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In his February 10th essay, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera asked a simple question: "Can a person support the Keystone XL oil pipeline and still believe that global warming poses a serious threat?"

Joe answers "yes," with the logic that this one pipeline alone will not bring about a global warming apocalypse, which is ultimately caused by "deeply ingrained human habits." He was on the defensive as a result of his prior column "Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL," in which he defends Canada's decision to court China as an alternative market for its Tar Sands oil in the face of Obama's refusal to approve the XL Pipeline under political duress. "At least one country in North America understands where its national interests lie. Too bad it's not us."

Joe is a balanced and thoughtful observer of business and Wall Street, but I (http://thinkprogress.org/... target="_hplink">and many others) disagree with him on XL.

If one believes as I do that global warming poses a "serious threat," i.e., a threat of potentially and even likely catastrophic consequences, then the XL pipeline provides a useful and timely "line in the sand" that can be used to call the question, and alter the course of the global economy before it is too late.

Let's review the two issues that are the focus of Joe's second column. The first is whether Tar Sands oil is all that bad, and whether it alone will doom the planet as leading climate science authority Jim Hanson suggests. I don't know whether tar sands oil emits only 6 percent more greenhouse gases than other oil as the IHS Cera study Joe sights suggests or 17-20 percent more as I heard from environmental leader Bill McKibben. The point is the absolute volume of carbon in this massive reserve, the equivalent of 150 parts per million in the atmosphere, when added to existing "proved" reserves, will undoubtedly doom life as we know it on the planet if it's all produced and burned.

Marginal differences in quality and efficiency do not alter the hard boundaries of absolute scale limits. When faced with absolute limits, it only makes sense to prioritize high quality (low carbon) fuels, focus on efficiency, and find alternatives fast.  Efficiency of energy source or use will never solve the scale limit issue.  That's the big deal.

The stunning truth points to a far more difficult challenge that the politicians, economists, and columnists are failing to see.  Unless we solve the technical challenge of carbon sequestration, a feat that appears to be fading from the imagination of even the technology optimists, then even before the expansion of Tar Sands production, the world already has proven reserves in the process of coming out of the ground in the decades ahead that exceed our carbon budget by a factor of 5 times.

In other words, as I have described in "The Big Choice," we can choose to burn the fossil fuels we already have and likely cause irreparable damage to the planet by blowing through the 2 degree Celsius warming limit that climate scientists tell us is the tipping point, or we can choose to abandon 80 percent of the global fossil fuels already discovered and find alternative means to power our restructured and less energy-intensive economy. I call this our "big choice" because at current market value, that 80 percent of what would become "stranded assets" is worth about $20 Trillion.  No wonder the fossil fuel interests will stop at nothing to promote denial.

So where to start?  I can think of no better place for America to lead than in our own backyard on a project whose scale matters. Tar Sands. There's no easy way down folks, so we simply need to decide whether to engage in the serious decisions in front of us. Greece failed to do so with their unsustainable fiscal path. We see the results. Our energy/carbon path represents a "bio-capacity deficit" that makes the the consequences of the present financial crisis cascading across Europe appear modest in comparison.

Joe's second issue relates to trade. One argument against the XL Pipeline is that the oil would cross America on its way to Gulf Coast refineries, and then head to Europe, doing nothing for our "national security" interest of sourcing oil from friendly allies as pipeline supporters claim. Here, Joe rightly points out that the trade flows of this oil will probably not deviate much from existing patterns.  But this is missing the point.

The oil market is now a global market. Global supply and demand is what sets world prices, plus or minus a transportation charge, subject to temporary logistical constraints. So whether tar sands oil goes to the US or China, the price we all pay over time will not vary by a significant degree.

However, the future will likely look quite different than the past.  This is the vital message of running into limits on an unsustainable path.  We will choose to take one of two paths, either actively or passively:

Business as usual: Global energy demand will continue to grow. We will fail to materially curb our burning of fossil fuels. We will set in motion irreversible climate change that will impact the lives of our children for sure and likely ourselves (most would suggest this is already the case). Oil will become scarce and the global "free market" will function no longer. Having access to Canadian oil will be seen as a US asset, ensuring us vital supply either by negotiation or by annexation.  But it will be clear to all that the world is on a frightening path, and our "non-negotiable" SUV lifestyle will be the furthest thing from our minds.

