The Keystone XL Pipeline: Red herring, symbol, or a piece of a puzzle?

It is time we just said “no.”

There is growing attention to climate change in the media; and there is a growing realization that decisions we make today will have a lasting effect on the world’s climate tomorrow.

But there is still a gap – a chasm really – between the reality of climate change and our day-to-day choices, investments, and public debates about water, energy, food, and resources.

Here is the reality: the burning of fossil fuels is the leading contributor of gases that are already changing the planet’s delicate climate, and the climate will continue to change in an exponentially increasing and worsening way unless we reduce emissions.

Here is the gap: we continue to make decisions in every phase of our lives ignoring the reality of climate change. Incrementally, each of our decisions might be, or at least appear to be, minor in the grand scheme of things. Combined, they propel us forward on a path to disaster.

This kind of gap is inevitable and understandable: the problem over global climate change is complicated and unprecedented; there is a massive well-funded effort to confuse the public about basic facts by those vested in the status quo (as there was in the tobacco debate and is in the gun safety debate); and the global or even national transitions needed require political courage that seems to be in short supply. This doesn’t bode well for the ability of society to make short-term choices that are in our own long-term interest.

A key, timely example: The Keystone XL Pipeline.

What is the Keystone XL pipeline? For those who haven’t been following the news in this area, very simply, this is a proposed large pipeline project to expand the capacity to bring fossil fuels derived from the Athabasca oil sands region in Alberta, Canada south through the United States to refineries and transportation hubs along the Texas Gulf Coast.

There are important and complex pros and cons to the project and these have been and continue to be argued in local, state, and national forums. Many in the environmental community are lobbying hard for President Obama and the State Department to withhold permission to expand the pipeline. In August 2011, a group of climate scientists sent a letter urging the President to reject the pipeline. A second letter was sent in early 2013. There have been public protests at the White House, along the proposed route, and by landowners in Texas. The state of Nebraska originally opposed the pipeline because of concerns about the threat of groundwater contamination and accidents.

The fossil fuel industry, major Republicans (and some Democrats), Texas politicians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and many others are urging quick approval.

Like most complicated environmental issues, this one is, well, complicated. Supporters argue that the oil sands in Canada will be exploited no matter whether US markets open or not, that pipelines can be built and operated safely, and that the incremental threat to global climate is small. Opponents cite concerns about pipeline spills and safety, major water contamination and consumption during production and transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded dependence on fossil fuels. Even the science and environmental communities are split. Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, who has long expressed concern about climate change, recently suggested that the major focus on the pipeline “seems somewhat misguided” (“At best, [the Keystone XL pipeline] is a bit of a sideshow. At worst, it’s a distraction from the bigger issues that contribute to climate change”]. He goes on to argue that the President has other ways to be effective on the issue of climate change and should “stay focused on real and immediate emissions reductions, and not get distracted by his friends or foes into playing Washington games.”

In some ways, this is a good point. The Keystone XL Pipeline, considered in isolation, is not a game changing or planet-threatening project. According to some estimates, obtaining and using oil from tar sands produces 14 to 20 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil now used in the U.S. for transportation. In a report to Congress, the estimated effect of the pipeline on the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint would be an increase of 3 million to 21 million metric tons of GHG emissions annually – less than one percent of U.S. emissions. The tar sands in Canada are an environmental disaster in other ways, but the incremental emissions of greenhouse gases are small compared to the far greater threat of massive coal expansion in China, or potential fugitive emission of methane from fracking, or massive deforestation in Indonesia and Latin America, or any number of other major sources of greenhouse gases. In that sense, arguments that the Keystone pipeline is just a “distraction” or “red herring” have some merit.

But. But. But. Here’s my problem: when do we finally just say “no more?”  When are we and our elected officials going to look at the complete picture created by our individual choices and decisions?

How can we read the relentless and convincing news from scientists about climate change, and then turn to the financial pages and read arguments to accelerate investment in old-style technologies, fossil fuels, and land developments along coasts that ignore climate factors? How can we suffer the devastating impacts of a Superstorm Sandy and then just turn around and rebuild the same vulnerable infrastructure in exactly the same places without addressing future sea-level rise? How can we cheer at the profits being made by energy companies in our investment portfolios or institutional endowments when those profits come at the expense of our own and our children’s planetary health?

Every individual choice, every long-term development project, every purchase we make, every financial investment in infrastructure or technology may, in isolation, be relatively innocent and modest. But our choices are additive. Society’s decisions must no longer be divorced from the recognition of the threats of climate change.

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces. Each little piece might tell us almost nothing about the full picture; every little piece is a tiny, almost unimportant part of that full picture. But every piece added builds up to an inevitable end. The Keystone XL Pipeline may be just a minor puzzle piece of a far larger picture, but that picture, when all the pieces are combined, is one of potential planetary disaster.

The pipeline is just a piece in a much larger puzzle. Photo montage by Peter Gleick 2013. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The pipeline is just a piece in a much larger puzzle.


