Varun Sivaram

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Keystone, Science, and Politics

by Michael Levi
August 8, 2013


Jeff Tollefson has an excellent new piece in Nature exploring the debate within the scientific community over Keystone XL. It makes two things pretty clear. As a matter of substance, there’s pretty much no one beyond Jim Hansen willing to come close to endorsing the “game over” claim. Yet there’s still a ton division among scientists – it’s over political tactics instead. Ken Caldeira captures the situation well: “I don’t believe that whether the pipeline is built or not will have any detectable climate effect,” he tells Nature. Nonetheless, here’s his bottom line: “The Obama administration needs to signal whether we are going to move toward zero-emission energy systems or whether we are going to move forward with last century’s energy system”. That sort of sentiment is political– and there’s nothing wrong with it – but, as the Nature article nicely shows, it’s distinct from any scientific debate.

That’s why some of the political coverage of the article is so mind-bogglingly frustrating. Here’s Politico’s Morning Energy:

“The journal Nature wades into the long-simmering debate between scientists who agree that Keystone XL is ‘game over’ for the planet and others who say focusing on that one pipeline is distracting from bigger climate change concerns.”

Policymakers and the public are told, over and over, that the Keystone debate is between people who think the pipeline would be a climate nightmare and people who think it would not be. What the Nature article rightly establishes is that, among scientists, that is not a real debate. Yet when the Nature article is translated for a DC audience, some irresistible force somehow recasts it as “scientists disagree”, thereby losing a perfect opportunity to help people understand what scientists really know.

This is of course not a phenomenon unique to the Keystone debate, but it sure is prominent when it comes to the pipeline. We hear, for example, that some economic experts believe that Keystone would substantially raise Midwest gasoline prices, while others disagree. In reality, empirical work (along with theory) makes pretty darn clear that whatever the impact of Keystone on regional oil price differences, that wouldn’t have a meaningful knock-on effect for gasoline itself. (One can legitimately debate the costs and benefits of maintaining current oil price differentials, but that’s distinct from talking about gasoline prices.) The only serious debate, once again, is over whether brandishing these claims is a useful political tactic for people who want to stop Keystone, and, more generally, for people who want deal with climate change. After all, if people really thought that Keystone would raise gasoline prices, they’d presumably conclude that it would curb gasoline consumption and therefore cut emissions too.

It’s taken decades to (mostly) get past the he said-she said style of reporting on even the most basic climate science. That practice can’t have done anything but sow unwarranted confusion among policymakers and people at large, making serious climate policy less likely (even if it’s far from the only factor behind slow-moving climate policy). If we want to see serious and well-informed policymaking to deal with our climate problem, it’s going to be just as important to get past a similar culture of he said-she said reporting on climate policies in instances where there isn’t actually real scientific debate. This is something on which everyone who wants to see ambitious climate policy – and therefore wants just-the-facts reporting on the (limited) costs of many serious emissions-cutting policies rather than falsely balanced nonsense about claims like “carbon pricing might kill the economy” – should ultimately be able to agree.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Peter M

    Thanks for the links and the review of the Nature article. I continue to be surprised in the K-XL debate that the notion of wealth transfers is NOT mentioned when looking at the pipeline impacts. This is an excerpt from a CFR review of oil sands “In contrast, a greater fraction of money used to buy Canadian oil will likely later be spent directly on U.S. goods and services and hence contribute directly to U.S. growth” .

    Although the CFR article was written in 2009, does the wealth transfer effect continue to be a relevant consideration? My sense is that the US and Canadian economies are still strongly linked and the answer is yes, but I am not an economist.

    Does this come up in discussions with policy-makers?

    Peter (full disclosure – I work for a large Canadian oil sands company)

  • Posted by JH

    Nice post. The science is a hard enough debate on it’s own. When it’s obliterated by emotional flak (images of lonely polar bears floating on icebergs), there really isn’t a sensible debate to be had.

    What’s most strange about the whole debate is that the left has, in its efforts to seek some kind of Total Solution, undermined its own position time and time again with arguments that aren’t credible. These arguments rally the faithful at the expense alienating the majority.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for this important angle on the Nature article and public debate about energy generally,

    If I were a purely rational being unaffected by ideology, religion and histrionics in general, I would suggest USG and the petroleum industry do the following:

    1.) Mop up the train-wreck in Venezuela once and for all. It’s time for a “pivot” to Venezuela and support for Democratic Action.

    2.) Build Keystone as quickly as possible

    3.) Proceed to recover the proven 58 billion barrels of tight oil in the United States and do not export it. Continue to trade for the importation of foreign oil as much as supplies permit, using that as the determining gauge for downward adjustment to domestic production.

    4.) Continue to support the geopolitical conditions necessary to ensure reliable transportation and trade of petroleum overseas, but don’t make strategic blunders over it.

    5.) Parallel to this admittedly expensive effort, have USG and the taxpayer capitalize fully the construction and operation of several fission reactors in locations best suited for the heating of kerogen extracted from the Earth in the United States, then turn that product over to the petroleum industry for refinement. This may seem like an energy loss, but the strategy would be to buy time for the electrical energy density of storage devices to improve and a new source of raw materials to be reached, at which point those same reactors can later be converted to the power grid. It might be possible to use banks of RTGs instead if their combined thermal performance can be made to reach 500 C.

    This would give the United States at least 50 years to convert the energy infrastructure to a (almost) fully electric system which can be powered by bred fuel from reactors. Newer designs can “bootstrap” off of tiny amounts of U235 and switch to breed U238 to generate more. In this manner, this supply is essentially inexhaustible. If a reactor is required (vice RTGs), and if they are solely for heating kerogen, they can be located remotely and away from population areas.

    Something like 90% of all manufacturing relies on petroleum products. This wouldn’t be the case if the periodic table didn’t keep sinking (figuratively) further and further down into the Earth. I’ve mentioned elsewhere what I think about that, but there is only one place we can get that stuff now. We need to pursue that immediately and in parallel, imo, to the other things mentioned. This resource is in near-Earth elements and would require a crewed space flight infrastructure. Costly, yes, but necessary and I’d wager still less than the 800 billion dollar tab already spent on the war on terror.

    I hope we choose wisely. That’s my two cents.

    – kk

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