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Rethinking Opposition to Keystone XL

David Lewis's picture
  • Member since 2018
  • 353 items added with 40,402 views
  • Feb 4, 2013

Some interpreters of Obama’s inaugural address say it means climate policy is now at the top of his political agenda. (Eg:  “Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage“, NY Times)

Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have formed a “Bicameral Climate Change Task Force” which is “dedicated… to developing effective policy responses”. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce (Democrats) issued a press release. The statement: “Our window to act is closing” is attributed to Waxman. Whitehouse is determined to increase awareness of ocean acidification: “carbon pollution is wreaking havoc on our atmosphere and our oceans“.

Waxman-Whitehouse want to get “something” done. A letter to the President  was sent. Another letter went out to 300 groups asking recipients what they thought the federal government could do in present day Washington.

Yet activists such as Van Jones are still pursuing the “make Obama stop Keystone XL at the US border” tactic, which was conceived in his first term. Here is Jones, in a post election interview aired on Public Radio International:

“The Keystone Pipeline is the environmental litmus test for this President, for the new generation, the rising generation of environmentalists in particular. This is their first big fight on the environment. It was their first big victory more than a year ago. If the President takes that victory away from them, he is going to break the hearts of an entire generation of young people, whom he’s expecting to stay in his coalition through the midterms and beyond, and I think he should do the right thing by them, but also, frankly, do the right thing not just by the young people today, but by their children and their grandchildren. The tar sands are the dirtiest, most dangerous fuels on Earth. They should not come out of the ground. They certainly should not come through the United States. It’s not just a litmus test issue, it’s a leadership issue. Is he willing to match his rhetoric with deeds? And we’ll see very soon if he is.” (transcript and audio of the complete interview is available here).

If the “movement” succeeds in persuading Obama he needs to spend some of his limited political capital by refusing to approve Keystone XL, there will be less political capital available to accomplish whatever else Obama may decide can also be done, including whatever comes out of this Waxman-Whitehouse initiative. And the result of no Canadian tar sand oil crossing the US border via the Keystone XL is likely to be the discovery by US activists that Canada can and will move its expanding oil production over its own territory to its own ports.

The “movement” might accomplish more if its political line was more coherent. “It’s game over for the climate unless the US border is closed to tar sand oil”, sold as a “litmus test” rather than as effective policy, isn’t a serious challenge to a President who appears to be looking for something meaningful that can be done.

The Supreme Court agreed long ago that Congress has already granted the EPA the power to limit CO2 emissions.  Opponents of cap and trade understood there was a risk that if Congress did not find a way to use market forces to limit CO2 EPA would use regulation.  The risk that pressure to eliminate the EPA altogether could become too great to stop if EPA regulated CO2 seems less now than prior to the election. 

Opponents of Keystone XL could modify their position by saying the pipeline could be accepted IF the permit required tar sand oil entering the US to meet a new EPA standard limiting the CO2 that is emitted while it is produced. The standard would be for all oil imported into the US, all unconventional oil imported or produced in the US, or even all oil sold in the US.  

The limit on oil production CO2 emissions could be tied to a benchmark like West Texas Intermediate.  Producers of more CO2 intensive oil could remove CO2 from their production process, from some other industry’s production process, or from the atmosphere or ocean.  A regulation subject to improvement as political will develops could prove to be effective, as opposed to forcing Canada to build pipelines to its own ports in order to sell more of its oil.  

A call for EPA to regulate all oil would be more credible than this call to stop one pipeline from Canada at a time the US is expanding its own unconventional oil production at a rate analysts say could lead to US supremacy in world oil production.  

Why waste scarce political capital on a “litmus test” when political will to do the slightest thing about climate is so limited voices such as the Breakthrough Institute’s Nordhaus have been heard saying anyone who merely believes it is possible to limit climate change to something that won’t threaten the existence of civilization should have their head examined. (Nordhaus actually took this position while claiming he has a viable climate policy people who don’t need their heads examined should pay attention to, when he was on a panel with Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Broder of the NY Times. Video and transcript here)

The Keystone XL effort as it stands, given Obama’s fresh mandate and inaugural speech declaration on climate, is too limited. The rhetoric circulating to support it is increasing climate confusion.  

Many in Canada have assumed something like reducing CO2 emissions resulting from tar sand production would be coming eventually and a certain amount of R&D has already been done on how to reduce or compensate for the extra CO2 emitted.  Supporters of US energy security now supporting Keystone XL would have more difficulty opposing CO2 regulation applied to all oil.  

Canadians who are cynical about a US hammer coming down on their tar sand oil which exempts every other oil source in the world including US unconventionally produced oil could understand a fair and more politically salable barrier. Canadians could choose to pioneer carbon capture technology to make their oil salable rather than going ahead with their present plans to build whatever new infrastructure they need to sell their oil, assisted by whoever can come up with enough renminbi.  

