from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Missing The Big Picture on Keystone XL

November 6, 2011

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I’ve clearly failed in my previously stated goal of largely avoiding the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has somehow become one of the biggest energy issues in the United States. So long as the energy and environment worlds are focused on the pipeline, though, I suspect I’ll keep writing about it.

Earlier today, on his ClimateProgress blog, Joe Romm wrote the following:

“I am not impressed by the argument of Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations: ‘Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved.’ That argument cleverly allows one to argue against the impact of any individual carbon-intensive action.”

My argument against focusing on Keystone XL has, of course, gone well beyond (and much deeper than) thas one simple quip. In particular, my past work has shown that cutting emissions by curtailing oil sands development is a very costly approach. But even if we focus narrowly on the claim cited above, what Romm says is incorrect.

Here’s a thought experiment. Jamaica is considering eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions, but President Obama will have the final word. Pretty much every major environmental group has decided that eliminating Jamaican emissions will be one of their top priorities. Let’s imagine that I pushed back, suggesting that their energies would be better directed at policies with the potential to deliver bigger returns, and said something like this: “Keep global fossil fuel demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether the Jamaican plan goes ahead.” Would Romm suggest that this was merely a clever excuse for inaction?

I doubt it: it’s kind of obvious that concentrating on Jamaican emissions would be a distraction. But Jamaica’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions are pretty similar to the incremental emissions you’d expect from Keystone XL. (And I haven’t even mentioned that, as the price for eliminating Jamaican emissions, U.S. consumers would have to send a little money to the Middle East.) To be fair, I’ve done this comparison by assuming that Canadian oil replaces Middle Eastern crude. If I instead assumed unrealistically, that higher Canadian production simply added to the global supply of oil – and, conversely, that blocking Keystone XL would cut global oil consumption rather than just shifting it to lower-carbon fuels – the increased emissions would be higher. Instead of talking about Jamaica, we’d be discussing Belgium. (To be fair, though, Belgian emissions are still a bit higher.)

That gets to the heart of my point. Advocates of aggressive action on climate change have limited political capital. The United States has limited economic resources. Neither has the option of becoming obsessed with random opportunities to cut emissions without regard to large or small they are.

Many argue this opportunity is much bigger than the small emissions figures indicate. They claim that Keystone XL will lock the United States into an oily economic and political system. I just don’t see how Keystone moves the bar that much. What are the circumstances under which it’s plausible to see the United States getting off conventional oil but still sticking to tar sands crude? What is it about Keystone XL that will cement our oil addiction that nearly ten million barrels a day (and rising) of U.S. domestic production won’t? How will Keystone XL qualitatively alter U.S. dependence on the oil sands when other pipelines are already importing crude from there? It’s hard to see how Keystone XL crosses lines that haven’t already been crossed before.

An endless stream of emissions-intensive actions is making our climate predicament worse. Those who care about this situation can’t afford to be indiscriminate in their approach.

P.S.: A few people have asked me whether I plan to respond to the anti-Keystone post that went up at RealClimate last Friday. I probably won’t. The post is a mix of correct arithmetic concerning oil sands emissions and some pretty awful economic and political analysis. The bad economics assumes that Canadian production won’t affect what happens elsewhere in the world; the bad political science implies that the Keystone XL decision will determine what happens to the oil sands over the next thousand or so years. None of that has any support in reality, but adopting it makes the careful arithmetic irrelevant. I’ve gone through these arguments before, and don’t see much value in going through them again. I’m a bit worried, though, that by straying from good climate science into bad economics and politics, RealClimate – which I normally love – will hurt its brand and credibility.

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