"Physicist And Congressman Rush Holt On Keystone XL: Tar Sands ‘Sludge’ Is ‘A Climate Poison’"
Rush Holt (D-NJ) saddened scientists and climate hawks everywhere when he announced last month he would retire at the end of his (eighth) term in Congress. Holt brought the unique sensibility of a research physicist to a body that has become increasingly hostile towards science.
He gave an extended interview to Salon last week, and as usual offered a blunt defense of both science and climate action. Here are some highlights.
Last year, Holt wrote, “Keystone XL is all risk and no reward.” Now he explains the pipeline’s two big problems:
The first problem is that it just deepens our tie, our investment, in fossil fuels. This material in Canada — you can’t really call it oil … it’s a sludge essentially — is very heavy in carbon. Partly because of its very nature — you know, it’s very carbonaceous – but also because it takes a lot of fuel to turn it into something that is useful for fuel.
So it is a climate poison. And we shouldn’t be doing anything to encourage its use …
The second problem “is this pipeline passes through the United States, where most of this fuel from Canada would be going to export from Texas ports.” And yet “It is exempt from the oil spill insurance program, so that if there is a spill, it’s not even paid for. And we know there are spills … that are environmentally damaging.”
So you have all the risk, but “there’s no gain. It’s to be sold overseas…. Once the pipeline is built, the jobs are negligible.” The “construction jobs for a brief time” are “not worth the damage that we’re doing … the cost in lives and dollars.”
Salon asked Holt about the comments by Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) who said that “when you look at the fact that we have gone from 320 parts per million to 400 parts per million, what you do is realize it’s very slight.” He replied with a good metaphor:
If two kids are on a seesaw, and you add only a 10-pound weight to one end … If they were balanced before, it’s going to go down. It’s not, “It’s gonna go down 10 percent” – no, it’s gonna go down. You know, it’s gonna settle all the way to the ground.
So it’s not … how many parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we’ve added. It’s: What’s the effect of that? And that effect is large.
Asked about Blackburn’s claim that “there is not consensus,” Holt replied:
Well, there is very strong consensus in the scientific community that human actions — primarily the burning of carbon — have changed the climate of the earth, and changed it for the worse, if you think that it is worse to have higher costs in lives and dollars …
To deny it is not to deny a few facts, or to question a few conclusions. It’s really to deny the entire scientific enterprise — you know, the validity of the entire scientific enterprise….
This is not a … tempest in a teapot, that … if some people disregard the work of many thousands of scientists, that it is just, you know, a small matter. No, this is serious.
Here’s his view of fracking:
And we’re doing damage in a lot of ways with fracking, with the fracturing of shale to bring out the natural gas. We, it appears — and this is not established yet, this is preliminary — it appears that we are releasing a lot of methane into the atmosphere, which has a global greenhouse effect as great as, or greater than, carbon dioxide.
That is the point we have made every time there is another study on how leakage rates for gas production are much higher than the industry or EPA claims (see “By The Time Natural Gas Has A Net Climate Benefit You’ll Likely Be Dead And The Climate Ruined”).
Here’s his view of congressional inaction and the fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign:
And it’s really quite, quite amazing how little congressional action there is, how effective the disinformation has been … There are moneyed interests that have spent an enormous amount of money sowing doubt.
It’s very much reminiscent of the behavior of the tobacco companies during the smoking and cancer debates. They took what was becoming overwhelming evidence … that smoking caused cancer, and they planted doubts in people‘s minds — and through that, got a couple more decades of lucrative tobacco sales … until it became once again overwhelming in the public mind that smoking killed people …
[On] climate change, there’s been an enormous amount of money spent sowing doubt in people’s minds. So an awful lot of people nowadays say, “Well, climate change? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s going on, but there’s so much uncertainty — you know, scientists are so unsure. They’re on all sides of this issue.”
No, they’re not. Scientists aren’t unsure. I mean, sure you can find a few outliers … But scientists aren’t in doubt. The scientific consensus is strong. But the disinformation campaign has been surprisingly effective.