It is time to stop putting these pieces together and work on a different picture all together. That is the decision facing the President, and each of us. It is time we just said “no.”


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The building and operating of the Keystone XL is an economic loss to U.S. taxpayers.

All economic gains go to the owner of the pipeline and the refineries.

Spills will never really be cleaned up and first responders who breathe the stuff will have life long health problems.

There are so many local economic drawbacks to this proposed pipeline that one need not even refer to the environmental costs.

Jobs will number in the low thousands, most temporary, and who will be on the hook for the unemployment benefits when they will be laid off?

By Tenney Naumer (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

Tenney, thank you for making these points.

Peter Gleick wrote: “... small compared to the far greater threat of massive coal expansion in China, or potential fugitive emission of methane from fracking, or massive deforestation in Indonesia and Latin America ...”

The difference is that President Obama is not in position to make an up or down, yes or no decision, right here and now, about any of those sources of carbon pollution — whereas he can stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Peter Gleick wrote: “... In that sense, arguments that the Keystone pipeline is just a ‘distraction’ or ‘red herring’ have some merit ...”

Actually the opposite is the case. Hand-waving at other ongoing or potential major sources of carbon pollution that Obama cannot easily stop with a single decision is a “red herring” and a “distraction” from the Keystone XL pipeline, which he CAN stop.

By SecularAnimist (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

Good points, thank you. Indeed, this is about decisions that we can make.

There is one question about this pipeline that I have seen "answered" two ways:

Will the oil that reaches the Gulf via this pipeline remain in the United States, or will it be sent to, and the refined end product kept by, other countries?

I have seen this answered "yes" and "no" (it may have been answered "a little of both" as far as I am aware) but I haven't seen a definitive statement. Do you know?

I have also heard the statement that this pipeline, once operational, will "do a great deal to move us away from dependence on other countries for our energy supply", to which my immediate response is "When did Canada become our newest state?"

Dean, good questions (and points). Perhaps other readers will weigh in. I think it likely that some of the oil will remain (after refining) in the US and some will be exported.
And oil from tar sands will do little (but perhaps just a little) to reduce imports of oil from other countries. And I guess the implicit assumption is that some of these other countries might be less friendly to us than Canada. But I agree with your implied question: this seems to fall in the 'red herring' category, or at least 'weak argument' side of the equation!

I posted the following comment at Climate Progress, but it bears repeating here.

The author says: “It is time to stop putting these pieces together and work on a different picture all together. That is the decision facing the President, and each of us. It is time we just said “no.””

As usual, it is the exact same answer that the environmental community constantly says: no! The answer is “Yes,” not no. But its a yes to the things that the environmental community cannot come to grips with. It’s yes to large-scale wind and solar at a transformative scale, not at some minor level. The challenges of physics and exogenous energy requirements for a civilization that offers transportation, the internet, food, water, sewage treatment, trash collection, roads, and a vast array of things treated as ordinary and regular is rather immense. Let’s not fool ourselves into a utopian view of what it takes to live a decent life.

We can do what needs to be done - its still barely possible, but not by just saying “no.” We must embrace a resounding YES to large-scale wind and solar, electrification of transportation and to a dramatic reduction in destructive behavior such as fracking. You can’t just ask people to freeze for lack of coal-fired power; you must give them a real substitute. That means saying YES.

We need the people who are systematically delaying or blocking large-scale wind and solar projects - such as Sierra Club, et al, to help solve the problem, not merely study it to death.

We have wasted so much time in studying what might happen or if we should site a particular facility in a particular location, that we have wasted at least a decade that could have been spent doing what will inevitably be necessary. if we delay much longer, there will literally be nothing we can do. We are well past 350 ppm CO2 and the energy accumulation associated our current ~398 ppm CO2 will continue for at least 100 years, a pace which will challenge the survival of a large part of the wild world, not to mention a lot of people.

Time to say YES!

By Daniel Coffey (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

In answer to Dean, the refined products (like gasoline and diesel) made from oil shipped via KXL will be sold to the highest bidder. There are no restrictions on the dispensation of those products. Most of the diesel will probably find its way to Asia, and some of the gasoline will be consumed in the U.S. It's simply a function of the refiners' acquisition cost (after being shipped to them) and the best price they can command for it at the end markets (including shipping).

As for "It is time we just said 'no,'" Peter has a point. But saying no to what? If that means ditching our cars, then the obvious alternative is to build rail. We can say no to coal, but only if we build equivalent renewable power generation.

I agree with Jonathan Foley: Instead of the environmental and climate movement wasting its energies trying to fight a pipeline while there is a hungry market always willing to find another way to get that oil, it should focus on battles it can win. That means building up renewable capacity that will displace fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Simply trying to stop up the tailpipe doesn't work, which is why carbon policy has been so dreadfully ineffective. We need to focus on what we put into the engine.

