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No, Obama is Not Going to Block Keystone XL

President Obama gave a major address on climate change on Tuesday, outlining some important steps to reduce our production of greenhouse gases that make the planet warmer. But far too many people are being terribly naive about one particular passage:

While Obama did not explicitly endorse or reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a major issue for climate activists, he did state in the speech that the pipeline should only be approved if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” “The pipeline’s effect on climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” he said.

The draft environmental impact analysis the State Department released in March found that it wouldn’t dramatically increase emissions, prompting environmentalists to worry about what that means for the administration’s decision. The EPA, however, has said that State’s evaluation of the greenhouse gas impact of the pipeline isn’t good enough. A senior administration official told reporters on Monday night that the State Department is still awaiting a final environmental analysis. “This proposal is not yet ready for a decision,” the official reiterated.

That phrase “significantly exacerbate” is very important. It gives him all the wiggle room he needs to approve it while claiming that it will only marginally increase carbon in the atmosphere by some statistical measure. It also leaves the obvious out of saying that the Alberta tar sands are going to be developed one way or the other even if the pipeline isn’t built, so it isn’t the pipeline that is causing the increased emissions.

I repeat what I have said for the last three years: there is not a chance in hell that he’s going to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The best that can be hoped for is that he approves it with some additional safeguards for environmental safety.

Comments

  1. Trebuchet says

    It’s not going to “significantly impact” carbon emissions because that fuel is going to get extracted and burned one way or the other. Unless Canada stops all tar sands mining, which is exceedingly unlikely. It’s all the OTHER impacts we should be worried about.

  2. Chiroptera says

    The draft environmental impact analysis the State Department released in March found that it wouldn’t dramatically increase emissions….

    The State Department is making this determination? wtf?

  3. Karen Locke says

    I get requests in my inbox every day to sign a petition or join a rally against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Ain’t gonna happen, folks. The Canadians have decided to grind up their country in search of greasy sludge, and by golly, we’re going to refine it for them, even if it involves building a sieve that runs the width of the country and endangers every square mile along its length. Money talks, and there’s a lot of money behind this. We The People are a sound bite.

  4. vhutchison says

    It seemed to me from the beginning that the pipeline would eventually be approved. The southern portion of the pipeline. from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Houston area has been in construction for some time. Opponents should now start a strong effort to DEMAND appropriate safeguards such as intensive monitoring, numerous cut-off valves, appropriate regulations, etc. Unfortunately, none of these will stop the eventual emissions from burning the dirty fuel – the main reason for objecting to the project.

  5. raven says

    There are trillions of dollars to be made getting hydrocarbons out of the ground. Getting between humans and trillions of dollars rarely works.

    We’ve done the same thing in the USA that Alberta has done to its north.

    In Appalachia, mountaintop removal for coal mining has permanently altered the landscape forever and not for the best. It’s a twofer, not only do they have a bare decapitated mountain, they use the rock to destroy a valley.

    I”ve always looked at Louisiana as a national hydrocarbons sacrifice area. Best estimates are 10% of the coastline will be underwater by 2100.

    Iraq was largely a blood for oil war. And a failure. We spent a lot of blood and gas is still $4.00 a gallon.

  6. CaitieCat says

    That whole “WHY IS GAS SO EXPENSIVE?????!?!?!” thing really gets me.

    $4/gallon.

    How much would you have to spend in a supermarket to buy a gallon of bottled water?

    $5? $10? I don’t know. But water doesn’t go away. And consuming it doesn’t poison our atmosphere.

    So why do we think it’s okay for gas to be cheaper than water, and complain that it’s not cheaper still?

    We’re living in a fool’s paradise. Gas should be costing a LOT more than it does, and most of that money should be going to trying to cope with the damage that burning it will cause. We’re offloading the costs on the future. On our kids and grandkids and their kids and grandkids. And by “we” I mean the petrochem industry, and our complacency about their externalizing the costs of their business.