Smart path: We will understand, as our military and security establishment now does (another essay on that here), that our unsustainable economic system poses the greatest threat to our national (and global) security. We will start making hard decisions in line with a vision of a sustainable future, one important decision at a time. Deciding not to expand Tar Sands production when the challenge is how to decide which existing resources to strand in the ground, and how to share the consequent financial and social burdens, will be one of the easier of these decisions.

So my question back to Joe Nocera is, what do you mean by "a serious threat"?

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is a terrific essay & (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, Oh Mary Oh

    I hope it gets the many,many views it deserves.
    Tipped and rec'd. Wish I could rec it again for that "Smart Plan" paragraph alone.

    "George RR Martin is not your bitch" ~~ Neil Gaiman

    by tardis10 on Wed Feb 15, 2012 at 12:44:07 PM PST

  •  This is a frustrating and sophistry full topic. (0+ / 0-)

    Given the worldwide market and equalization of pricing to overcome transport variants and sources, refineries, and channels to serve the markets, arguing about how "vital" Keystone XL sources are compared to any other is a false, peripheral  argument.

    The entirety of the industry excitement and fuss over Keystone is to run some liquid continental sources to the underutilized refineries in LA and TX.  There will be more refined product and more overseas sales even as there are as manufacturing slows down in the USA and the slowing economy cuts back  liquid fuel usages.

    There are no USA leaders  demanding high carbon polluting fuels be deemphasized and reduced in favor of cleaner fuels, and a mandatory effort to push that paradigm to transition away from the fossil fuel dominance.

    Those high carbon, tar sands if exploited to a larger degree then presently done, should be converted in a clean containment and become feedstocks to other important commodities in modern life. Not liquid fuels for burning.

    That would be a political compromise, but avoid much of the damage they do.

             The lack of leadership on this is disgraceful.

            When oil companies faced the possible loss of their overseas pumping stations, wells and oilfields in WW 2 they begged the US government to rescue them, including an offer to be nationalized and take the constraints on operations if only they would be saved from the Axis powers. That is why the USA went to North Africa first on declaring war.

          Where is the political leadership, the bold statement that super dirty fuels dumped into the atmosphere, the rest of the environment are an even bigger threat  then competitors seizing the resources as was the case  seventy years ago?  Requiring a bold step to save the country and the world?

    We do not make liquid fossil fuels pay for their own cleanup or damages. If that continues, we must decrease their use in favor of cleaner fuels that come without that handicap. Or equalize prices and force the dirty fuels to pay  for the damages, pay the differences
    for cleaner fuels.

    If you think that you and a bunch of other people can just show up on Wall St, camp out and have any effect whatsoever.... well, you will be run off in 20 minutes., you will leave town having wasted your effort 6/18/11.

    by BeeDeeS on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 12:42:09 PM PST

  •  CANADIAN PIPELINE trans am to gulf for export. (0+ / 0-)

    Keystone sounds innocent enuf. Like an American based oil company. But the pipeline that a Canadian company wants to build, will cross US state lands, to the gulf and will export oil. The dirtiest oil sludge could leak and contaminate american soil and water and woudl create maybe 6500 temp jobs. THE CANADIAN PIPELINE is first and foremost a matter of conversation. Forget Keystone, it is minimizes the SOUND of the impact.

    An EGG is not a person, A corporation is not a person!

    by CarmanK on Wed Feb 22, 2012 at 10:25:49 AM PST

  •  Your arguments against Keystone XL (0+ / 0-)

    also apply to Obama's opening up oil drilling in ANWR.

    "I wish I could tell you, in the midst of all of this, that President Obama was waging the kind of fight against these draconian Republican proposals that the American people would like to see. He is not." -- Senator Bernie Sanders

    by Sagebrush Bob on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 04:25:49 PM PST

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