I think President Obama’s big climate speech last week makes it less likely he will approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada. The National Journal’s Amy Harder argues the reverse in a piece Monday, “The president set the stage for moving forward with the controversial pipeline in his landmark speech on climate change.
Before I give her reasons and mine — and why I think her specific scenario for approval is unlikely — let me deal with one potentially worrisome part of her piece:
“Our national interest will only be served if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said forcefully, prompting loud cheers from the audience of several hundred climate-minded people. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”
Environmentalists cheered Obama’s new “test” for the pipeline. They maintain that there isn’t a way Obama could approve the project since its impact will surely “significantly exacerbate” climate change. People close to the White House read it differently.
“I think it was a clear signal to the Canadians to come to the table and put a good-faith program out there that could provide the kind of net reductions beyond anyone’s doubt that would allow Obama to proceed,” said a source close to the Obama administration who would speak on the condition of anonymity only.
There are no “net reductions beyond anyone’s doubt” that could offset the multiple climate impacts from building the pipeline:
- Tar sands are considerably more energy intensive to extract and refine than typical crude oil
- “Tar sands will cause even more climate pollution than we previously thought due to the impacts of the high carbon byproduct petroleum coke.”
- “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon.”
- Tar sands development threatens the carbon-rich boreal forests.
The only thing beyond any doubt is that KXL would be far more destructive to the climate than the State Department has let on, a key reason why both the EPA and major environmental groups have asked State to redo its environmental impact statement.
As someone who written extensively about rip-offsets, there simply are no plausible set of actions that Canada could undertake to offset the impact of the tar sands.
Keystone is a gateway to a huge pool of carbon-intensive fuel most of which must be left in the ground — along with most of the world’s coal and unconventional oil and gas –- if humanity is to avoid multiple devastating impacts that may be beyond adaptation.
Yes, while I did not like the massive amount of offsets in the Waxman-Markey climate bill, I still supported that bill. But that’s because I expected the price of carbon to be lower than that of most offsets — a view vindicated by the recent drop in U.S. CO2 emissions — and because the offsets would’ve taken place under a U.S. carbon cap.
Without a cap, there’s really no way of knowing that a certain offset, like shutting down a coal plant, wouldn’t have been necessitated by whatever cap a nation needs to be part of the global effort to avert catastrophe.
But Canada has no carbon cap. So nothing Canada does to reduce its non-tar-sands emissions can plausibly be called a genuine offset.
Remember that an 80% to 95% reduction by 2050 vs. 1990 levels is the target that the IPCC believes the rich countries (Annex I) should adopt if the goal is to stabilize at 450 ppm CO2-eq or around 2°C (3.6°F) total warming above preindustrial levels. I discussed the science underlying this at length a few years ago. Here’s the key chart from the full Working Group III report (Box 13.7, page 776):
So Canada and the United States need to make very deep reductions in total greenhouse gas emissions within four decades if our aim is, as Obama put it, “sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change.” So Canada can’t offset KXL with domestic reductions it would have to make anyway.
The only offset that could preserve a livable climate would be setting off the tar sands as a permanent no-development zone.
I find Amy Harder’s scenario for Keystone approval implausible:
Based on conversations with administration insiders, here’s how I envision the final act of the long-running Keystone drama playing out:
Secretary of State John Kerry, who counts combatting climate change as one of his lifelong passions, will recommend to President Obama that he should not approve the pipeline, which would send 35 million gallons of oil every day over 1,700 miles from Alberta’s carbon-heavy oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama will decide to approve the project, in large part because he will have secured commitments from Canada to do more to reduce its carbon emissions.
Obama will publicly repudiate Kerry, akin to how Obama publicly repudiated Lisa Jackson, his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, two years ago when she asked the White House to let her move forward on a stronger smog standard. On the Friday before Labor Day 2011, Obama announced that he was delaying the standard because of economic concerns.
It is entirely possible that Obama will approve Keystone — but this scenario seems quite unlikely. If Kerry disapproves Keystone, it will be on climate grounds, and Obama couldn’t repudiate his Secretary of State on that since Kerry is a long-time climate champion. Also, it would cut Kerry off at the knees for any international negotiation. What foreign leader would believe anything Kerry says or promises on climate change once Obama repudiates him on the single most important international climate decision he had to make?
Finally, it’s not Obama who would secure commitments from Canada — it would be his Secretary of State. And, again, there simply are no credible offsets at this point. Carbon capture and storage for tar sands hasn’t even been demonstrated, let alone shown to be practical or permanent at a large scale. Any “commitments” would be close to meaningless, the diplomatic version of “the check is in the mail.”
To the surprise of everyone outside the White House, Obama mentioned the pipeline in his speech. It was a politically savvy move for three reasons: 1) He called out the elephant in the room and thus avoided both criticism from groups like the Sierra Club and the subsequent media coverage of his omission; 2) He took ownership of the issue, showing everyone on every side of the fight he is personally involved; and 3) He shifted the debate over the pipeline from one of economics to one about the effects on climate change.
I agree with #2 and #3 — which is precisely why I think the speech makes it less likely he will approve Keystone. Obama owns KXL and he’s said the deciding factor is climate, not economics. As a new Scientific American article sums things up, “If built, the Keystone XL pipeline will be a spigot that speeds tar sands production, pushing the planet toward its emissions limit.”
As for #1, well, there wasn’t much media coverage to speak of and if Obama were truly savvy, he would have realized that the speech was incredibly poorly timed to get serious coverage, what with landmark Supreme Court decisions and NSA leakers on the run.
And folks who have been around Washington politics a lot longer than I have think it would be very un-savvy to spend so much time laying out a strong moral case for climate action and then bringing up Keystone IF the president is planning on approving it. He would have been far better off not talking about Keystone at all in that case. As it is now, he will rightfully be called an extreme hypocrite if he ultimately opens the spigot to the dirty tar sands.
There’s no question Obama could approve Keystone, but I believe the smart money has shifted from betting he will to betting he won’t.