Nation’s Top Climate Scientists: Omitting Climate Change From Keystone XL Pipeline Review Is ‘Neither Wise Nor Credible’

A group of prominent American climate scientists sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today urging her to consider the climate impacts of developing the Keystone XL pipeline.

Last summer, Secretary Clinton said she would “leave no stone unturned” in the State Department’s review of the pipeline. However, in its report on the project last August — released before President Obama denied the permit and encouraged TransCanada to choose another route — the State Department made almost no mention of climate change.

That’s a pretty big stone left unturned, say the nation’s top scientists.

The letter, which includes signatures from James Hansen and Michael Mann, says that avoiding climate change in an environmental review is “neither wise nor credible.”

This lack of serious consideration of climate change isn’t much a surprise. The Obama Administration has created a double standard on climate through both the Keystone XL pipeline and its support for Arctic offshore drilling.

In the case of Arctic drilling, the Interior Department noted in its environmental review of Shell’s drilling plans that the region is “experiencing variations that are accelerating faster than previously realized.” But the Interior Department did not use this assessment to question the prudence of drilling for more fossil fuels that will only accelerate that warming trend.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said he believes “that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way.” But when asked to respond to NASA Climatologist James Hansen, who said that opening up tar sands is “game over” for the climate, the President avoided making a direct connection between Keystone XL and climate change:

James Hansen is a scientist who has done an enormous amount not only to understand climate change, but also to help publicize the issue. I have the utmost respect for scientists. But it’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That’s their national policy, they’re pursuing it. With respect to Keystone, my goal has been to have an honest process, and I have adamantly objected to Congress trying to circumvent a process that was well-established not just under Democratic administrations, but also under Republican administrations.

The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem.

However, even with the President admitting that people are frustrated about inaction on climate, The White House and the State Department have largely avoided examination of the climate impacts of building the pipeline — a project that would bring up to 800,000 barrels of tar sands crude into the U.S. each day. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that tar sands emit up to 82 percent more greenhouse gases that average crude.

In that Rolling Stone interview, President Obama said he believed climate change would be an election-year issue. Encouraging the State Department to take a serious look at the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline would be a great start.

Below is the letter sent this morning to Secretary Clinton:

Dear Secretary Clinton,

We are writing to ask that the State Department conduct, as part of its evaluation of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, a serious review of the effect of helping open Canada’s tar sands on the planet’s climate.

At the moment, your department is planning to consider the effects of the pipeline on “recreation,” “visual resources,” and “noise,” among other factors. Those are important—but omitting climate change from the considerations is neither wise nor credible. The vast volumes of carbon in the tar sands ensure that they will play an important role in whether or not climate change gets out of hand; understanding the role this largescale new pipeline will play in that process is clearly crucial.

We were pleased that President Obama saw fit to review this project more carefully; it would be a shame if that review did not manage to comprehensively cover the most important questions at issue.


John Abraham
Associate Professor, School of Engineering
University of St. Thomas

Ken Caldeira
Senior Scientist
Department of Global Ecology
Carnegie Institution

James Hansen
Research Scientist
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society
The Earth Institute, Columbia University

Michael MacCracken
Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs
Climate Institute

Michael E. Mann
Professor of Meteorology
Director, Earth System Science Center
The Pennsylvania State University

James McCarthy
Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography
Harvard University

Michael Oppenheimer
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs
Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences
Princeton University

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago

Richard Somerville
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

George M. Woodwell
Founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist
Woods Hole Research Center

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21 Responses to Nation’s Top Climate Scientists: Omitting Climate Change From Keystone XL Pipeline Review Is ‘Neither Wise Nor Credible’

  1. Tami Kennedy says:

    I don’t think the State Dept. has a hold on lowering climate priority. Yesterday Pres. Obama was arguing for the value of the ‘100 years’ of natural gas. No mention of accepting reliance on a carbon source as an energy future.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    Clinton comes from a lawyer’s viewpoint, not a scientist’s, so she may have a keener ear for the guidance on NEPA review of climate change outcomes, as the guidance is posted on the President’s webpage.

    White House webpage

    It emphasizes review of both the following:

    (1) The GHG emissions effects of the proposed action and alternative actions; and

    (2) The relationship of climate change effects to a proposed action or alternatives, including the relationship to a proposal design, environmental impacts, mitigation and adaptation measures.

    Those are two “stones” that the State Department should be looking under.

