Is there a problem with John Abraham’s argument about Obama’s Legacy?
John Abraham wrote a piece in the Guardian titled Keystone XL decision will define Barack Obama’s legacy on climate change: Does the president have courage to say ‘no’ to a project that will lock us into decades of dependency on this dirty energy? in which he states:
Alberta has 1.8 [trillion] barrels of oil contained within the tar sands. Extracting and burning all of that tar will cause a global temperature increase of about 0.4 degrees C (0.7 degrees F). That is about half of the warming that humans have already caused. For perspective … the amount of oil-in-place in the Alberta tar sands is approximately seven times that of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves.
Should [the Obama administration] approve a pipeline to export Canada’s dirty oil and be responsible for the continued environmental costs, or should they finally send a signal to the world that the US is willing to work with other nations to deal with the climate problem.
If his administration cannot say “no” to Keystone … can it say no to anything? This decision will cement Obama’s climate legacy.
I think this is one of the more important pieces anyone has put out lately because it is very specific about two things: 1) The role of major exploitation of Alberta tar sands in future climate change; and 2) The role of the Keystone XL pipeline as a virtual guarantee that the tar sands will be exploited in a major way.
The primary objection to building the pipeline is that this would open up the tar sands to major exploitation. There are other objections to the pipeline as well, having to do with the environmental effects of removing the tar sands locally in Alberta, and the environmental risks of the pipeline itself. Also, as sources of hydrocarbon fuels go, there is a spectrum of nastiness having to do with how “dirty” the fuel is to begin with and the energy required to extract, refine, and distribute it; the Alberta tar sands are on the far (dirtiest) end of that spectrum. All of these objections are valid and important, but looking just at these factors, the exploitation of Alberta tar sands overlaps to some extent with other hydrocarbon extraction ventures such as drilling in northern Alaska, off shore platforms around the world, and so on.
John Abraham suggests that allowing vs. not allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to be built could be a defining decision in Obama’s legacy, above actions he takes in other policy areas, and within the areas of energy and the environment. Many people I’ve communicated with about this object to that assertion because they see the tar sands issue and Keystone XL as one of many other factors. People who understand and accept climate change science and who are concerned about climate change, and also are generally supportive of Obama, are saying this. Naturally, climate science deniers and supporters of global warming (enigmatically so) are in favor of Keystone XL being built and they also object to Abraham’s suggestion, but it is the former sort of objection that I want to address here.
What is wrong with building the Keystone XL Pipeline?
In order to be perfectly clear, let me restate the argument John Abraham is making.
As we have used fossil fuels to run our society and economy over time, we more or less started with fuels that were available near the point of use, or relatively easy to extract, transport, and refine, or both. Over time fuels with these characteristics have been increasingly used up, so at this point there is virtually none in the lower 48 states, for example. We have to get our fuel by processing dirty sources, fracking, or bringing it in from long distances via ships and pipelines. This applies generally around the world, not just to the US. But we’ve been able to maintain a certain balance of closeness and dirtyness, mainly because these things are linked to the cost of doing business. So, we get pretty easy to refine fuel from off shore, where extraction is very risky, we get very high quality fuel from far away places and we get very dirty fuel from local sources. But now, with the fuel running out, at a global scale, we are looking at sources that are both far away (as in Canada is far from Europe or other points of use and the tar sands are not near a coastline) and very dirty. Whatever damage we were doing with virtually unfettered (and generally subsidized) use of fossil petroleum before is bound go get worse as time passes.
It might be useful to put this in an even broader perspective, one people often forget about or are simply unaware of. Fossil petroleum and similar products have been produced by natural processes on this Earth more or less continuously for a few hundred million years, but not uniformly in space or time. Every now and then, for a period of many (10’s) of millions of years, there has been an occasional significant ramping up of natural deposition of hydrocarbons, generally in anoxic seas, where the hydrocarbons form at a high rate in sediments that would eventually become shale or similar rock. Geological processes have brought some of this undersea sediment to the surface, and in some cases, concentrated the oil. The Canadian tar sands and the oil in the vicinity of the Saudi Peninsula all formed under similar conditions but have undergone different histories, and of course, are today located in different regions.
