A Keystone Pipeline Project Will Lead to Disaster
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan
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The new State Department Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone Pipeline does three things. First, it signals a greater likelihood that the pipeline project will be approved later this year by the administration. Second, it vividly illustrates the depth of confusion of US climate change policy. Third, it self-portrays the US Government as a helpless bystander to climate calamity. According to the State Department report, we are trapped in the Big Oil Status Quo We Can Believe In.
The proposed pipeline will complete a pipeline network running from Alberta, Canada to the US Gulf Coast, carrying petroleum produced from Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf refineries. The volumes will be enormous, roughly 830,000 barrels per day. The pipeline will thereby facilitate the mass extraction and use of Canada's enormous unconventional supplies. Therein lies the problem.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-induced climate change is occurring; that the world is experiencing a rapidly rising frequency of extreme climate-related events such as heat waves; and that there is much worse to come unless we change course on the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, with energy business as usual, the world is on a trajectory to raise the mean global temperature by at least 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) by the end of century, and possibly far more, a climate disruption that most scientists regard as catastrophic. The world's governments have agreed to try to keep the temperature increase below 2-degrees C, yet until now they've done far too little to meet that target.
(Note that after decades of rapid temperature increases up to 1998, the rise in global mean temperatures slowed a bit after 1998. With the post-1998 Pacific Ocean tending towards La Nina conditions, the Pacific Ocean rather than the Earth's land area has been absorbing much of the excess thermal energy trapped by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Yet once the Pacific Ocean swings back to the El Nino or neutral conditions that prevailed up to 1998, rapid global warming is likely to resume. Therefore the slight recent pause in the upward ascent of temperatures is only a short respite from the ongoing long-term process of rapid global warming.)
The economic implications of the climate science are clear. Either we keep some of the world's oil, gas, and coal reserves under the ground (rather than burning them in cars, factories, power plants, and buildings), or we wreck the planet. The atmospheric CO2 concentration is determined by the cumulative combustion of fossil fuels. We've already burned enough fossil fuels to raise the world's temperatures by around 1 degree C. Burning the rest of the proved reserves would cause humanity to overshoot the 2-degree target by several degrees.
The urgent planetary need is clear. The world has to wean itself from fossil fuel dependence in the coming 20-40 years. We simply can't go on drilling, excavating, and burning every ton of coal, oil, and gas the fossil fuel industry finds. If we do so, the basic "carbon arithmetic" of CO2 buildup spells disaster.
In the current market jargon, the world needs to strand some of its fossil fuel reserves, meaning that some must be left under the ground rather than extracted and burned. We must substitute these stranded fossil fuel reserves with low-carbon alternatives, including nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power. There are ample supplies of these low-carbon alternatives, but to build up the use of these alternatives will require considerable investments for several decades to come.
The most important single step is to keep most of the coal from being burned. The next is to avoid the temptation to develop every bit of "non-conventional" oil and gas that can be found. With new technologies, unconventional oil and gas like Canada's oil sands can now be developed at today's market prices, but at great peril for the planet.