The Obama administration should be presented with a demand for a better strategy, one that can be clearly articulated as a small but meaningful step toward the goal that everyone concerned about climate change supports, i.e. stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere.  

Why waste this particular political moment with a demand for a symbolic act sold as something Obama needs to do to avoid breaking the hearts of people who need a victory?  

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Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Feb 5, 2013

The tar sands pipeline can double as a "green grid" for Great Plains Mega Mills, or wind energy.  Building very large and tall wind systems in such a corridor, may be a good answer.  Compressed air and hydrogen from the plains through track pipes, is a possible answer. The routes are pretty close, to pick up the tar sands, and as well water and gas systems tie in.   I'm for a pipeline of this sort (see the tripe system report 11 pages illustrated at especially. The major problem with wind is our lack of any real ability or mechanism to store and ship the horsepower in some form or another. But we can solve that issue, and I think modeling would show this.  We're far to married I feel to the troublesome wind to electric grid scenarios.  Perhaps we need more R&D for the tar sand product, working symbiotically with such a green grid system.  Could gasification work?  Could the sand and oil combination be somehow refined into plastic construction resins?  Both water and compressed air need large diameter pipes, for efficiency.  If this can be achieved with multiples of track pipe, which also serves many other purposes, it may be worth modeling.  Lots of R&D is needed, however most of the concepts are both low budget and medium to low technology.  The track pipe does not replace steel to ballast rail systems, but augments these.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 5, 2013

David, the concept of "limited political capital" is a fairly recent invention which suggests a politician's wishlist can be likened to so many coins in a till, which had best be spent wisely. But unless part of a negotiated deal politics, like love and war, never, ever works that way. All is fair - which really means nothing is fair. For a second-term president it's just battle, winner take all, and threats of future retribution by Republicans in Congress grow tedious when retribution results either way.

No, I'm looking forward to a second half to the President 's tenure in which, like all great leaders in history, he manufactures his own capital and spends it as he sees fit. His policy becomes coin of the realm and lesser ideas are jettisoned in a manic rush of self-preservation. It' s just the right thing to do, after all. Whether it will play out that way is another matter, but Keystone XL is a great place to start.

Let's get down to it.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Feb 5, 2013

Water is the real issue.  Putting a toxic sludge pipeline over the aquifer that America depends on for grain does not sound like a smart idea.  So what is the overriding national priority justifying this risk?  Jobs exporting fuel to China?  Qui bono?  The burden of proof should be on the proponents of KXL to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the pipeline is in the national interest, despite the risk to our groundwater and the hardship of maintaining high gasoline prices in the US by exporting fuel.  Let them have a chance to make their case to Sec. Kerry, and let all of their justifications for KXL be laid out on the record for public discussion.

Jim Adams's picture
Jim Adams on Feb 8, 2013

Has anybody googled "petcoke"?.  It's what's left after the gas and etc. have been removed from tar sands oil. It's a cheap replacement for coal (so mountaintop mining diminishes). It has a higher carbon output than coal so global CO2 increases, tho i don't know by how much. The 3rd Koch brother is selling 11,000,000 tons/year of petcoke.  And after that, you might rethink this article.

Global Climate Change is the issue of this decade.  Anything which significantly increases global CO2 is an issue. And play with these ideas: we have this decade to take significant actions on Global Climate Changeand tho it's not exactly scientific, this idea gets the point across: Mother Nature always bats last and it looks like it's her turn at bat.








Michael Strathman's picture
Michael Strathman on Feb 8, 2013

Environmentalists should want it approved. They argue "climate change" is a global problem. The tar sands will be developed. If we do not approve Keystone XL it will likely go to China and be subject to less stringent emissions regulation and therfore cause more global problems. Oh yes, and we lose jobs, increase our reliance on imports from more unstable sources, and the tax revenues the PL creates in Amercia. It is such a straight forward decision, get on with it


John Miller's picture
John Miller on Feb 10, 2013

Jim, petroleum coke is produced in complex refineries with ‘coking’ units that convert heavy residual oil (bottom-of-the-barrel) into increased volumes of gasoline and diesel.  The residual fuel oil or bunkers would otherwise be used to fuel large marine vessels and fuel electric power generation plants (mostly outside the U.S.).  Petroleum coke is often made to unique specifications (by blending specific types of crude oil feedstocks) in order to make metallurgical coke needed to produce steel and aluminum.  Some of the petroleum coke also was used to make those charcoal briquettes you possibly used last weekend to fire up the barbeque.