    I don’t mean to pick on raven, at all – this is an enormously common complaint, and it just really gets me that we don’t recognize how bizarre it is that (more or less) completely renewable water costs more to buy (rent?) than irreplaceable, environment-destroying gasoline.

  7. Chiroptera says

    What I don’t get is that Obama seems far too intelligent to not understand global climate change. Does he think that no matter how bad it gets, the national security apparatus will allow him and his successors to manage the emergency?

  8. naturalcynic says

    I remember, with some bemusement, what the overall theme was in the course Conservation of Natural Resources at Berkeley c.1969: after all, what have your grandchildren done for you?

  9. jameshanley says

    Other than concerns about the route (I think itbshoukd avoid the sand hills of Nebraska), why should we be more comcerned about this pipeline than any other? Is the opposition really substantive, or has the Keystone pipeline become primarily a symbol?

  10. coffeecat says

    Tar sands oil is denser than water, so it sinks, which essentially means it can’t be cleaned up if it spills. It’s also caustic. The Canadians blocked a pipeline through their pristine land, but the US is willing to endanger drinking water of a large swath of land for an estimated 20 permanent jobs, all so Canada can pipe it’s oil to a port for export overseas. Pathetic.

  11. says

    It was going to be approved no matter what. The only question was when, not if. Our corporate overloads want it and they have spoken. And when it comes to “We the People” in America, corporations are the real people, my friend.

  12. Michael Heath says

    CaitieCat writes:

    We’re living in a fool’s paradise. Gas should be costing a LOT more than it does, and most of that money should be going to trying to cope with the damage that burning it will cause. We’re offloading the costs on the future. On our kids and grandkids and their kids and grandkids. And by “we” I mean the petrochem industry, and our complacency about their externalizing the costs of their business.

    I don’t mean to pick on raven, at all – this is an enormously common complaint, and it just really gets me that we don’t recognize how bizarre it is that (more or less) completely renewable water costs more to buy (rent?) than irreplaceable, environment-destroying gasoline.

    I appreciate your frustration. I think you if you want to be more effective, you need to be more careful about how you use the term, “cost”, and to be sure to differentiate the cost of a good or service from the price paid by the consumer.

    I share your frustration given the fact there are enormous negative “external” costs not embedded in the price of gasoline, or electricity generated from coal for that matter. So the price of gas is cheap given the reality there are enormous costs paid not by the consumers of gas, but instead others – current and future. E.g., taxpayers who mitigate the external costs of our consuming gasoline through government spending, and the blood of our veterans who fight to maintain global assurances of the supply of oil.

  13. Michael Heath says

    The concession that Canada will unfortunately cause their tar sands to be consumed does not end the debate but instead opens the door to an entirely new set of questions. We now need to understand how to best impact public policy so the marginal effects of the damage from such extraction, production, and consumption is minimized, especially in relation to the effects of such consumption when it comes to AGW.

    Progressives are going suffer political defeat on this issue when it comes to Canada extracting such, the core question now is how to retreat in a way that minimizes the harm to future generations this mining will bring.

  14. lorn says

    It isn’t clear that Obama could actually stop the pipeline. He can delay it but there is some debate as to which method yields the most delay. Obama standing up, and his name being used to rally the troops, may not be the best approach. A softer resistance, getting everyone debating over decimal places, with a hard denial held as a reserve, seems the better option.

    What may actually kill the pipeline is direct competition from cheap natural gas. Natural gas prices have crippled domestic coal plans for expansion and slowed production. It is hard to see how a product with as many practical problems as oil from tar sands can compete if coal can’t.

    Even if not needed or economic it may still get built as a monument to congressional ego, a jobs project, and simply because Obama wasn’t enthusiastically for it. But no worries, it won’t get used much beyond a few ceremonial tons pumped. There just wouldn’t be any profit to be had schlepping modified bitumen around if gas is cheaper and easier to use.

    Playing for time, letting the pipeline become economically unfeasible, seems to me to be better than forcing a showdown and likely getting rolled.