Our removal of this petroleum and related products from these ancient sediments has proceeded at a rate of several orders of magnitude greater than their original formation, even though these hydrocarbons were being deposited at very high rates over very large areas. In just a century or so we’ve extracted and burned many tens of millions of years worth of hydrocarbon formation. However, there is a fair amount left in these sediments. Imagine that your favorite fast food drive through took five hours to pour each soda. Anticipating a rush of business, they start pouring sodas a few days in advance, so when they open for business on a certain Monday Lunch they can easily serve all of the customers. Bur by Wednesday all the pre-poured sodas are used up, and now the rate of production is a fraction of the rate of demand. Well, at present, with respect to fossil petroleum, it is Tuesday. Tuesday afternoon, perhaps.
Even if the remaining hydrocarbon fuels were relatively clean and easy to pump out of the ground, we would be facing a very significant fact. The amount of fuel just in the Canadian tar sands deposits is roughly equal to some large percentage of the total amount of fuel we’ve already used. The most current estimates of the total amount of oil we have used so far suggest that we are about the 1 trillion barrel mark (likely, just shy of that). Abraham points out that the Alberta tar sands hold about double what we’ve used so far. (By some counts, ca 944 billion barrels used, with the tar sands holding about 1,800 billion barrels.)
For the moment, forget about the dangers of building a pipeline or the the environment of Alberta, Canada. Just focus for a moment on this fact: At the moment, we are running out of liquid hydrocarbons and need to stop adding fossil Carbon to the atmosphere or we are in big trouble. But there is a way to access enough fuel to easily double or even triple the total amount of liquid hydrocarbon fuel we have used so far. What do we do?
The answer, obviously, must be: We don’t use that fuel. We just don’t take that path. We refuse to decide to step over this particular cliff. Or, perhaps, we do step over the cliff. That, folks, is legacy-building (or destroying) stuff.
In reality, there is an added complexity that is actually potentially helpful. This is the fact that the new fuel source, the Alberta tar sands, are hard to use. They are in the middle of a continent, they are hard to extract oil from, the stuff that comes out is icky and hard to handle and refine, and the environmental costs and risks of extraction and distribution are quite large. So there is an irony here. There is a long list of reasons to not extract the tar sands fuel, but none of those reasons are the main reason to not extract them. The reason to not extract them is that we need to stop using fossil hydrocarbons. But this impressive list of secondary negative properties of the tar sands has two effects: 1) It forces us to pause for a moment to think about what to do next, not because we are good at thinking about these things but because geology has thrown the petroleum industry a curve ball; and 2) these reasons allow us to mistakingly think the extraction of this petroleum is reasonable if only we can check off most of the items on the list of bad things. Which we can probably do to some extent, or at least, fool ourselves into thinking we’ve addressed those environmental risks. The fallacy of that second effect is that there is only one thing on the list of reasons to not exploit the Alberta tar sands that really truly matters in the big picture. That single reason is that if we use that fuel, we will change the Earth’s atmosphere to a point where human existence on this planet can not continue to look very much like it does now.
Never mind the ground water in Alberta or Nebraska. Never mind how many jobs the Keystone XL pipeline may or may not produce. Never mind the shifting economics of where or how the refining of the fuel occurs or the potential environmental effects of transporting billions of gallons of fuel by ship across the sea. Sure, that is all important but it is not the point.
If Obama says “no” to Keystone, will the pipeline be built anyway?
So now lets examine John Abraham’s suggestion about Obama’s legacy. If we build the Keystone XL pipeline it will be because Obama gives it the go-ahead. It is essentially his decision at this point. If we don’t built it, many say we will use the tar sands anyway. That could be true. But consider the logic of that argument. As a first stab, let’s try an analogy. You and ten other people are at a party. You and nine of the others have cars and one does not. The person without a car is visibly very drunk, but wants to drive somewhere. He asks you if he can have your keys and borrow your car. What do you say?
According to the logic of some of the folks in the Keystone XL discussion, you say yes. Why? Because with nine other people at the party, all with cars, you figure someone is going to let the drunk guy drive off, so you might as well do it. No sense in going through the charade of the drunk guy asking everyone in turn. Just give him the keys the first time he asks.
