New York Times: Missing the Point on Keystone XL

The Times op-ed page is great place to find thoughtful pieces representing a variety of viewpoints. So I didn’t know what to expect when I saw an op-ed piece in yesterday morning’s paper titled “Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It.” I wondered what they could possibly be thinking.

Well, I would have never seen it coming. To my utter surprise, the gist of the article was something like this: Impose strict regulations to make really, REALLY sure the pipes don’t rust. Then let them seize all that Midwest land and build the thing. And we’ll be happy and safe knowing TransCanada’s pipeline isn’t RUSTY.

Really. I’m not making this up.

It turns out that the op-ed was written by Jonathon Waldman, a journalist and author who has just finished a book all about – you guessed it – rust. Everything you could want to know about rust in steel mills, rust in bridges, rust in naval vessels and, yes, rust in pipelines – it’s all in there. Rust: The Longest War; Simon & Schuster. If you’ve been really curious about rust, this book is for you.

But President Obama announced that his decision about the pipeline would hinge on his assessment of its likely contribution to climate change. He didn’t mention rust. And for the most part, Keystone’s opponents haven’t been fixated on rust either. They’re mostly thinking about whether we will leave a habitable world for the next generations.

Canada's tar sands, the most polluting oil. Courtesy Desmog.CA

Canada’s tar sands, the most polluting oil.       Courtesy Desmog.CA

But Waldman’s “stop-the-rust” op-ed piece has a quick answer for them all. It’s actually the same point that the State Department offered in 2011 when they first began considering TransCanada’s application to run this thing right through the middle of our country. It goes like this: In Waldman’s words, blocking the pipeline “won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come. If the oil is going to be consumed one way or another, then the only remaining argument against the Keystone pipeline is that of preventing local environmental catastrophes that result from spills.”

This man must be reasonably intelligent. But I have to wonder, where has he been the last four years? Anyone could see at the outset that the “resistance is futile” argument was cooked up in oil-company PR departments. If all the world’s oil reserves “are going to be consumed one way or another,” then we might as well say goodbye to the human race, and most other species as well.

Hyperbole, you say? Consider:

The world’s proven, recoverable fossil-fuel reserves presently controlled by energy companies contain more than five times the CO2 that is permissible for consumption if the world is to have a chance of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Burn that amount five times over and we’re in 4-degree-plus territory, which climate science refers to ominously as an “unstable state.”

And what on earth does that mean? It means that in the neighborhood of  4 degrees, we trigger all kinds of “positive feedback loops,” like the shriek you hear when someone puts a microphone too close to a loudspeaker. Blow recklessly through 2 degrees, flirt with 4 degrees, and no one has any idea where it stops for thousands of years to come. White, reflective sea ice and ice sheets give way to dark ocean water and land surfaces, absorbing more and more solar heat, melting more ice, and leading to even more heat. Warming oceans release frozen deep-sea methane hydrates, which are incredibly abundant and 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, warming the oceans even more, and releasing even more methane. Melting permafrost permits enormous Arctic peat reserves to decay, releasing yet more carbon into the air, melting yet more permafrost … and so on.

In all this, one thing is clear: The extinction event that already threatens the world today will almost certainly rival the five previous mass extinctions if we disrupt the climate by 4 degrees or more. And just like in those events, such as the one 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, the dominant species never fares very well.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

So for a rust expert to tell us that energy companies will inevitably do something that threatens our species’ survival, it’s probably fair to ask how he’s so sure.  Especially today. Up there at the Canadian end of the proposed pipeline, tar sands operations are shutting down one after the other. That’s because they’re some of the most expensive, carbon-intensive and low-quality oils in the world. And they don’t pencil out in today’s market by a long shot. Last year, both Shell and France’s oil giant Total abandoned massive new tar sands projects. Before that, Canada’s Suncor and Total killed a joint project in the tar sands – writing off a $1.5 billion investment. And just a few months ago, Canada’s Statoil announced the postponement of a major tar sands mining project for at least three years.

But just wait, you might say, and eventually prices will recover enough for these companies to turn a profit mining this stuff. I wouldn’t be so certain. Take a look at the numbers:

  • Tar sands oil is expensive to produce, and commands a low price because of its poor quality. Estimates vary, but almost all of it won’t break even at market prices below $95 per barrel.
  • Pipelines are the cheapest way to move the tar sands to market, but the Americans and the native First Nations aren’t budging on any of them. Add another $18 per barrel for expensive rail transport across the continent.
  • There’s no market price on carbon emissions today, but it is almost certainly coming. The age when pollution was free – when the costs were for everyone else to pay, while the profits flow to rich oil producers – is coming to an end. Look in virtually any company’s SEC filings, and you’ll find their plans for life after the free ride is over. The EPA has done extensive work on the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), and it’s alarming. When oil pays its own social costs, you can add another $19-20 per barrel to costs.
  • So tally up those costs, and tar sands have to clear more than $130 per barrel just to break even. Today, Brent Crude, a major benchmark oil commodity price, closed just below $60. Will it stay there? Who knows? But tar sands producers have an enormous hurdle to clear to make a profit on some of the world’s dirtiest oil, and they will for years to come, while the world transitions to a sustainable economy.

So to the Times, and the rust expert who gave us his thoughts yesterday, I would suggest a little more rigor, before you proclaim that “the oil will come out.” Resistance is NOT futile. Fossil fuel reserves will NOT all be burned into the atmosphere. The world will NOT accept extinction at the hands of one very rich industry. And congressional climate deniers will NOT forever prohibit our country from joining the world in the struggle for a sustainable future.

And to those believers who have been praying faithfully for the denial of the Keystone XL permit, your prayers are surely NOT in vain. You will keep the faith, not simply assume defeat for your Father’s world and his creatures.

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