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Keystone: The Pipeline to Disaster

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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.

Using climate science, it is possible to calculate the tolerable limits on total future fossil fuel use. The basic idea is the need for the world to adhere to a "carbon budget," meaning the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned while avoiding global warming by more than 2-degrees C. (We should note that even the 2-degree C target, which we are now overshooting by a wide mark, would cause very damaging changes to the Earth's climate systems, and result in devastating famines, floods, heat waves, and other catastrophes.)

The Keystone pipeline is crucial to the global carbon budget. If the world deploys massive unconventional oil sources like Canada's oil sands we will exceed the carbon budget, unless there is a simultaneous strategy to offset that excess carbon some other way. But to do so would be using Canada's expensive, dirty, and CO2-intensive oil when cheaper, (relatively) cleaner, and lower-CO2 oil is available. Under any circumstances, to evaluate the Keystone Project properly, we need to judge it against the global carbon budget.

Herein lies the tragic, indeed fatal, flaw of the State Department review. The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn't even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn't even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.

The core assumption of the report is that the US Government has no role to play, either alone or in conjunction with Canada and other countries, to stay within an overall global carbon budget.

[A]pproval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refiners in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios. [ES-16]

According to the State Department, in other words, the US Government is just a passive spectator to global climate change. Either the pipeline is built or the oil will be shipped by other means. Full stop. The State Department doesn't even broach the idea that the pipeline discussion really needs to be about the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels, including the need to keep unconventional hydrocarbon reserves under the ground.

I can hear the skeptics scoffing: What would make Canada not develop these resources? And why shouldn't Americans profit from the oil sands? The answer should be the future survival and wellbeing of humanity, an idea admittedly of little apparent interest in Washington or Ottawa, centers of greed, cynicism, and shortsightedness. There is money to be made NOW, the future be damned.

But do not lose hope. The greed and incompetence on display in Washington and Ottawa is not a permanent reality, but a passing phase. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were able to face down gilded interests for the greater good. Many oil companies, including leading companies in Europe and also some in North America, are already on side to stay within the global carbon budget. The vast majority of Americans want safety for themselves, their children, and the rest of humanity. Our generation can still turn the tide against environmental disaster.

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