  15. overworldtheme says

    @CaitieCat
    $5 for a gallon of water? I’ve never seen a gallon of water in a supermarket for more than $1.50 outside of hurricane-related shortages.

  16. CaitieCat says

    Then you are privileged indeed. Here in AmericaLite, I’d be lucky to find a 500mL bottle for CAD1.25. I can buy gas for something like CAD1.30/litre, making gas half the price of the water sold in the same store.

    In either case, it’s a ridiculous imbalance, and the actual price isn’t the key bit – it’s the foolishness of the ratio.

    The costs to society of that gas are so, so much greater than $4/gallon could ever pay for, and the water is renewable. The difference is, the petro companies basically own the government, and thus get to externalize their costs, and privatize the profits. With any kind of reasonable carbon tax, the US should be paying something a lot closer to the current European prices, at minimum.

    That the gas is being woefully underpriced, by offloading the costs so that they become, as Douglas Adams so well described it, invisible through the action of the “Someone Else’s Problem” field.

    As to saying let the pipeline be built, the tar sands will never be economic enough, that’s short-sighted. As world petroleum supplies diminish, and the remaining stuff becomes more expensive to acquire, the price will rise. It won’t be that long, as the best natural gas regions are tapped out, before the price will be plenty high enough to warrant shipping it to Houston. And given the spare refinery capacity that Houston has just now, that point may not be far in the future (more capacity means cheaper refining means lower cost to sell the refined product means economic viability).

    That’s why it’s important to fight it.

  17. eigenperson says

    I pay about $0.01 for 8 L (2 gallons) of water, which is obviously much, much cheaper than gasoline.

    To be sure, that water doesn’t come in a bottle, but neither does gasoline.

    I agree that gasoline should probably be priced at two or three times what it is, but comparing the prices of gasoline and bottled water isn’t very meaningful because the price of bottled water is perhaps 200-400 times more than the price of water.

  18. Lofty says

    The cost of bottled water should be compared to the cost of canned propane or similar. The cost is the packaging.
    Anyways, so long as keystone-xl is worth billions in shonky revenue, it will go ahead. No-one is allowed to get between a megalomaniac and his income.

  19. sundoga says

    Chiroptera @ #9 – I think it’s BECAUSE he understands Global Warming. And more importantly, understands the timeline of it. No matter how bad it will ever get, Obama will NEVER be the one who has to manage it – the timeline is simply too long.
    It’s the greatest problem with democratically elected governments, they have tremendous difficulty thinking in the long term.

  20. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    No, Obama is Not Going to Block Keystone XL

    Well that fucking sucks. Bastard.

  21. slc1 says

    Re caitiecat @ #20

    It won’t be that long, as the best natural gas regions are tapped out, before the price will be plenty high enough to warrant shipping it to Houston.

    Caitiecat has to be kidding us. Natural gas is far from being “tapped out”. In fact, given the technology of fracking and the discovery of large deposits off-shore, the reserves of natural gas are rising faster then consumption. As a matter of fact, the USA will soon have such a surplus of natural gas that it will become a net exporter of the stuff. Even Israel, supposedly a resource poor country will soon be exporting natural gas from large reserves off its Mediterranean coast.

  22. says

    I see public transit buses running on hydrogen fuel cells in the SF Bay Area, and the hydrogen comes from, guess who… Chevron! This indicates that Big Oil is positioning itself to assume control of at least one alternative energy source when the time is right, meanwhile they are squeezing every drop of profit they can out of the ground while it lasts.

  23. quidam says

    The Canadians have decided to grind up their country in search of greasy sludge, and by golly, we’re going to refine it for them, even if it involves building a sieve that runs the width of the country and endangers every square mile along its length.

    Well that’s certainly a reasoned argument, with not a hint of hyperbole.

  24. PatrickG says

    @ slc1:

    Natural gas is far from being “tapped out”.

    Um. The Energy Information Agency would beg to disagree with you.

