoke to this week was Bill McKibben, who led the protests against it. Although the tar sands ranks as “the second biggest pool of carbon in the world,” he told me, “Keystone, by itself, won’t make or break the environment.”
Rather, he said, he and other environmentalists had decided to draw this particular line in the sand because stopping Keystone would help accelerate what he described as the difficult transition from a fossil fuel economy to a new, brighter world based on renewable sources of energy. “The most sensible way to go about dealing with global warming is one pipeline at a time,” he said. “These kinds of fights are extremely important because they are the way the message gets out that we need to change.”
You won’t be surprised to learn this isn’t what McKibben was saying. McKibben writes me:
What I said, in fact, was ‘the most sensible way to about dealing with global warming is not one pipeline at a time.’ And of course that’s true–it would make the most sense to have a real policy that put a stiff price on carbon. But since that’s not happening at the moment, despite our best efforts, we’re in a constant fight to try and keep carbon in the ground wherever we can. The tar sands are key for the reason we’ve said from the start: there’s so much carbon in there that if you tap it heavily it’s ‘game over for the climate’ no matter what else you do.
The other thing that i talked with him about but failed to get across was that the biggest danger was not the extra carbon in tar sands oil but the sheer scale of the new deposit they’re now opening up. He seems to have dropped his earlier insistence that they’d get it to Asia somehow anyway: I think he heard from people about the opposition to the Gateway pipeline. He’s taking what I think he conceives of as a ‘realist’ stance, from someone immersed in the world of business and diplomacy. What i tried and failed to explain to him is that there’s a deeper kind of realism that comes from physics and chemistry, a kind of realphysics that will trump realpolitik.
Nocera ends his piece.
Maybe — just maybe — stopping the Keystone pipeline would be worth it if it really was going to change our behavior and help usher in the age of renewable energy. It would, indeed, be worth turning our backs on oil that we badly need and that is already making our country more secure and prosperous.
But let’s be honest. It’s not going to change anyone’s behavior. If Keystone is ultimately blocked, the far more likely result is that everyone who opposed it will get to feel good about themselves while still commuting to work, alone, in their S.U.V.’s.
Again, it’s clever but specious to turn this into an issue about changing our behavior. We need to leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground and that should start with the tar sands.
The last paragraph is very unfair. ‘Everyone’ opposed to keystone is not commuting to work alone in their SUV; the people I’ve met in the course of this fight are the most spirited, engaged, sincere and lovely bunch of people I can imagine.
But you know, you could add one more thing from me please: “Nocera at least heard the criticism of his column and circled back for another look. He didn’t reverse what he said, but he did soften his tone. And that’s good. This is complicated stuff if you’re new to it, the power of the status quo is strong, and over time our leading journalists are starting to figure it out. It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually he ended up where the New York Times editorial page arrived many months ago: understanding that Keystone really was an important part of the fight for a working planet.”