The Climate Story You Don’t Hear About

So while American politicians and environmentalists slug it out over a proposed pipeline, China is stocking its rainy day shale and oil sands fund. Let’s start with the recent news out of Canada:

China will take over full ownership over a Canadian oil sands project for the first time after Athabasca Oil Sands Corp announced Tuesday it sold the remaining 40 percent of the MacKay River oil sands development to PetroChina for US $673 million.

The deal continues a trend that has seen China’s state-owned oil companies invest billions of dollars in exploration or production ventures in Canada, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Elsewhere is another way of saying the United States, as this other bit of news suggests:

Showing that it isn’t worried about the upswell of angst over hydraulic fracking technology, the Chinese government, through state-controlled Sinopec, today struck a deal with Devon Energy to buy into five prospective new exploration areas in the U.S.

The deal, which includes $900 million in cash upfront and a promise of $1.6 billion in the years ahead to cover drilling and development, gives the Chinese a 33% stake in five of Devon’s fields, and a front row seat to what is effectively the second wave of development of U.S. shale assets. The areas in question include the Tuscaloosa in Louisiana, the Niobrara in Colorado, the Mississippian in Devon’s home state of Oklahoma, the Utica in Ohio and the Michigan basin.

The second wave? Does that mean it washes over us irrespective of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline? Has anybody told environmentalists this? And what about climate activists? Who worries you more at this point: Mitt Romney or China? Oh, Never mind.

Back to that second wave, and how it’s being funded from Chinese cash, see this 2011 must-read from Jonathan Thompson. He writes that, over the last decade,

China has emerged as one of our biggest customers; U.S. exports to China have increased 460 percent since 2000. Compared to British, Canadian or Australian multinational corporations, Asian companies still have a minuscule investment in Western resources. But over the last year, as much of Asia scrambles out of the global recession unscathed and the U.S. continues to wallow, Chinese, Indian and even former Soviet-bloc companies have bought into American oil and gas fields, molybdenum mines and more.

The story of fossil fuels as a much sought after global commodity is the big climate story that climate-concerned activists and bloggers willfully ignore.

Category: China, climate change, Energy

What Now?

Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration to postpone a final decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 20012 Presidential has triggered much chatter and insta-analysis. There are two smart takes worth pointing out. The first is this NYT op-ed by Michael Levi, a climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which I summarized in this tweet:

 @levi_m has Fri op-ed that argues anti-keystone victory is triumph of BANANA, and bodes ill for U.S. clean energy econ.

BANANA, for those of you not familiar with the acronym, means “Build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything.”

While I understand the larger aims of the McKibben-led pipeline protest, I am in agreement with Levi that green NIMBYism represents a real threat to long-term clean energy and climate goals. I’ve previously made that argument here. As Levi notes in his piece:

The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.

The success of the anti-Keystone coalition may well trigger the law of unintended consequences, Levi cautions:

…oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.

The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.

He concludes:

Energy experts often note that it would be impossible to recreate today’s energy infrastructure, given the intensity of opposition to pretty much any new development. The environmentalists’ victory against Keystone XL will only reinforce that judgment. But realizing their broader vision — a low-carbon economy that enhances the nation’s security and helps avoid dangerous climate change — will require defeating the same sort of local opposition that they have just embraced.

Now on to Bryan Walsh’s article in Time, which astutely observes:

Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention—and fear—on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good

But Keystone may have been a special case—and a throwback. The local concerns in Nebraska had less to do with the climate risks of oil sands crude than fear of a pipeline spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That’s a real concern—but it’s local, not the same as the global nature of the climate threat. As veterans of the environmental movement know, it’s a lot easier to get people motivated to stop development than it is to organize them to push for something new. And sometimes that anti-development feeling can backfire as well—look at some of the resistance to new wind turbines, solar projects and power lines that could connect to renewable sources.

So what comes next for McKibben and company? Walsh offers this advice:

If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy, spending more government money on energy research and development and passing climate legislation. This is hardly a secret—there were protests and campaigns for the climate bill in 2009 and 2010, and McKibben’s own campaign is about a lot more than just stopping fossil fuel development. But I’ve rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates that I’ve seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example. Protests and passion may have helped stop the Keystone pipeline, but will it be enough to build a new energy economy?