  3. Raindog says:

    It might create 82% more CO2 on average to produce, transport and refine the oil, but most of the CO2 in a barrel or tar sands oil comes from burning the refined products, not producing it. If the burning of the oil is included and the tar sands oil is compared to the average barrel of conventional oil, tar sand oil emits 5-15% more CO2 than conventional oil. That is not good and everything should be done to reduce that number. But it isn’t 82%. If they build a nuclear plant or bring in wind or hydropower to provide the heat needed to produce that oil, emissions will be in line or below conventional oil. That is probably what environmentalists should be fighting for.

    Here is the way to look at this issue if you accept that we need oil for the foreseeable future:

    Total CO2 emissions from producing, refining and burning per unit of energy produced.

    Or percentage of total emissions from producing, refining and burning that come from producing and refining. the formula would be (emissions from producing and refining)/(emissions from producing, refining and burning). The higher that number is the worse the emissions are for that type of oil.

    Deep water oil and arctic oil may have lower associated emissions than today’s onshore conventional oil.

    Some deep water wells take a huge amount of energy to drill them (and have large associated emissions) but then they produce 25,000 barrels a day or more and will produce millions of barrels over the life of the well. The emissions from burning the oil will dwarf the emissions from drilling the well so the above formula would give a very small number. This is preferable from an emissions perspective to an onshore well that takes much less CO2 to drill but that only produces 25,000 barrels over its lifetime. In this case the number from the formula above would be much higher.

    As time passes, more and more of our oil will come from wells that produce smaller and smaller volumes (except in deep water or perhaps from the Arctic if they make big discoveries there).

  4. ANGRY BADGER says:

    Niel Conan interviewed Dr. Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for the Environment for Talk of the Nation. Foley seemed to characterized the KXL as almost a non-issue with respect to the climate. Anyone want to enlighten me as to what he’s seeing that differs with Dr. Hansen and his colleagues?

    Here is the link:

    The other theme of this interview is one of conciliation with the other side: talking about economic and jobs instead of establishing the existance and severity of the problem. I think that’s a mistake.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    I don’t have a Hansen quote to explain why he said ‘game over’ but here’s why I find that a credible comment.

    Developed fossil fuel infrastructure and distribution controls the RATE of emission of greenhouse gases. Less accessible – or more expensive – fuel slows down the rate of resulting emissions. It is critical that we slow the RATE of emissions.

    Expanded access to one of the largest, maybe the largest, fossil fuel reservoirs on earth means that the rate of consumption and emissions can/will soar.

    The Keystone XL, Enbridge and other pipelines out of the tar sands are like opening up arteries on an elephant. The rate of carbon emissions becomes a bleed-out.

  6. M Tucker says:

    “In that Rolling Stone interview, President Obama said he believed climate change would be an election-year issue. Encouraging the State Department to take a serious look at the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline would be a great start.”

    It will only be an issue if the American people demand that it becomes an issue. The American people must demand and force the candidates to discuss climate change. As FDR said, “now make me do it.” The American people must make it an issue. It cannot be “whipped up” by clever rhetoric from out-of-office politicians (unless they have strong public recognition and respect) or journalists. It must come from the public. Like how the protestors won a delay of the XL pipeline. The reason it got so much attention was because of the protestors. You want President Obama to do something about climate change then you must agitate.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    “We are writing to ask that …”

    Although on one hand I applaud these scientists for writing the letter, I also think that such letters, at this point, should show much more verve, and demand responsible action.

    How about this: “We are writing to demand that …”

    After all, not only is it their (the Obama Administration’s) responsibility to face and address climate change, in the genuine interests of the U.S. public and everyone on Earth, they (candidate Obama) promised that they’d do it when they were running for election in 2008!!

    We should not merely be “asking” at this point; we should be demanding.

    And, what about the ruling (wasn’t it the Supreme Court?) that upheld the right — and responsibility! — of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions? Wasn’t it based on the (correct) reality that GHG emissions are pollutants (when on a large scale) in the sense of altering the climate and thus causing the risks and harms associated with climate change? Doesn’t that reality — that LEGAL acknowledgment — basically require that the State Department include climate change in its assessment of Keystone XL? In other words, how could the State Department exclude, or even minimize, climate change in its Keystone XL environmental assessment when the Supreme Court itself has said (am I wrong on this?) that GHG emissions are indeed risks of the sort that the EPA has a right, and a responsibility, to regulate?

    Is there any integrity and coherence — scientifically speaking and politically speaking — in the Administration?

    In the letter, I would have also stated something like this: “If the State Department does not fully, accurately, and responsibly consider climate change and its impacts in its review of the Keystone XL project, we as climate scientists believe that relevant institutions, representing interests of the American public, would be correct to sue the State Department to re-do the assessment, once again, until it is done responsibly and legally, and in the meantime to delay the Keystone XL project until it is eventually and hopefully laid to rest. And, we consider this letter to be notice to that effect.”

