December 16, 2011

Keystone Pipeline Stakes

According to Politico, "Greens Call out New Keystone XL Deal," Senate Democrats and the White House have accepted a provision, engineered in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, mandating that the State Department decide within sixty days whether to approve the Keystone pipeline. The provision was added to a payroll tax cut package that extends the tax holiday on social security, jobless benefits, and the Medicare reimbursement rate to the end of February 2012.

The compromise seems to reverse Obama's decision to put off the decision on Keystone until 2013, but Senate Democrats say it is meaningless because the State Department won't have completed its review in 60 days. On the other hand, the Republicans seem determined to tie the White House's much wanted economic program to approval of the pipeline.

Environmentalists are aghast that Keystone is back on the table so soon and have renewed their threat to sit out 2012 if the pipeline goes forward.  Democrats counter that Obama is playing from a weak hand, made weaker by tepid environmentalist support in the 2010 elections.

(The Democratic in-fighting comes along just as I was getting to really enjoy the internecine conflict among the Republican presidential candidates. "I bet you $10,000 that Newt is an unrepentant sinner" is, let us hope, where it goes next.) 

Meanwhile, David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace restates the case that James Hansen and Bill McKibben have been making about the Keystone pipeline:

Keystone XL is more than a political bargaining chip. It is more than a $7 billion capital energy project. It is the Rubicon that scientists, energy analysts, and environmentalists say we must not cross if we are to keep global warming at or below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times. Build Keystone XL and we lock ourselves into reliance on "dirty" energy sources that will put us over the 2 degrees tipping point. It is "game over."

This 2 degrees limit is not a random number. It is the limit beyond which settled science says we risk a 50-50 chance of severe planetary harm. Imagine a world with 35 percent of all species going extinct; a sea level rise flooding natural and urban infrastructure alike; forced exodus of more than 500 million people from coastal areas; and a deadly migration of tropical diseases toward populations that have not built up resistance. All this within the lifetime of those we care about most deeply -- our children and grandchildren.

Energy analysts are increasingly alarmed at the rate that the world is getting "locked-in" to fossil fuels as its primary energy source. The International Energy Agency, in its annual World Energy Outlook 2011, estimates that we have only until 2017 -- just five years from now -- to fundamentally turn capital investments in energy assets away from fossil fuels if we are to stay within this limit. If not, the best we may be able to achieve is a 3.5 degrees increase. If we delay this shift until 2035, we will be on track for a 6 degrees increase, the consequences of which approach planetary suicide. If we continue to mine tar sands -- the unconventional oils Keystone XL will transport at a rate of up to 800,000 barrels a day -- the lock-in occurs even earlier.

The 2 percent limit is also a legal limit. At the UN climate change summit in Cancun one year ago conferees signed an accord to keep global temperature rise to below the 2 degrees threshold. This commitment was reconfirmed and strengthened at Durban last week. Keystone XL requires a permit from the U.S. state department -- the same agency that negotiated the Cancun and Durban agreements. Given the warnings that scientists, energy analysts, and even insurance company executives are now urgently urging policymakers to heed, the state department has a duty to assess permit issuance against its commitments.

With global consensus now consolidating around the 2 degrees limit, you would think both public and private sector leaders would act -- fast. Yet, as noted recently by Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, major oil, gas, and coal companies proceed to extract these fossil fuels on a business as usual basis. Shareholders seem oblivious to the fact that conversion of resources into proven reserves increasingly relies on risky or destructive exploration in the Arctic, deep oceans, and sensitive ecosystems. Sir Nicholas' conclusion: "either the market has not thought hard enough about the issue or thinks that governments will not do very much."

Environmentalists, understanding that neither private markets nor the political system is capable of responding to the challenge posed by climate change, are determined to stop this pipeline using whatever legal tools are available. If markets, international accords, and public policy won't respond by developing a plan to keep fossil fuel emissions within safe limits, then these resources must simply stay in the ground until an enforceable plan is adopted. Unconventional oils are at the frontline of the fight and Keystone XL is the point of the bayonet. Environmentalists are preparing themselves for trench warfare.

* * *

Even if the Obama administration does not approve the Keystone XL pipeline, it does not mean the project is dead. According to John M. Broder and Dan Frosch of the New York Times, "Politics Stamps Out Oil Sands Pipeline, Yet It Seems Likely to Endure," the oil sands will likely be exploited even if the initial decision at the end of February is negative:
As eager as TransCanada is to build the new pipeline, there is sufficient pipeline capacity for now to carry current production of crude from the Alberta oil sands to American refineries. With relatively minor adjustments, there will be enough space on existing transborder pipelines to handle expected flow until 2018 or later, analysts said.

It is only after 2020, when production of Canadian crude is expected to double from today’s 1.5 million barrels a day, that the pipeline crunch becomes severe. Canadian companies are already planning to expand current pipelines and build new ones to carry oil to the coast of British Columbia for export to Asia.
Notably, however, one such proposed project, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia, has been stopped for at least a year by the Canadian government because of strong opposition on environmental grounds from local landowners and indigenous populations.
Nonetheless, Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, said in a television interview this week that if the United States blocked the Keystone pipeline, Canada would look to China as a market for its oil. “I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent, selling our energy products off to China,” Mr. Harper said.. . .

[E]xperts in oil economics say that the oil is coming out of the ground in any event because of steadily growing global demand and the heavy investment in infrastructure already made in Alberta.
Andrew Leach, an associate professor of natural resources at the Alberta School of Business, said that Canada would continue to develop its oil resources, but that it would need additional pipeline capacity in coming years to meet export demands, whether to the United States or Asia. Slowing or stopping a particular project — Keystone or Northern Gateway, for example — could temporarily slow production in the oil sands, but eventually that resource will be tapped, he and others said.. . .

The oil industry continues to invest in Canadian oil sands because such projects are expected to produce a steady stream of crude for decades, said Philip Budzik, a research analyst at the Energy Information Administration, a federal research organization. He said that over time, costs and the energy required to extract the oil would come down as technology improved.
“In an era of limited accessibility to overseas oil resources and in contrast to conventional oil fields that produce at their peak production level for only three to six years before going into decline,” Mr. Budzik said, “long-lived productive assets such as oil sands provide a company some insurance as to its long-term financial viability.”
He said that canceling Keystone would probably slow the rate of increase of oil sands production, but only until new routes to Asia or North America were found.


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