In some ways, watching the current debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline is amusing. The State Department publishes a clearly misleading assessment. Environmentalists cry foul. The EPA suggests carbon off-sets in exchange for approval. TransCanada says suggestions by the EPA are a violation of Canadian sovereignty. Obama is criticized for climate policy weaknesses. His advisers say ‘the pipeline is no big deal.’ And Al Gore and Canadian government officials get into what could be best termed a media bar-room brawl.
But the context of this, sometimes comical, debate is entirely terrifying. As atmospheric CO2 levels speed past the dangerous 400 PPM threshold, Canada is poised to expand extraction of one of the highest emitting fossil fuels on the planet. Ripping up America’s heartland, slapping eminent domain notices on privately held land across the country, they are going through all this expense, effort, and arm-twisting to set a fuse to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls one of the ‘biggest carbon bombs on the planet.’
Tar sands are far dirtier than any other form of oil — nearly as dirty as coal. They represent a vast, if extraordinarily damaging and costly, resource. With oil at 100 dollars per barrel the Canadian government and business community is desperate to sell their polluting and energy-poor goop while many around the world are equally desperate to buy it. A pipeline or two or three (the Canadians have already built one, KXL is number two, and they are now in the process of approving a third) would make access to that oil via the international market much easier while rapidly expanding extraction. Such actions would dramatically increase the rate of carbon emission at a time when world CO2 levels are growing ever-more dangerous.
Scientists question if a world with CO2 much higher than 400 PPM can support 7 billion humans. And a group of similarly concerned scientists recently advised the White House on a growing Arctic emergency in which sea ice may completely melt by end of summer 2015.
The world is rapidly changing. These changes are the result of the fossil fuels we have already burned. But the newer, far dirtier oil Canada wishes to produce will make the situation far, far worse. Already facing serious and difficult challenges resulting from the greenhouse gasses we’ve emitted, we’ll end up facing increasingly harsh adaptive difficulties should we not begin to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions soon — spiking damage to a world and climate humans have uniquely evolved to inhabit. The question at this point, is how much worse will we make our, already dangerous, situation? Do we, in the end, decide to push our climate into a mode so harsh that it would be almost impossible for human civilization to endure?
Whether or not we tap Canada’s tar sands is central to this question. It involves a basic choice. Do we begin to turn away from fossil fuels with an ever-increasing urgency by adopting aggressive climate policies and by refusing to increase extraction of the world’s most damaging form of oil? Or do we shift into high gear in our race to a fast-approaching climate cliff?
Make no mistake. Tapping the tar sands is a huge deal. As James Hansen said, accessing the vast volumes of the world’s dirtiest oil is tantamount to lighting a fuse to one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. Environmentalists know it. Hansen knows it. Most scientists know it. But the State Department and Obama Administration officials have continued to make blasé statements regarding this key issue, calling the pipeline moot, or inevitable. Even worse, the US Congress pushes for the pipeline full bore.
That said, one statement from Obama officials did seem to carry a little bit of backward relevance:
“In the absence of a more meaningful energy-policy discussion, Keystone has become a symbolic referendum for a much larger set of issues,” noted Jason Grummet, a bi-partisan policy adviser to the Obama Administration, in a recent interview.
Mr. Grummet’s mention of energy (note the shameful absence of the word ‘climate’) policy hones in on the crux of the whole pipeline/climate conflict — because a complete lack of comprehensive climate and energy policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions long-term spurred the Keystone XL protests in the first place. Keystone carried so much weight and tied in so many monied and powerful special interests, that targeting it remains an effective way to attempt to force needed changes to US climate policy. Such changes — like the adoption of a national carbon tax and transfer, as proposed by James Hansen, — would result in a wide-scale reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by spurring a rapid adoption of alternative energy systems like wind, solar, storage, smart grid, and vehicle to grid technology. Comprehensive climate policy on the part of the US would also push other countries to provide similar agendas. Instead, climate policy lies almost dead on the steps of Congress. It lurches along as EPA still battles for the authority to regulate CO2, as republican members of federal and state legislatures fight to undermine renewable energy and efficiency standards even as they continue to deny even the existence of human caused climate change.
Mr Grummet is definitely correct. We certainly do need a comprehensive energy and climate policy. And those of us concerned about climate security will keep fighting these dirty tar sands pipelines until we get one that actually puts us on a path toward a safer future. A policy that is strong enough to bend the emissions curve permanently down and put the US on a path toward zero-emissions and all alternative energy sources by 2050 or earlier. This is a matter of morality. It is a matter of preventing and reducing future harm. It is a matter of preserving the prospects for future generations. For us not to act on this issue is unconscionable. For us not to protest these pipelines bearing dirty, dangerous, and depleting oil in the absence of such comprehensive climate policy would render us beings unworthy of honor.