Bill McKibben: Beyond Keystone

We don’t get to rest in a fight that we’re still not winning

by Bill McKibben, reposted from HuffPost

There were two scientific studies this week that set the ongoing Keystone pipeline battle in sharp relief.

One was a reminder of just how crucial this fight is. A secret report delivered to the Canadian government’s chief bureaucrat showed that changes in tar sands mining methods, which the industry claimed reduced the amount of carbon emissions, were actually “three times as emissions intensive” and that damage to the environment would be both “significant” and “irreversible.”

That’s one reason the EU moved closer last week to preventing the import of tarsands oil to Europe, and it helps explain why the White House continued to stand strong against Congressional efforts to force a permit for Keystone — as the president’s press secretary pointed out (in a pointed tweet) the administration’s new fuel efficiency standards for cars would save more oil than the pipeline could deliver in 45 years.

But the second study made clear to tars sands opponents — if it hadn’t been already — that this was only one battle in a much larger fight. A new study from a pair of British Columbia scientists shows that there’s a lot of carbon in the tarsands — but a lot more yet in the planet’s coal deposits.

If you burned all the tar sands we know about now, you’d raise the planet’s temperature more than half a degree — i.e., half again as much as the global warming we’ve already seen, which has been enough to make the seas 30% more acid and cut Arctic sea ice 40%. But if you burned all the coal we know about it, the temperature would go up 15 degrees.

[JR: For more on that study, see “Confusing Climate Study Actually Makes Strong Case Against Tar Sands — If We Want To Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming.”]

At a certain point, I suppose, it doesn’t matter — most scientists think anything more than two degrees Celsius puts us into a zone of extreme danger, and we’re already halfway there. Fifteen degrees would be just gilding the lily. Still, it makes it clear that even if, as NASA’s James Hansen has said, burning the planet’s unconventional fuels like tar sands would mean it was “game over the for the climate,” stopping that burning won’t be enough. We also have to address the most obvious, conventional forms of energy — coal, especially. It was the first kind of fossil fuel we learned to burn, 300 years ago. And we’ve got to kick the habit.

Which is why, even as the political gamesmanship over the Keystone pipeline rages on (with the GOP at the moment making the absurd claim that this export pipeline will lower U.S. pump prices), we’ve got no choice but to take on other battles. has been embroiled these last weeks in the fight over a massive new coal plant in Kosovo; closer to home, plans were just announced for a truly massive new coal port in Washington State that would take eight mile-long coal trains a day from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming and ship them straight to China.

We’ve got to stop projects like this, just as we united to fight Keystone. In fact, we’ve got — as soon as possible — to stop fighting bad things one by one. We don’t have enough fingers to plug every hole in the dike; we need to change the basic underlying economics, by charging the fossil fuel industry for the damage carbon does in the atmosphere instead of just letting them continue to use the atmosphere as an open sewer for free.

The fact that there’s more coal than tar sands doesn’t change the math of the Keystone debate. As the scientist who did the study pointed out, this is “not a get out of jail free card” to the tar sands industry, and added that he also opposed the proposed Gateway pipeline to Canada’s Pacific coast.

But it is a powerful reminder that we don’t get to rest in a fight that we’re still losing, a fight that has many fronts but only one central tenet: the future of the earth depends on keeping carbon underground.

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist, author and founder of This piece was originally published at the Huffington Post.

8 Responses to Bill McKibben: Beyond Keystone

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for your leadership here, Bill. We need two more fingers for these dikes: deforestation and gas fracking. North American timber mortality has tripled since 1970, due to warming but also to industrial logging, which causes huge direct emissions and weakens ecosystems’ resistance to pathogens and beetles. And someone needs to derail the natural gas rush, touted by Revkin and others.

    Maybe you should talk to Arianna, too. Her heart is in the right place- I went to a Rainforest Action Network fundraiser at her house in Los Angeles about 8 years ago. If you provided her with a full education, Huffpost could spearhead this effort, and leave its sold out competitors in the dust.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Very well put Bill and as Mike Roddy said, thank you for your continued leadership.

    Your message is right on. Its great to stop or delay a few of these individual items on the CO2 emissions buffet but we actually have to do this at the Macro level or it just won’t matter.

    That article for the coal port is an eye opener – the company that wants that port originally had plans for exporting 5.7 millions tons a year but withdrew those plans – the new plan is for exporting 44 million tons a year.

    BTW, just off CNBC, Transcanada just announced plans to build a pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas (since their previous tar sands pipeline Keystone 1 already goes to Oklahoma) – apparantly to route some of their oil down to the Gulf and higher prices overall. The piece on CNBC said they also announced a new route for the XL supposedly.

  3. Sasparilla says:

    This is in addition to the Canadian company Enbridge that bought the interest in a existing pipeline that goes from Oklahoma to the Gulf and reverse the flow of oil (currently the oil goes from the Gult to Oklahoma) by mid 2012 at 150,000 barrels a day to the Gulf and increasing that to 500,000 barrels a day by next year.

    There’s alot more money to be made by getting that tar oil to the Gulf and Brent Crude prices and that money is going to make it happen one way or the other as we can see.

    TransCanada, by breaking it XL extension apart, is essentially just going to build the XL from Oklahoma to Texas (not requiring Obama’s approval I’m guessing since that part doesn’t cross our border) and juice the existing tar sands pipelines that Obama approved in 2009 and get that oil to the Gulf and !0% – 20% more money for each barrel while raising the midwest prices for its oil as well.

  4. todd tanner says:

    Kudos to Bill for laying out the truth on this. He’s spot on.

  5. Tom King says:

    I can’t understand how politicians or the media could allow themselves to be so completely compromised by ending up on the wrong side of this debate. Reputations will not be restored by future apologies. Instead, the blame for climate disaster will be remembered in a multi-generational form. Does anyone think that future grandparents won’t teach their family who killed the oceans, or who wrecked agriculture?

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Tom, its not often talked about but you make an excellent point. The country (US) and in particular the political party of that country (GOP) and media outlet (News Corp) primarily responsible for preventing the world from stopping climate change will be remembered in history as a true villain because of the immense human devastation (human population will decrease by billions) that will happen.

    Those responsible will be looked and blamed in a worse manner than the villians of WW2 which had a political party associated with it as well.

    That we’re on the path for this to be the United States makes shakes me to my foundation. But at this point we’re going full speed ahead to that future, very, very sad.

  7. Ed Griffith says:

    Bill you are not only absolutely right, you are brave, dedicated, and I think fully qualify as a hero. Unless and until, however, we stop giving Obama a pass nobody will take us seriously. There have to be consequences for behavior.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The criminal genocidaires don’t give a toss because they have calculated that they will be safely dead by the time the proverbial hits the fan, and the deaths of billions of ‘the enemy’-other people-leave them utterly indifferent.