But in reality the situation isn’t quite like that. It would appear, instead, that you are in a room with one drunk guy and a bunch of people who are strong willed, socially powerful, and very strongly against drunk driving or even loaning out their cars. If you say no, they won’t say yes. So it is entirely your decision of the drunk guy gets a car. You don’t really have any excuse for saying yes.
In the case of the actual pipeline, it is a fallacy that if the US nixes the project that it will be built anyway. The alternative routes to the sea are all difficult, expensive, and mostly move through territories where the opposition to any pipelines is pretty much intractable. Provincial and First Nation opposition is very strong. Also, the continent is built this way; the difference between heading south from Alberta vs. east or west is ginormous. Going west means crossing one of the world’s most formidable mountain chains. Going east means going a great distance, overs smaller mountains and rugged terrain, and reaching a port that does not exist.
If Obama says no, that means no. So, why would he say yes? Two words: Big Oil. Ok, a few more words: Unprecedented wealth and power in the hands of a small number of people who control politics in the United States to such an extent that they can’t be ignored.
If the Keystone XL pipeline is not built, that oil will still flow out of Alberta, for example by train, but at a much slower rate. It flows out now. In fact, here in Minnesota, it is one of our main sources of petroleum. Indeed, it helps keep our gasoline prices down, because the oil gets near her by an existing pipeline, then is transported overland to refineries (owned by the Koch Brothers, if you must know) near the Twin Cities. But the overall flow of Alberta tar sands oil out of that region is a small fraction now of what it could be. We need to keep it at a small fraction now, and eventually shut it down. Saying yes to Keystone XL will not accomplish that.
If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, the oil will be burned, and the amount of Carbon in our atmosphere will continue to rise at roughy its current rate, plus or minus, for many years and the worst expected scenarios for climate change will be well within the range of possibilities, and all of the medium to not so bad scenarios will happen for sure. There is not a reasonable argument that can be made that what I just said is not true. It really will happen.
So, where does Obama’s legacy stand, then? If he lets the pipeline be built, it will be trivially easy in 20 years from now to look back at this decade as a turning point and identify the moment when the use of oil was not curtailed because that pipeline was built. And, that event will be the result of Obama’s decision to give the drunk guy the keys to the car.
Isn’t coal more important than petroleum?
There is a counter argument to this; In truth, only some (but a large percentage) of the fossil carbon we release into the atmosphere comes from liquid hydrocarbons. Some comes from gas, some comes from coal. Most of it is from coal and similar products and oil and similar products combined, and they are roughly equal to each other. This is why we end up with the calculations in John Abraham’s essay. Obama’s decision will not result in putting twice the Carbon into the atmosphere merely because it will allow access to twice the liquid fuel we’ve used so far, because coal will be contributing, if its use is unabated, another similar amount. Having said that, coal is used mainly to make electricity, and electricity for use in buildings is more subject to short and medium term changes in the source of energy. Expanded geothermal, solar, wind, and nuclear energy will compete with and squeeze out coal as a source of power, but liquid fuel is very convenient if it is available and used without restriction.
Who will win the Ignoble Prize in 2050?
So, while it is possible that Obama, 20 or 30 years from now, might have to share the ignoble prize with some other world leader who manages to guarantee the unfettered exploitation of huge coal fields, it is more likely that he will stand alone as the guy who ushered in a new phase of widespread release of fossil carbon with the use of gasoline, diesel, and other liquid fuels that come from this newer, dirtier, but abundant source.
The other part of this is the singular nature of the pipeline and the tar sands. We’re not talking about a collection of policies that allow the exploitation of a large number of disparate sources using a diversity of technologies in several countries, based on decisions made by many people at many levels and in various different governments. We’re talking about a pipe, one pipe, that comes from one geological formation that has more oil than the Saudi Peninsula. That is legacy building stuff. John Abraham is right.
The problem with his argument is not that it is wrong. His argument is correct. The problem is that it is stark, bold, and almost unbelievable. But you better believe it.