Another Climate Litmus Test

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: climate change, climate policy, climate politics

This one is from the left, and it was laid out last week by Bill McKibben in a Washington Post op-ed, in advance of the climate protests now underway in Washington DC:

The issue is simple: We want the president to block construction of Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico. We have, not surprisingly, concerns about potential spills and environmental degradation from construction of the pipeline. But those tar sands are also the second-largest pool of carbon in the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

But as Bryan Walsh at Time explains today, the issue is not that simple:

Whatever oil we refuse to buy from Canada will likely just be replaced by politically risky crude from the Middle East or Russia or Venezuela—or perhaps, by environmentally riskier developments in the Niger Delta or the Alaskan Arctic. While blocking the Keystone XL pipeline would slow the development of oil sands, it wouldn’t stop it. Oil is a fungible commodity, and if the price goes high enough—and there’s little reason to expect it wouldn’t—eventually Canada would sell that crude elsewhere, perhaps piping it to the west coast and shipping it to a thirsty China, even if that is more expensive and difficult than simple selling it to the U.S.

Walsh is sympathetic to McKibben and the climate protesters, but he also thinks that their stand on the pipeline is too simplistic:

I worry that the oil sands are going to be burned no matter what Obama does, and it’s wrong to make the pipeline a climate red line for Obama.

Anybody want to venture a guess as to which way President Obama will decide?

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17 Responses to “Another Climate Litmus Test”

  1. Bob Koss Says:

    He’ll vote present.

  2. Barry Woods Says:

    In his shoes…  It’s going to be a tough choice..
    If it becomes an economic issue
    (tough choice, but neede to do it to protect the USA economy?)

    chooses Energy security, gets it in the neck from CAGW lobby

    Pipeline goes a different route, oil gets exploited anyway.

  3. cagw_skeptic99 Says:

    On the one hand, the US has the chance to greatly increase our supply of secure fuel for out economy from our friend and ally Canada. Doing so will divert massive amounts of money from Middle Eastern oil kingdoms that fund Islamic terrorist groups (and like Iran are Islamic Terrorist regimes). We greatly decrease our risk of another oil embargo. Money spent on Canadian oil that is refined in the US will be spent in Canada and the US and will benefit our economy, versus money spent in the Middle East that flows to other countries and sometimes to our enemies.

    On the other hand we have a bunch of nut cases blathering on about half baked CO2 will kill us all theories. For more than 20 years these folks have been predicting rising sea levels, increased storms, the end of snow in the winter, and many many other similar predictions that have not come to pass. Many rational people look at warmer temperatures and more CO2 as a major blessing and benefit for the people living in temperate climates. Much of the US and Canada are experiencing longer growing seasons and more crop yields due to the small amount of warming that has occurred during the last 40 years or so.

    This is a really tough decision for those leftists who have never actually been responsible for making meaningful decisions and living with the consequences, which includes essentially all of them. The current President now has three years of experience in living with the consequences of his decisions, and like Jimmy Carter before him, might learn enough in the next ten or twenty years to be qualified for the job he has now.

    Should we opt for energy security and big improvements in our economy, more good jobs, less overseas risks? Or should we opt for the policies of people who would trade all of that in order to cripple our economy and return civilization to subsistence living in a world where we walk to a job if we have one and have electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines.

    Only in the ivory towers of leftist thought can these choices be debated as if they were equally rational paths.

  4. Sashka Says:

    He won’t block it. There would be no upside in it except appeasing the greens but they have nowhere to go anyway.

  5. Jeff Norris Says:

    If by present Mr. Koss means he will  present a hands off approach and direct criticism to the State Dept and other agencies then I agree.  If it polls against him before the election he will then kill it and if he loses the election he may kill it then to protect his legacy.
    Speaking of Litmus tests and political predictions.  How prominent will CC be in the President’s   proposed Jobs Plan? Essentially will he use CC has a justification for the Bank?  Nothing is really out on his Infrastructure Bank but it should be based on the 2007 proposal along with HR 402 which has Carbon reduction and renewables as an eligibility criterion for assistance from the bank. 

  6. Blair Says:

    If it makes anyone feel better a pipeline to Kitimat is already on the books so Americans don’t have to use Canada’s “tar sands” oil and can instead rely on oil from the booming human right’s havens of Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. I’m sure the Nigerians will get right on the carbon reduction bandwagon as soon as they can figure out how to stop folks poking holes in their pipelines to steal fuel and maybe deal with all those hundreds of square kilometers of oil soaked farmlands. 

    Meanwhile the nasty Canadian oil will be shipped to China which isn’t in competition with the USA on any files as far as I can tell.

    The Chinese must be laughing themselves silly watching the Americans ignore their most secure and ethical source of oil.  

  7. grypo Says:

    Not sure if it’s a Litmus test as much as a symbolic gesture for Obama. To understand it fully, you probably need to understand how Hansen is treating the issue.  He already sees the oil in the Middle East as gone (as in it will be burned no matter what) and not under anyone’s control. OTOH, he sees tar sands as the big issue. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.  We need to look for other ways to replace energy with less CO2 intensive alternatives, not use ones that are usually worse.  If the choice is to stand by and let this happen without opposition, or hope, in the least, that tar sand oil is more expensive due to shipping it, the answer is pretty simple.  There’s lots of tar sands waiting to be exploited.  Making it harder to use is not a bad idea.  It’s the same general idea as mountain top removal protests.

