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Obama's Choice: Ethical Energy or 'the Devil's Excrement'

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As debate heats up again over the Keystone XL pipeline, each side will drop cluster bombs of data on why President Obama should or should not allow the project to proceed. The conventional arguments can be summarized in two words: jobs and carbon.

There are much bigger issues to consider, however. They include Obama's credibility in the fight against climate disruption, the United States' credibility in international climate negotiations, and whether the president's "all of the above" energy policy will destroy any chance we have to prevent catastrophic changes in the world's climate.

Before considering those issues, let's touch on jobs and carbon.

Jobs: Proponents claim the project will create 20,000 direct construction and manufacturing jobs in the United States, plus 100,000 indirect and "induced" jobs. In its latest environmental impact analysis, the State Department puts the number at 5,000 to 6,000 direct jobs during the two years it takes to build the pipeline.

The Global Labor Institute at Cornell University estimates Keystone will create no more than 2,500 to 4,650 jobs depending on where TransCanada buys its materials, but only a fraction of the jobs will go to local workers and then only for two years while the pipeline is being constructed. Estimates of permanent jobs created by the pipeline range from 20 to a few hundred.

Carbon: The State Department says that once the pipeline is operating, it will result in annual carbon emissions equivalent 626,000 passenger vehicles and 398,000 homes operating for one year.

On the other hand, an analysis last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concluded that the pipeline project would produce greenhouse gas emissions (a different unit of measure) equivalent to as many as 4 million passenger vehicles and 1.8 million homes.

Proponents say that tar sands oil will allow the United States to reduce the petroleum it's importing from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. But there is a carbon consequence. Citing data from the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, CRS concluded that oil sands crude will drive up the carbon emissions of oil production by 102 percent compared to Middle Eastern oil and 92 percent compared to Venezuelan crudes. The life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil will be 19 percent higher than Middle Eastern oil and 18 percent higher than conventional crude oil from Venezuela, according to CRS.

The president's "all of the above" strategy: The widely varying projections of the pipeline's job and carbon consequences can distract us from a very important fact: In a highly regarded study published four years ago by the journal Nature and brought to the general public's attention earlier this year by Bill McKibben, climate scientists concluded that if we are to avoid climate catastrophe, 80 percent of the proven, economically recoverable fossil fuels in the ground today will have to stay there. If we continue using fossil fuels at today's rate, the world will exhaust its "carbon budget" in about 11 years.

While an "all of the above" policy draws less political backlash, its eventual result would be "all hell breaks loose" climate disruption. If the President is counting on carbon sequestration to keep fossil energy emissions out of the atmosphere, he shouldn't bet the future on a technology that does not exist at a scale necessary for "all of the above" and that must overcome legal and social barriers before it could be deployed.

President Obama's Keystone decision will show the world whether he gets this obvious contraction with his promise to confront climate change, or whether he puts political expediency over energy and climate security.

Ethics of Oil: Some Canadian officials have made the "ethical oil" argument as they've pitched the Keystone pipeline. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this in the words of conservative commentator Ezra Levant: Keystone XL is "a pretty straight swap of Canadian ethical oil for Venezuelan conflict oil." Put another way, would we rather get oil from our neighbors to the north or from that cluster of hornets in OPEC?

But again, the only ethical oil is the stuff that stays in the ground. There is nothing virtuous about helping Canada export one of the dirtiest types of petroleum to the American people and beyond. The President's decision will tell the international community whether the United States is finally ready to acquire the moral authority to match its moral obligation as the nation most responsible for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today.

The ethical position on energy is codified in the Environmental Protection Agency's ruling in 2009 that greenhouse gas emissions "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations." The Keystone pipeline would undo some of the good work Obama's EPA has done over the last four years to reduce that threat and help the President achieve his goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020.

Energy Security: Let's expand on George Bush's conclusion that America is addicted to oil. The solution is not to increase our supply of the drug. The solution is not to change suppliers. The solution is to stop consuming it. Building Keystone would be the environmental equivalent of building a superhighway for Mexico's drug cartels to move their product across the United States and into Canada.

Ending our oil addiction won't happen overnight, but investing in new petroleum infrastructure is evidence that we don't plan for it to happen at all -- not in time, anyway.