    2012 reserves: 939,919,000 million cubic feet
    2012 consumption: 25,502,251 million cubic feet

    Which gives us *punches on calculator* 36.86 years of supply at current consumption rates. Those rates, by the way, are rapidly going up, so ~37 years is quite the optimistic measure!

    Now, you can certainly argue that new technologies/discovery of reserves will improve the reserve numbers, but you’d need a massive new supply of gas to keep up with consumption. Particularly if, as you say, the US begins exporting.

    In short, it’s quite fair to say that domestic reserves are close to being “tapped out”, insofar as this is not an energy source that should be relied on for long-term use.

  25. slc1 says

    Re PatrickG @ #29

    Take a look at the increase in reserves between 2005 and 2010. Natural gas reserves wen up 300,000,000 million cubic feet, an average of 60,000,000 cubic feet/year. That’s more then double current consumption. There is no reason to believe that the increase in size of the reserves is going to suddenly halt starting in 2010. If, in fact, reserves continue to increase at the 2005 to 2010 rate, even if consumption doubles over the next few years, the current supply will last a lot longer then 36 years. Hopefully, by that time, controlled fusion and/or improved fission reactors based on thorium will come on line for electricity production, not to mention solar generated electricity. Global climate change is a more serious problem then energy production over the next century.

  26. caseloweraz says

    From the Bloomberg story:

    “Leak detection is just one part of a safe pipeline,” Semmens said. “The No. 1 priority is to build a pipeline that prevents leaks.”

    Well, there you go. They’ll build a pipeline that prevents leaks. Obviously this is much more cost-effective.

    Pipelines spilled an average of 112,569 barrels a year in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012, a 3.5 percent increase from the previous five-year period, according to U.S. Transportation Department figures compiled by Bloomberg.

    There, you see? Pipeline technology is getting better at preventing leaks. Blast those misguided anti-commerce libruls!

    /snark

  27. PatrickG says

    First, slight correction to my earlier post. In my links, the number for reserves is from 2010, the consumption number is from 2012. Latest data for both in that series.

    @slc1

    Hopefully, by that time, controlled fusion and/or improved fission reactors based on thorium will come on line for electricity production, not to mention solar generated electricity. Global climate change is a more serious problem then energy production over the next century.

    So your argument is:
    - there’s plenty of gas
    - climate change is the concern
    - ???
    - new technology!

    If climate change is a concern, then your claim that reserves will continue to be discovered is not a good thing, as our current policy is unfortunately inclined towards Cheapest Now, Worry Later. Note also that the reserves that are being discovered are offshore/deeper, requiring intensive techniques and input energy (hello, fracking!) to recover. More emissions, more environmental damage, but hey, fusion will save us all?

    Maybe I’m just cynical, but I prefer not to base our energy policy on hope, thanks.

    In any case, my original point stands: there just isn’t that much gas, the rate of consumption is projected to go up tremendously as we shift away from coal, and “better than coal” doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue pumping out GHGs in this latest version of the gold rush.

  28. CaitieCat says

    Thanks for taking up the torch, Patrick G, that forecast was the one I’d been thinking of.

    Got hit with a bad wave of depression this weekend, and just didn’t have the “give-a-fuck” to go looking for the numbers to back up what I’d read from some pretty reliable sources.

  29. CaitieCat says

    Depression blows.

    And yet, in a weird anti-physics thing, it also sucks. We should be able to make a perpetual motion machine out of that, don’t you think?

    Thanks. :)

  30. PatrickG says

    Amusingly, I wasn’t sure whether to use suck or blow to describe depression, so mentally flipped a coin. But if we could harness the power of depression, we’d be able to shift away from fossil fuels overnight!

    Down the road though… I have a terrifying vision of Congressional hearings banning anti-depressants because the national interest requires more depressed people. “We take this action with a heavy heart, but advances in medical science are threatening our energy security…”

  31. CaitieCat says

    Your comment is subversive, wise and witty. Please submit your address and other identifying information so I can make sure the NSA know whom to watch out for er, I mean, send you one (1) Internet.

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