  8. lou Says:

    No doubt the pipeline will be approved.  But this does highlight just how compromised, physically and ethically, we are by our dependence on oil. If you do not think we are ethically challenged, then what is with that argument — if we don’t use it someone else will?  If that ain’t a prescription to the road to ruin?  This ain’t just a test for Obama for for all of us.  As chief technocrat, Obama will be ruled by what keeps the gears turning for us all as we play out this river of oil.    

    We will never get serious about reducing our dependency on oil. There ain’t no selecting good from bad sources.  But, environmentally and ecologically the tar sands is about as bad as it gets.  All we see is that shitty price at the gas station.  

    And as for global warming, as the heat rises, as an adaptation, we will open the carbon gates even wider.  That is just the hell of it.  



  9. Jarmo Says:

    2012 being election year, Obama will accept the pipeline.  Greens will at worst abstain from voting. Very few of them would back Romney or Perry. However pissed they are.

    The logic outside AGW cage is hard to argue. The US has lost thousands of lives in WTC, Afganistan and Iraq. Even more have become mental cases. Hundreds of thousands of fighters and “collateral damage” civilians have lost their lives in Asia. The wars have in their part helped to create the budget deficit. All this is connected to dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  

    I sincerely do not envy Obama.  

  10. Mary Mangan Says:

    Yeah, I don’t envy Obama either. But if I was looking at Bill McKibben outside my house, and thinking about what he and his organization did to Sherrod Brown on a completely inane and impotent legislative issue-I wouldn’t trust the McKibben minions to support me in the long run anyway. 

  11. grypo Says:

    I’m also curious as to why Walsh didn’t provide a more complete assessment as to what the project means for tar sands development.  Yes, it will find more routes to western Canada (1 of which is under lots of public opposition), but the route through America to the Gulf is a really big for it’s production.  The longer this project is held off and made more expensive the better.  While this doesn’t mean anything politically to Obama, it means a lot to the Alberta tar sands development, and therefore a lot to the people who know what it means to the people who know what it means for the planet.  How did he get the power to ok this on his own?

  12. Blair Says:

    #11 Grypo:

    You are kidding right? The oil sands (tar sands is the derogatory term) have been and will continue to be developed with or without the Keystone pipeline.  The main reason that the Keystone pipeline was suggested in the first place was the fact that southern US refineries have huge amounts of excess capacity and can handle the load and those refineries are already linked in to the US fuel network. 

    If necessary new facilities and infrastructure can and will be built in Northern Alberta to process the oil sands for export to Asian markets. This will certainly please the Chinese who have already expressed an interest in increased investment in the Oil Sands. Certainly preparing the fuel for the Asian market will be more costly, but given the anticipated price of oil in the foreseeable future it still makes financial sense. The only differencs are that the US loses a reliable source of ethical oil; the southern US refineries end up losing the business; and the Chinese finally eliminate the American stanglehold on oil sands export routes giving the Canadians an alternative market and the ability to increase negotiating power on future oil exports. 

  13. Jeff Norris Says:

    grypo  (11)

    You ask,  
    How did he get the power to ok this on his own?
    Elections have consequences.  :)
    Seriously this is also being fought in State courts and then will be moving on to the Federal Courts.   Both property rights and environmental rights are being brought before the courts so don’t expect the oil to flow or pipeline to be built in the next few years.   The President is not really the final word.

    Sadly in America we are forcing more and more for the Courts to govern us.  If this continues we will have to admit that we prefer to be ruled by an Oligarchy than a representative democracy.

  14. grypo Says:

    Blair, we are essentially saying the same thing framed differently.  I know that production won’t “stop”.  But I do know that production will double upon the project’s completion.  I just think that Walsh should have expanded on this instead of using a focused narrative.  My only point is that for those who worry about the steps we are taking in energy solutions, choking off as much production as possible and making it as expensive as possible are the only options.  The protests and arrests make for good theater, but in the end, as you state, demand will be the important factor.

  15. Blair Says:


    I agree and disagree with you on the topic. While we agree for the most part there is a critical difference. What I have been trying to point out is that right now the US has a virtual monopoly on Canadian oil sales because it has been the easiest, cheapest alternative. Once you open the floodgates to the Asian market then any initial delay in production will be completely drowned out by the Asian exports. If the US wants to limit the use of the oil sands then efforts must be made to monopolize the Canadian oil. If you block exports to the US then the market will necessarily open to Asia because too much capital has already gone into the oil sands development.

  16. Blair Says:

    To follow up on my suggestion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions consider a comparable real world case:  In the early 1980s Canada exported over 95% of its softwood to the US. The US got cocky and started a countervailing process that eventually ended with the Softwood Lumber Agreement. In the years since the US producers gamed the system and made it more and more difficult to sell lumber into the US market (sound a lot like Keystone).  At the time the Canadian producers were lazy and just happy to sell to the US. Since that time continued mistreatment resulted in the Canadian producers actually getting their marketing act in gear and they spent the money to really market to Asia. This year Canadian exports to the Asian market exceeded exports to the US. When the Softwood Lumber Agreement next expires in 2013 the Americans will no longer have the upper hand in the negotiation. They will be competing with the Chinese and Japanese for Canadian lumber and when the American housing market reawakens the US buyers will be competing for the Canadian lumber they took for granted in the 1980s-2000s. For the Canadians the initial cost has been paid and now it is time to reap the profits. Sales are up and they no longer depend solely on the US for their market.

  17. Leo G Says:

    Keith, thought these might interest you;


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