    I applaud the scientists for writing the letter, but I think it should have (and could have) been much, much stronger. Indeed, consider this: If the scientific community, and the environmental community, want and expect regular members of the public to engage in call-making, letter-writing, demonstrations, and even nonviolent civil disobedience if necessary to cause the government to take action to address climate change, then such letters should be clearer and more forceful. If a member of the public is going to consider being arrested in some demonstration or some act of NVCD, he/she ought to be able to know, at least, that such letters from scientists and scientific organizations are clear and forceful and do not “pull punches”.



  8. Paul Magnus says:

    “omitting climate change from the considerations is neither wise nor credible.”

    PS and we know that you know that that is so….

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    Hear Hear.

    All institutes should be writing in. Is ThinkProgress ?

  10. I too thought of the CEQ guidance on climate change in NEPA processes as I was reading this article. Thanks for posting it here!

    I know the Bureau of Land Management, to date, has not been able to realistically take the CEQ guidance to heart. In fact, there’s a well-known letter from then-Director Bob Abbey where he references the CEQ guidance as support, when in fact he was going in the opposite direction.

    I’d be really interesting to hear of federal agencies (other than perhaps the EPA) which are finding some success in putting the CEQ guidance to practical use. They could be good examples!

  11. I think you’re lost in the weeds and numbers there.

    We’re now at the point where the amount of CO2 we can dump into the atmosphere is:

    1) Effectively limited at an absolute amount, a fixed total budget, which cannot be exceeded whatever the rate of emissions

    2) The absolute amount of CO2 we can emit is greatly exceeded by the known world fossil fuel reserves

    The implication of these two points is that large amounts of fossil fuels have to be left in the ground.

    Extracting _additional_ reserves more efficiently, gets us nowhere.

    Extracting a certain basic amount of known reserves more efficiently, that we’ll be using anyway as we wind down the fossil fuel economy, could be a nice incremental improvement that oil companies should work on – not environmentalists.

    Environmentalists – and other focused on saving the biosphere as we know it – need to focus on ending the exploitation and use of fossil fuels.

    Kudos to the scientists who have written to Secretary Clinton!

  12. I agree it was a sad interview, with an academic who claims to get it, but apparently really doesn’t. NPR once again seeking “middle ground” where as a technical matter, it does not exist.

    KXL is game over because we have to draw a line in the sand, now, and stop increasing the exploitation and use of fossil fuels.

    If we can’t draw the line at something as terrible as KXL, then we’re just not likely to be able to draw the line in time, at all.

    Because we are teetering on the cliff edge of no-return, any new investment in major climate-negative energy and infrastructure is deadly – as well as pointless in the big picture.

    See for instance:

    Must-Read: Scientists Uncover Evidence Of Impending Tipping Point For Earth

  13. Note that over the last several months, quantitative analysis has coalesced around the result that RATE of CO2 emissions is no longer an adequate focus of emission limitation.

    Because of long residence times of CO2 in the atmosphere, we now have to focus – if we are to succeed in stabilizing the biosphere before traversing too many tipping points – on an ABSOLUTE BUDGET of the amount of CO2 that can be emitted in the next 40 years.

    Relative to the current industrial economy, there’s essentially no more that can be emitted after that – just a small trickle. Like excess calories going to fat, additional emissions – whatever the RATE – will go directly to unacceptable warming.

    This is scary, but I think once one gets used to it, it is a simplifying assumption.

    In terms of global climate change mitigation policy, there’s an absolute pie to divide up.

  14. Of course strong statements on the urgency of climate mitigation are morally defensible, and emotionally satisfying, but tactically, there tends to be little point in being disrespectful to people one is trying to persuade.

  15. David Lewis says:

    Joe wrote about Foley here. Foley’s “Becoming a Climate Pragmatist” article which illustrates the same thinking evident in the NPR interview is here.

    As far as Hansen’s thinking goes he’s given a “free pass” to conventional oil for a number of years. He says there is no way to stop the Saudis or Russia from producing and selling it. Once he’s accepted that the CO2 from burning all that gets into the atmosphere there isn’t any room for anything else, so he frames further development of coal, tar sand oil, and any other unconventional sources in the harshest possible terms. He’s protested coal use to the point of getting arrested and now also tar sand oil. I study everything Hansen says because I believe he has a very clear idea of climate science and because he isn’t holding anything back.

    I part company with him on this give a free pass to conventional oil and condemn unconventional everything else plus coal. I don’t see how it would be possible to arouse the North American population to the point people would stop using the great fossil fuels resources of this continent except for the remaining conventional oil and gas yet expect them to stand by while Russia and the oil barons and mullahs of the Middle East do whatever they want with their vast reserves.