By Chris Nelder (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I think that we, as a global community, have a lot of things to start reconsidering in regards to our planet. We have to want to make an effort to lower our emissions, and I do not think that building this pipeline is in any way supporting sustainable energy. I definitely agree that we ought to start focusing our efforts on technology that is ultimately more efficient and more beneficial than fossil fuels.

I somewhat agree to the fact that this pipeline is a distraction from major issues, because as you’ve said, it will only increase the amount of emissions by less than 1% of what America is already producing today, but you can’t look at it in this singular way. You need to focus on it added to the bigger issues you speak of. You can compare the pipeline situation to your statement about people and the environment, “our decisions appear to be minor, but combined lead to disaster.” This “less than one percent emission” seems to be minor issue in comparison, but it really adds up in the end. According to NASA, we have increased the surface temperatures on our planet by .8 degrees, and we have a two degree Celsius cap; we can already see the destruction this .8 degrees is having with the recent storms. I can’t imagine storms that are two times the intensity of ones we face today. This is why we can’t afford to have the mentality that the small things aren’t an issue, because they are. I’ve read that we have already allowed two pipelines to be put in, and I agree, “it is time to say no,” we can’t keep allowing one “small” thing to pass and then another. What our country and the world needs to discover is a balance between fixing what is already a problem while also preventing future ones (like this pipeline). In the letter written to President Obama, researchers urged the use of alternate forms of energy and although the best way isn’t always the easiest or cheapest, I agree with Daniel’s post above that wind and solar are the kinds of clean energy sources we should be supporting. I believe that saying no to this pipeline project will do more than prevent emissions, it will make a statement. It can be the moment that finally causes others to realize that polluting our earth and global warming are serious issues; that nature has no dollar signs. People will continue taking this world for granted until they realize these problems are current, that they are serious. It’s very pessimistic (but true) when I say I sadly do not believe there will ever be a time we say “no more”, at least until it is far too late. Until a major catastrophe hits, since the recent storms don’t seem to be doing the job, I’m afraid nothing will happen to make people realize the issues at hand. The real problem is that people are seeing green these days, but it’s not beautiful natural landscapes, it’s green imprinted with dollar signs.

Kaylee says "Until a major catastrophe hits, since the recent storms don’t seem to be doing the job, I’m afraid nothing will happen to make people realize the issues at hand." She is right. It is going to take a cataclysmic sequence of apocalyptic climate-related events occurring concurrently or in such rapid succession that our recovery and public safety efforts cannot deal with them.

There is no reason that fossil-fuel energy companies can't take the dollars they would spend to develop Keystone and redirect them to developing the scale of wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal energy sources we need to suppress the use of fossil fuels.

So I will play the role of Devil's advocate:
1. Do you really think American's are ready to say no to fossil fuels. What is your alternative? How much more expensive and inconvenient is your alternative? Most American's do not live in small college towns where they can ride bikes to work and stores. Much of our population density is too sparse to make mass transit a viable alternative.
2. If American's are ready to say no to fossil fuels, at great expense to our economy, global competitiveness, and ultimately national security, what difference will it make in global warming projections? Say we reduce CO2 emissions to 20% of current levels but India and China proceed on their current course. Can you assure the public their economic sacrifice was worth anything?

The US is currently at a 20 year low in CO2 emissions, primarily due to natural gas replacing coal. Yet rather than applaud this, environmentalists are still trying to kill increased natural gas production due to an inflexible anti fossil fuel ideology.

If you are only accepting of perfection, you are destined to be a very unhappy person. US policy has to be realistic and account for human nature and global realities.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I do not think Americans are ready to say "no" to fossil fuels all at once, but I DO think Americans would accept a transition over time. We don't want to use "fossil fuels." We want transportation, and warm/cool homes, and communications, and over time, if non-carbon energy sources can provide those at a reasonable cost, I don't think there will be any objection (except, perhaps, for the fossil fuel industry itself....).

Second, one cannot argue that the US shouldn't do anything because other countries aren't, because it isn't true: China has just announced a carbon tax and their construction of renewables is far greater than ours. I also do not believe that the "economic sacrifice" argument is valid because (1) it may not be that expensive to switch over time (wind is already cheaper than oil/gas), and (2) there is a very serious and high cost to the impacts of climate change and doing nothing. Factor that in and the economics look a lot different and better.

Third, not all "environmentalists" are trying to kill natural gas production; there is a real debate about this.

Finally, I completely agree with your last point: the perfect can be the enemy of the good. We must certainly be realistic.

Thanks for your response. I think we agree on many things. And I do not suggest the US does nothing. I support research on alternative energy, and realistic market-based policies to reduce CO2 while keeping America competitive. I oppose reflexive anti-fossil fuel ideology when there are no current alternatives (I mean country-wide alternatives - I recognize that there are local alternatives in some cases and I support them.) And so I disagree with your opposition to Keystone based on the "when do we say no more" argument. The only effect killing the Keystone pipeline today will have is a loss of American jobs, the oil will still be burned. But I think we both want the same thing in the end.