Compared to Major Oil Companies, the Koch Brothers are relatively small players in the petroleum coke market.  And, as you should now have a little better idea, crude and petroleum oil production, processing and marketing is somewhat complex.  Tangibly addressing carbon emissions and climate change is also much more complex than just arbitrarily trying to block some crude oil production.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Feb 11, 2013

David, your thoughtful commentary underscores the harm that blocking Keystone XL would do to the crucial US-Canadian relationship. Indeed, obstruction would subvert the entire NAFTA framework that has increased the prosperity of all three member nations, and undermine current US efforts to expand trade relations with other countries and regions (e.g., trans-Pacific).

As John and others have pointed out, the manifold economic and strategic harm from blocking Keystone XL would not be offset by any significant environmental benefit.

Breakthrough innovations are needed to "make clean energy cheap." My Plan B for accelerating such innovation can be found here:


David Newell's picture
David Newell on Feb 23, 2013

I started reading your article with a very strong bias against the oil pipeline, under any circumstance.


However, your analysis makes sense.


You are correct, if an overall regulatory blanket is used as a mechnism to evaluate the harm of any and all  oil projects, it would avoid the bickering and take the high road, for the betterment of all.

Also, I don't think Canadians will easily allow the construction of an oil pipeline clear across their country:  and by time it is built, IF it were to be so, it would be deliverying very expensive and highly toxic products in a much more "enlightened" environmental milieu. (Around 2022 or so...)


Therfore I think the threat that they would do so (build a pipeline to the West coast of Canada)  is an empty "threat". 


Yes, the oil  is best left "in the ground".


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Feb 24, 2013

An eastern pipeline to Canadian ports is readily available and likely to be developed in any case:

Even accounting for regulatory delays, the latter is likely to be completed and in service by 2017.

Also, completion of the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline from Cushing OK to Port Arthur and Houston Texas already has been approved and has Obama's support. Not least because it will help speed the movement of tight oil being produced in the Bakken Shale in the US to Gulf Coast refineries. So Alberta oil will be delivered via the existing Keystone pipeline as well as other means to Texas no matter what DOS does about the proposed XL phase I segment.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 25, 2013

Lewis, you're mistaken that an eastern pipeline to Canadian ports is "readily available". Industry analysts are hardly buying into Russ Girling's rosy optimism, accounting for fact that Western Canada Select futures are trading at 2/3 of WTI. TransCanada can expect opposition to an eastern route equal to or exceeding that of Keystone XL. From your source:

"TransCanada’s eastern plans may run into opposition in Quebec, where environmentalists such as the advocacy group Equiterre are girding for a fight against the development of the oil sands, Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions. The Parti Quebecois government of Premier Pauline Marois is studying the effects of a competing plan from Enbridge to move Alberta oil to Montreal."

Aiding their fight is TransCanada's arrogance, the message of which seems to be, "we will get our polluting product to market, environmental impact and public opinion be damned." That kind of obliviousness becomes a wonderful motivator for people who understand what this means in the fight against global warming. In fact, TransCanada is already getting oil to market and will continue to do so. Making it prohibitively expensive is the goal of environmentalists, and thus far their efforts can be considered a resounding success. Expect more of the same.


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Feb 25, 2013

Bob, I will concede that public opinion in Canada is becoming increasingly polarized, as this piece indicates:

So I will go along with that article's estimate that the odds are 50-50 whether and to what extent oil sands production will be increased and delivered to customers. I also expect that if obstruction persists, Alberta may find some of the more creative options to get its oil products to market worth pursuing.


Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Feb 25, 2013


Aside from the CO2 issue, what riles the inhabitants of Quebec about a dilbit pipeline? Sovereignty?  What's your take on refine-it-where-you-mine-it for the oilsands, including water withdrawals and sludge ponds? With what looks like a drought cycle, is that a factor?

David Newell's picture
David Newell on Feb 25, 2013

One of these days, sooner that we think or likely want,

we humanoids are going to come to an understanding that we are all in this together,  and breathe the same air, and etc etc etc.


Unfortunately the sacharine platitudes arising from this fact come out sounding like "New Age" gobblededook (Spelling suspect)...


but it appears obvious to anyone who can get beyond "condioning" to look.  (One world government, mark of the beast, 144,000 elect to be raised up, blah blah blah...)


\Oh well, I'm sure it will all turn out..??

Michael Strathman's picture
Michael Strathman on Feb 25, 2013

David, I would boldly suggest that we (humanoids) share this planet, and the universe for that matter, with all sorts of living and non-living stuff - air, water, plants, animals, hydrogen, carbon, helium, volcanos, the sun, etc..... They all interact and effect one another.

I agree, it will all work out; a Higher Authority is in charge. Thank God, I would hate to keep track of it all!

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