Canada will produce and sell its tar sands oil whether or not the U.S. imports it: This is like reasoning that we might as well rob a bank because if we don't, someone else will. The United States needs to send a clear signal that in the big scheme of things, the oil age is over and age of clean energy has begun. Ironically, it was a former Saudi oil minister who was one of the first leaders to point this out. Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani famously said: "The Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil." (In an earthier metaphor, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the Venezuelan diplomat who helped create OPEC, called oil "the devil's excrement.")

Oil producers in the Persian Gulf are taking the Sheik's warning to heart. Several are investing aggressively in the renewable energy technologies invented in the United States. Yochi Dreazen, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, reports:

Persian Gulf countries, which sell more oil than any other nation in the world, are preparing for the changes they'll have to make. The United States, which buys more oil than any other nation in the world, is doing next to nothing to prepare for the decline of fossil fuels. The U.S. spent the 20th century importing oil because it failed to create any viable domestic alternatives. In the 21st century, Washington seems likely to perpetuate that mistake...

(United Arab Emirate) leaders accept the concept of "peak oil," in which global petroleum output will soon begin a slow decline...The situation in the United States couldn't be more different...The United States has no national clean-energy target...The numbers tell the story. The Energy Department's fiscal 2013 budget devotes less than $3 billion to efficiency and renewable projects. The Pentagon will spend about $841 million more. That means Dubai (population 2 million) will devote more money to renewable energy than the United States (population 350 million).

While the ink was drying on the State Department's Keystone assessment, the UAE was hosting "Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week" to encourage greater private investment in renewable energy. Some 30,000 leaders from 150 countries attended. One was Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE's special envoy for energy and climate change. "Increased collaboration and institutional investment are critical in diversifying the global energy mix and addressing climate change," he said. "The realities of climate change should be viewed as an economic opportunity."

None of this is to say that Keystone is an easy decision for the president. The American Petroleum Institute and the AFL-CIO, a key Obama supporter, have teamed up to support completion of Keystone XL. If the president okays the pipeline, he'll alienate climate scientists and profoundly disappoint many of the environmental organizations that supported him the last election.

Public opinion doesn't offer much political cover. A Rasmussen poll in January found that 59 percent of likely voters favor the pipeline because they think it would be good for the economy. However, the poll also detected growing voter uncertainty about the environmental costs of Keystone. Other recent polls show that an overwhelming majority of registered voters prefer renewable energy over fossil energy and want Congress and the President to do more about global warming.

Before the next round of heavy data-bombing begins, it's important to acknowledge that oil has been the liquid gold that helped build the modern American economy. It's also important to acknowledge that it and other fossil fuels now are an imminent threat to the prosperity they helped create.

But if jobs remain a principal factor for Obama in his Keystone decision, he should consider this sampling of research about the economic power of clean energy:

• The Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst calculates that on average, spending on the "green economy" produces three times more jobs than investing in our existing fossil fuel economy.

• Researchers at Brookings report that in mid-2011, the clean energy economy employed 2.7 million workers in the United States, spread across diverse industries. About 26 percent of the jobs were in manufacturing compared to 9 percent in the broader economy. Median wages were 13 percent higher than median U.S. wages.

• The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) issued this conclusion last year:

Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.

• Researchers at Stanford and the University of California-Davis have concluded that the world's energy supplies can be converted to clean and sustainable sources by mid-century with today's technologies, at costs comparable to conventional energy. "Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy resources," writes Mark Jacobson, the director of Stanford Atmosphere/Energy Program. "It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will."

• In a meta-analysis of 48 studies, conducted in 2008 for the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE), economists Skip Laitner and Vanessa McKinney reported that a 20 to 30 percent gain in energy efficiency in the United States would produce $2 in benefits for every dollar invested and create as many as 1.5 million jobs by 2030. Other benefits would include a significant cut in global warming and other air pollution, improvements in public health, and more disposable income for every energy consumer in the country.

• In its 2012 report, "The Long-Term Energy Efficiency Potential: What the Evidence Suggests", ACEEE concluded that cost-effective investments in energy efficiency could reduce U.S. energy consumption by 40 to 60 percent, generating 2 million jobs while saving consumers $400 billion annually -- the equivalent of $2,600 per household.

• In a study released in June 2011, Google concluded that comprehensive federal incentives and mandates on clean energy would increase the GDP by $244 billion annually, create 1.9 million net new jobs, save consumers nearly $1,000 per household, reduce oil consumption by more than 1 billion barrels a year and cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 21 percent, all by 2030.

The same spirit that drove oil exploration in the United States needs to drive our transition to renewable energy. We don't need Keystone. We need to wildcat the sun.