    I explained my view of Hansen’s politics in more detail last year in this article

  16. Forest says:

    There are a number of reasons that Enbridge may not proceed regardless of the Prime Minister’s claim that it is in the “national interest”. 1. Environmental action is high, 2. First Nations natives in BC are universally opposed, 3. The populous big cities like Vancouver are against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion) from the tar sands with its increasing tanker traffic), 4. The (likely) incoming BC government is opposed to Enbridge, and 5.The “fat cat elites” with their big sail boats are against 200 foreign-owned super tankers on the inside passages. They know that one spill destroys the coast for 1000 years. So It is up to Keystone opposition to take action now.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    Good point.
    I think I’d use something like “Limitation of the Cumulative Excess” instead of Budget. The word “Budget” has the ring of something prudent, and the accumulation of excess GHGs has been in no way prudent. People think that it is ok to “go over budget” but don’t like being identified as already in a state of imbalance and excess.

  18. We can also begin to sequester existing atmospheric CO2. There are healthy, sane ways to do this — all forms of natural biosequestration.

    1) We can convert biomass to biochar, enhancing soil and creating biofuels in this carbon negative process. For more info go to the International Biochar Initiative’s web site.

    2) We can grow perennial prairie grass/grain hybrids (a la Wes Jackson) which have enormous root systems capable of storing copious quantities of carbon while feeding millions of people. (And they’re far more drought resistant that corn.)

    3) Support no-till farming.

    4) Support any number of algae-to-biofuel-to-biochar technologies.

    5) Stop harvesting old growth forests, and introduce new biodiversity reserves.

    Biosequestration won’t do the whole job, but it can augment carbon emission controls of various types.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Janus-faced Obama is able to evoke any emotion on demand, and argue any position for whatever audience he is seeking to hoodwink. What a man for the End Times!

  20. Jeff Huggins says:

    Kevin, thanks for your comment, I understand your point, and in many circumstances, perhaps most, it’s a wise one. But I disagree with it in the present situation. Remember, we have been told by Obama, Clinton, and (certainly) Secty. Chu and so forth that they fully understand the importance of dealing with climate change. Remember, Obama promised to do so as he ran for election last time, and on this basis many of us voted for him. Remember, he’s had over three years now. Remember, this present letter is not anywhere near the first letter that has been sent to the government, or made broadly public, regarding climate change or Keystone XL by leading scientists. And remember, we — or the movement — tend to applaud people like Bidder XX (forgot the number) and the 350 folks who demonstrate, apply NVCD, risk going to jail, and etc. as they try to call attention to climate change and prompt politicians to deal with it.

    Indeed, at this point letters like these should not even have to be sent to folks like Secty. Clinton, or President Obama. They’ve told us that they “get it”, and they’ve promised to act. At this point, firm and clear letters are what’s called for, and more. The overpoliteness lowers the bar and pretends that all this is taking place ten years ago. It lets people off the hook. At this point, we shouldn’t be counting on that sort of thing to work with Secty. Clinton and so forth. Instead, we should be making it clear that if they don’t take action as they promised to do, then we will simply not vote for them again. Period. That can be said politely, of course, but in no uncertain terms.

    We are over three years into the Obama Administration. At this point, we should be making demands on it, and reminding it of its promises to us, and telling it that we want action or else we’ll vote Green, not merely “ask”-ing for something that they should have already done, should know to do, and promised to do.

    Anyhow, those are my thoughts.



  21. mulp says:

    Let’s see, million of tons of fossil carbon are being burned constantly, but a small fraction is the focus of all the attentions, and that merely provides reasons to attack Obama and elect Romney.

    For what is the Keystone the issue? To ensure the oil and coal industries gain the upper hand?

    The voters have been indoctrinated to believe that killing jobs in America to save labor by importing more oil is the best way to create jobs.

    The voters have been convinced that pillage and plunder of natural and built capital so less labor is employed is better than employing millions of people building capital which will produce a better life using sustainable energy capital.

    The environmentalist let the oil and coal and conservatives define capitalism as the systematic and rapid destruction of capital to save labor and increase the numbers of unemployed.

    Why does no one believe in capitalism which has as a central premise the building of capital to provide better lives for all with less consumption of resources?

    The public supports pillage and plunder because liberals and environmentalist have not taught them the true meaning of capitalism: sacrificing consumption build capital to gain a better future.

    Instead the public wants to burn out quickly without sacrifice because they believe in Zeno’s Paradox – if you consume half the remaining resource, half still remains, so you never run out.

    If a tipping point on green house gases exists, getting half way to the tipping point leaves half remaining before the tipping point is reached, so the tipping point will never be crossed.