12/21/2011 12:16 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Keystone Pipeline: Small Part of a Very Big Picture

In the chaos that passes for governance in Washington, the Keystone XL pipeline project looms as a seemingly supreme issue. But it is not. To view it as such is to miss the overall, something our media excels at.

President Barack Obama received some good news and some bad news over the weekend, when on an 89-10 vote, the Senate passed the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits extension. But for only two months. Which then became even more complicated when House conservatives refused to go along, despite the decided conservative aspect of using the needs of middle class and jobless Americans as a lever to push a controversial shale oil pipeline.

Why the short-term play? To try to force the Obama Administration to make a decision now on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project which would carry shale oil from Canada.

Development interests say it means lots of jobs, and an advance toward independence from Middle Eastern oil.

Environmental interests say it means danger for underground aquifers and that the jobs are largely illusory, with much of the oil fated to be shipped abroad anyway.

Here is the big backdrop to all this maneuvering, in which Keystone is only a small part of a very big picture.

As the United Nations struggled the weekend before last to cobble together a continuation of the international framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions -- even as they have actually gone up sharply in the past two years -- Canada became the first nation to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.


Two reasons. Canada has vast stores of hydrocarbons in the form of difficult to access shale oil. Getting at it is a technically challenging process which entails more greenhouse gas emissions, and shale oil and gas produce more such emissions than conventional oil and gas.

And Canada is an Arctic nation.

As the greenhouse effect melts the polar ice caps, the Arctic Sea is becoming not only no longer ice-locked, but navigable. And as it becomes navigable, it becomes open to exploration and exploitation.

Deep beneath what had been the impregnable ice caps are vast stores of petroleum and minerals. This is why I've written from time to time over the past few years about the international struggle to stake claims to the Arctic.

Russia has been especially aggressive in this regard. Moscow is home to more billionaires than any other city on the planet, and virtually all of those fortunes derive from fossil fuel energy and commodities.

But Canada, under its conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is clearly not about to withdraw from the new oil rush at the top of the world, having gone so far as to be the first to withdraw from Kyoto.

The irony, of course, is that Russia, Canada, and other powers eying the Arctic are taking advantage of the the opportunities suddenly afforded there by the cooking of the planet by pursuing a geostrategy that will, of course, further cook the planet.

Not only through continuing to yoke the world to its reliance on the old petro energy economy, but through release of methane gas, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, locked beneath the Arctic permafrost.

Would stopping the Keystone pipeline stop Canada and the oil interests involved there from pursuing their anti-Kyoto course? Not on the whole, clearly. Would it gum up the works some? Perhaps.

But my observation is that water seeks the ocean.

Meanwhile, earlier in the month, in Durban, South Africa, we saw the global policy and perceptual gridlock that allows the next phase of the Great Planet Cook-off to develop with few the wiser. There the United Nations climate summit went into extra innings in order to avoid having no agreement in place to extend the fundamentals of the Kyoto Protocol, with an agreement cobbled together.

Nations agreed to establish rules to cut greenhouse gases. But not until 2020. Here in California, we are already working toward major reductions BY 2020.

The UN has another four years to develop the needed regulations. There are, needless to say, many potential slips twixt the cup and lip.

As those desperate moves to avert complete failure in global climate politics, even as the effects of climate change became all the more apparent, played out, Governor Jerry Brown was readying his conference on climate change in San Francisco.

All politics may be local, but it is now also global.

Brown hosted his all-day Governor's Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California's Future last Thursday at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who held three big Governors' Global Climate Summits during his second term -- was a last minute addition to the program, which included UN climate chief Dr. Ravendra Pachauri, a Nobel Prize winner, and Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group.

As an event, Brown's conference was decidedly on the undercooked side.

Since I first reported it and discussed it in October on my New West Notes blog, the conference had relatively little play in the run-up to it, with information coming late and in sketchy form.

Googling "Jerry Brown climate" on the morning of the conference yielded my recent Huffington Post piece -- "Jerry Brown Pulls A Trigger, Invokes Rome, and Focuses on Climate and Initiatives" -- at the top of the page, and the conference is only one of several aspects of the article. There was little else to be found.

In the end, for all its promise, the conference resulted in no announced agreements or initiatives, and yielded rather routine coverage in the Northern California press and on news wires. There are still no transcripts or videos available.

It was, as one top Brown ally put it, "a single which should have been a home run."

In a fiery talk opening the conference, Brown denounced the Republican Party and libertarian ideologues as greenhouse deniers and promoters of "cult-like behavior" designed to lead "political lemmings" over a cliff.

It didn't sound like something intended to promote a continuation of Brown's practice earlier this year of spending a lot of time courting potential Republican legislative votes.

Of course, that didn't actually work.

It also sounded like Brown was mostly winging it, something he is quite good at, but not especially appropriate for something planned for months.

Appearing later in the afternoon, Schwarzenegger -- who championed renewable energy and the state's landmark climate change program as governor and is continuing to work with the United Nations on these issues -- said that he is "proud" of Brown as his successor. He urged a positive, conciliatory approach of inclusiveness with regard to climate change. He also noted that, while it was exciting to be there, it "was also weird, in a way." Since just the day before he was filming in New Mexico on his new movie, The Last Stand, "slamming a guy's head into a bridge."

Schwarzenegger spoke of avoiding enviro gloom and doom talk, and instead focusing on jobs, health, energy independence, and national security.

But given the state of things -- with greenhouse gas emissions actually increasing over the past few years in spite of the great global recession and supposed international commitments to avert accelerating climate change -- there is ample room for some gloom and doom.

Somewhere between Brown's unvarnished anger and Schwarzenegger's happier talk lies the right mix for messaging.

As California continues it pioneering efforts on renewable, energy efficiency, and cutting greenhouse gases, its unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest point in two and a half years.

It's now 11.3%. For most of the past year it has been around 12.5%. The last time it was this low was in May 2009.

Last month, the state's unemployment rate was 0.4% higher.

California continues to be the nation's magnet for venture capital, its heritage of innovative change a constant in our new world chaos. As the state's economy slowly turns in the right direction, and policies promoting the new energy economy continue, California stands as a beacon in a darkening global scene.

Which makes getting things like Brown's climate change conference right all the more important.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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