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Reject Keystone XL: Obama's Opportunity to Get Serious on Climate Change

03/19/2013 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

On Presidents' Day weekend, I was among the 35,000 who attended the Forward On Climate rally in Washington, D.C. to urge President Obama to make good on the promise in his second inaugural address to "respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." The rally took aim specifically at Keystone XL, the hotly contested 1,700 mile pipeline project that would carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta, Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Before I made the decision to attend the rally, I will admit that I had sometimes felt ambivalent about the Keystone pipeline's status as the banner cause of climate change activism. Anyone who has followed the debate over the pipeline can probably relate to this ambivalence. We've been so flooded by information (and plenty of misinformation) about the pipeline's effect on energy security, the economy, gas prices, the environment, and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions, that it's a challenge just to get all the facts straight. But, with the president's final decision on whether to approve the pipeline expected in the first half of this year, I was running out of chances to join so many activists I admired in opposing the project. This time, I was unwilling to be sidelined by uncertainty -- I had to get to the bottom of the Keystone debate. My research convinced me that President Obama must reject Keystone XL if he wants his inaugural remarks to be remembered as more than so many words. A "no" to Keystone represents a critical opportunity for the United States to show the world it's serious about tackling climate change.

To understand why, let's start with the tar sands themselves. Canada's tar sands formations hold massive reserves of bitumen, a tar-like substance that can be converted into a type of oil known as synthetic or unconventional crude. Human industry and ingenuity currently make it possible to extract an estimated 170 billion barrels worth of oil from the tar sands, greater reserves than can be boasted by any nation besides Saudi Arabia. Still, this is only a fraction of what the entire tar sands regions could produce if we had the means to fully exploit them, which amounts to an additional 1.63 trillion barrels. For a sense of the incredible magnitude of this figure, the current U.S. oil import rate is 9 million barrels per day.

Certainly, the potential carbon emissions represented by a fossil fuel reserve this massive should give pause to anyone concerned about rising CO2 levels in Earth's atmosphere. What's worse is that these aren't just any fossil fuels -- these are "unconventional" reserves, and it's what's denoted by that seemingly innocuous term that makes the tar sands so dangerous for the climate. Daniel Plainview of the oil boom film There Will Be Blood couldn't drink this milkshake. A better metaphor for getting oil from the tar sands is picking the little chocolate pieces out of mint chocolate chip ice cream in order to make chocolate sauce. To separate the bitumen from the tar sands and then liquify it into heavy crude oil is a highly energy-intensive process, meaning that a lot more fossil fuels have to be burned just to bring tar sands oils to market compared to your average oil source. In fact, twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions occur in bringing tar sands-based fuels to market compared to the average conventional source. That's why even the U.S. State Department's understated final analysis of Keystone's environmental impacts reported that the production and consumption of tar sands fuels releases 17 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional fuels.

How does this exceptionally large and inefficient energy source figure into the global climate picture? Predictably poorly. According to scientists, the carbon emissions of burning the entire Alberta tar sands reserves would alone add another 0.4 degrees celsius to the global temperature rise, before even taking into account the extra emissions of tar sands production. 0.4 degrees celsius might not sound like much, but when you consider that scientists and world leaders agree that we must limit the global temperature rise to within 2 degrees celsius to give ourselves a chance of avoiding devastating climate impacts, and that we've already warmed the planet by 0.8 degrees celsius, the number 0.4 assumes the peril of a blood-alcohol level of the same value. In a landmark Rolling Stone article last summer, 350.org's Bill McKibben put the planet's tolerance for further warming in terms of future carbon emissions: 565 gigatons. With carbon emissions increasing at a rate of around three percent a year, McKibben states, we're on pace to exceed that amount in only 16 years. Time is running out. Our appetite for all other fossil fuels is already causing so much trouble that to feed it increasing amounts of tar sands crude, which causes even higher rates of emissions than we're used to, seems suicidal.

So why are we still debating this issue? What reason to further exploit the tar sands could possibly trump the need to forestall global climate disaster? It's not energy security. A key fact about Keystone that gets far too little attention is that the 830,000 barrels of oil it would pump to the Gulf Coast each day would be destined for export. Nor does the claim that the pipeline will boost Americans' economic well being turn out to be true. Keystone would not lower prices at the pump, as some have claimed. Rather, the opposite is expected to occur; prices could rise as much as 10 to 20 cents per gallon for millions of Americans. The reason for Keystone can only be appreciated from the oil companies' perspective, and it is, in a word, money. With domestic oil production increasing and tar sands crude already being imported from Canada, the Midwest has seen a buildup of oil supplies that has driven prices down. Keystone would relieve this oversupply by diverting tar sands oil normally bound for the Midwest to Gulf Coast export markets, where the oil companies can get a better price for their product. This would also raise prices in the Midwest, hence the extra 10 to 20 cents per gallon some Americans could see added to their gas tab. Keystone represents a twofold boon to tar sands producers worth $2 billion to $3.9 billion a year, according to an analysis done on behalf of TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline.

Unfortunately, we can't expect an oil company to forgo profits for the sake of a greater good. We can, however, ask a president committed to addressing climate change to reject a proposal by narrow corporate and political interests that would speed the development of one of the world's largest and most harmful oil sources. There's no question that this would be a brave act. Democrats seem divided on the issue, and even a New York Times opinion writer recently called the anti-Keystone movement "boneheaded." Besides buying into the false energy-security narrative peddled by the oil lobby, the argument of those who ascribe to science but still support the pipeline seems unduly concerned with what Canada's reaction might be if Keystone were denied a permit. Will they sell their oil to China? Will they stop buying our F-35 fighter jets? Lest the president be swayed by such threats, he might pause to remember that this is the same Canada that withdrew from its obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol even as it facilitated the expansion of a tar sands industry responsible for overall emissions higher than New Zealand and Kenya combined. Canada has chosen tar sands development over its commitment to other nations on climate change, and still it feels entitled to a new accessory to its Kyoto-busting engine of dirty industry.

Most recently, the U.S. State Department put forth a sort of fatalist position on Keystone. According to this line of thinking, tar sands extraction will grow at the same rate with or without the pipeline; industry will simply find other ways to transport tar sands oil. Given the large volume of oil Keystone would transport and the strong resistance to another proposed pipeline that would run through Canada to its Pacific coast, this argument simply seems obtuse. But even if industry's Plan B were just as damaging, is that any reason to aid and abet the destruction brought on by climate change?

Instead of speculating how Canada or its tar sands industry might react to a rejection of Keystone XL, the president should ask, "how will the world react?" The whole world, after all, will have to deal with the mess of climate change, and every nation has an interest in mitigating its extent. But we can't expect other nations to act while the major polluters, including ourselves, refuse to do so. President Obama has sole authority to take meaningful, historic action and reject a pipeline that has rightly become a symbol of the dirty energy causing climate change and the powerful interests that stand behind it. As a climate steward, it is his duty to reject the pipeline. But it's also his opportunity to show the world that the United States is serious about addressing climate change -- an opportunity that could set a more willing and productive tone for global emissions summits down the road.

A crowd of 35,000 on a freezing cold day in February is no small feat, and I hope the president considers our resolve when he makes his decision. Even more, I hope he considers all seven billion of us who call this planet home.