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Missing The Big Picture on Keystone XL

by Michael Levi
November 6, 2011

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.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Erica

    What “policies with the potential to deliver bigger returns” would you suggest? I’ll bet most of the folks who attended today’s tar sands rally are working on those too.

  • Posted by Steve Thompson

    Here is a summary of a peer-reviewed scientific study that outlines the environmental issues that are created by oil sands mining:

    The halo of contamination around the mine site is at least 50 kilometres in diameter and is impacting Aboriginal settlements downstream from the operations.

  • Posted by josh

    Mike, I’m generally convinced by this logic on climate but worry that the State Department hasn’t done a good job with the impact assessments. Sounds like Keystone 1 has leaked a lot and that the possibility of leaks over the water supply in Nebraska at least suggest that new routes should have been explored (and weren’t). This post from HuffPo gets at those issues

    That and the politics make me think Obama should punt until after 2012 and see if some post-election decision might yield a less contested result, though if it does go ahead it’s hard to see how the climate community can accept that unless it is accompanied by some other victory.

  • Posted by Solzhenitsyn

    Mr. Levi’s point is well-developed, and worth noting for environmentalists concerned with a broad, concerted effort to wean America off of the oil economy. However, I disagree that eliminating a project worth another amount of Jamaica’s emissions is somehow frivolous. Our energy policy is a disaster, and unless lines are drawn in the sand, the status quo will continue indefinitely. Obama was elected with a progressive energy policy, and has since caved using the ludicrous excuse of “republican intransigence.” If this faux-stalemate is allowed to continue, and the status quo to fester, then there will never be any action taken on carbon emissions. The IPCC’s “worst nightmares” were realized this year when carbon emissions surpassed their most intensive scenario, which is foreboding for the fate of the species. The protest was a shot across the bow by the people of this country, who are not willing to sacrifice their children’s futures, to the corrupt politicians who dominate Washington. Bill McKibben was on Democracy Now! this morning discussing why the project itself is so flawed, including unethical assessments by connected firms and political corruption:

  • Posted by Shredder

    This is a deceptive and incorrect argument. First, it compares apples and oranges by ignoring the cumulative impact of Keystone in terms of emissions. Keystone will spur additional emissions in global tar sands production in a way the Jamaican production obviously does not.

    [ML: Nope. I compared annual KXL with annual Jamaica. That’s apples/apples.]

    More fundamentally, Mr. Levi merely rehashes the old, shop-worn arguments from economists about costs. Economists should not be trusted as they have a long record of failure.

    [ML: If you want to ignore costs then there’s no debate to have. But costs exist and people care about them.]

    Finally, is not the CFR a de facto appendage of the bought-and-paid-for State Department? Just asking.

    [ML: As best I know, CFR is the only major think tank that has a blanket policy against taking a penny from the USG.]

    To assume the premise of limited political capital gives away the game. The one and only chance we have of ultimately controlling emissions is to expand and enlarge our political capital. Quod erit demonstrandum, sir. Mr. Levi’s opinions would henceforth be best kept private.

  • Posted by Seth Now

    This misses the point completely. We need to stop Keystone XL and not-develop oil sands and cut oil imports and reduce domestic production. The patient has both cancer and emphysema, and telling them that the smoking doesn’t matter because they’ll keep on chewing tobacco anyway to satisfy their nicotine addition doesn’t make sense at all.

  • Posted by Pascal Lapointe

    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.

    Euh! That is not a really rigorous answer for somebody who’s calling for rigorous debate.

  • Posted by gofer

    If you look at a pipeline map of the U.S., there are pipelines criss-crossing this entire country. It looks like a airline route map. All this false pretense of leaks has no basis whatsoever. I suggest people go back and take a look at the corrupt IPCC. None of their so-called predictions have happened. Every single day of 2011 has been colder than 2010. People are still operating on decade old information. The oil is going to go somewhere, if not to the U.S. Stopping the pipeline only denies the oil to the U.S. The operation will still continue and nothing will change. Donna Laframboise has documented the IPCC corruption in her book…”The Delinquent Teenager”. The earth is cooling and nobody denies that fact. You would think people would be glad. People are sick of the doom and gloom and using children for political ends.

    The fact that emissions have topped their “scariest” levels and the climate is cooling, the Arctic is freezing over 65% faster than last year, should tell you something, unless your political agenda comes first before the facts.

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson

    [ML: Comment deleted. This space is for substance, not insults.]

  • Posted by Brian Dodge

    “Neither has the option of becoming obsessed with random opportunities to cut emissions without regard to large or small they are.”

    If we can’t cut the smaller emissions, we won’t cut the larger emissions. You can’t complete a journey without taking a first step.

    How much political capital will have been squandered, when our negotiators have to call for larger cuts in emissions by others, because we didn’t cut, even a little bit? Or are we assuming no next climate change talks?

    [ML: Fair question. That said, I’m pretty sure that the oil sands are in Canada.]

  • Posted by harrywr2

    If I understand this post correctly.

    “Political Capital’ is a finite resource.

    Expending political capital fighting a small part of the fossil fuel supply may not be as productive as spending the same capital fighting the fossil fuel demand.

    I.E. Getting a 40 MPG fuel economy standard for vehicles could have more impact at the same political cost as stopping a pipeline that will supply 5% of oil demand.

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson

    It seems to me that the key disagreement here concerns different conceptions of politics within the current U.S. environment. Michael, while I agree with much of what you say, it doesn’t appear to me that you’ve made a compelling argument on the political dimensions of the protests and how they may, or may not, move the Overton window on future climate policy discussions. I’m thinking in particular of whether or not McKibben et al will have success in moving the discussion to the ‘trillionth tonne’ concept, and the implications that follow.

    p.s. apologies for the earlier comment. different blog, different rules :).

  • Posted by pjc

    Mr. Levi – I salute you!

    You have nailed the head on your Keystone analysis.

    Really, it is a penny-wise/pound-foolish sort of argument. The anti-Keystoners are like diners in a five start restaraunt, screaming that ordering one more appetizer will blow past their ability to pay the tab.

    In reality, we should be eating at the much less expensive restaraunt down the street, and ordering a few appetizers without the stress.

    I.e. – the CO2 impact of oil has very little to do with where the oil comes from. It has to do with how much oil we burn. And we burn so much oil, partly because we indulge in extravagent oil spending habits – like SUVs and excessive plane travel. Likes drive better cars, fly less often, and then our oil based CO2 footprint will go way down, re:less of the oil supply.

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