Good question. I think the answer will start to emerge by the time the final decision on the pipeline is made soon after the 2012 Presidential election.

Category: climate change, climate politics, Energy, Keystone pipeline

The Big Picture

Michael Levi, a climate and energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, shoots down Joe Romm and Real Climate in one post. I sense that it pains him to do this, especially with regard to the latter. More on that in a minute.

First, I want to point out that Levi’s argument about the Canadian oil sands oil issue and the proposed pipeline make perfect sense.  But there’s a reason why a main theme of the original Star Trek series was the tension between Dr. Spock’s clinical logic and Captain Kirk’s emotionally charged nature. These two essential human characteristics were brilliantly juxtaposed in every episode.

So I find it ironic that Levi titles his post, “Missing the Big Picture on Keystone XL,” because both he and the pipeline protesters are talking about two different big pictures. Yes, Levi is right that blocking the pipeline doesn’t change the demand equation of this problem. But Bill McKibben is a smart person. He recognizes that political action on global warming is severely constrained by the U.S. political landscape and the global dynamics of energy demand (Levi’s Big Picture).

McKibben also knows that the complexity of climate change offers few tangible symbols. So the Keystone pipeline has become an effective rallying point, with serendipitous tail winds coming from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Keystone is now representative of McKibben’s Big Picture-which is about spotlighting the urgency of climate change and the need for action.

Levi seems not to grasp this, because he writes (my emphasis):

I’ve clearly failed in my previously stated goal of largely avoiding the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has somehow become one of the biggest energy issues in the United States.

It’s not an energy issue. It’s about climate change. And it has “somehow” become a focal point precisely because climate activists have nothing else to rally around. They are desperate. U.S. climate legislation has failed. Global climate treaty negotiations are Kabuki theater. President Obama is ramping up domestic drilling and Republicans spit when they mention climate change.

Yet Levi wants McKibben and his fellow pipeline protesters to understand that what they are doing does not make logical sense:

What is it about Keystone XL that will cement our oil addiction that nearly ten million barrels a day (and rising) of U.S. domestic production won’t? How will Keystone XL qualitatively alter U.S. dependence on the oil sands when other pipelines are already importing crude from there?

To McKibben and the protesters, though, that is irrelevant. Which perplexes Levi. As Spock has said:

Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.

Indeed. McKibben might respond that using cold logic to tackle climate change at this juncture is useless. Additionally, countries are behaving rationally by putting their self-interest ahead of the planet’s. So, as Spock might also say, an appeal to something other than reason (such as emotion) makes total sense.


Finally, Levi slaps down Real Climate here:

A few people have asked me whether I plan to respond to the anti-Keystone post that went up at RealClimate last Friday. I probably won’t. The post is a mix of correct arithmetic concerning oil sands emissions and some pretty awful economic and political analysis. The bad economics assumes that Canadian production won’t affect what happens elsewhere in the world; the bad political science implies that the Keystone XL decision will determine what happens to the oil sands over the next thousand or so years. None of that has any support in reality, but adopting it makes the careful arithmetic irrelevant. I’ve gone through these arguments before, and don’t see much value in going through them again. I’m a bit worried, though, that by straying from good climate science into bad economics and politics, RealClimate – which I normally love – will hurt its brand and credibility.

Now that’s what I call tough love.

Category: climate change, climate policy, climate politics, climate science, Energy, oil sands

The Gap Between Climate & Energy Reality

I imagine that some folks in the climate policy and politics arena have been growling at this essay in Nature by Jane C. S. Long. Why would that be? Let’s just say that some advocates for climate reality have a little problem with energy reality.

And some of them are probably howling at Andy Revkin for his follow-on interview with Long. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: If the need for breakthroughs is so clear cut, do you foresee any path — particularly in an era of prolonged economic uncertainty — to building political and social support for the kind of sustained “energy quest” (my term) that would be required to have a chance of making leaps instead of tweaks?

A: Interestingly, your term energy “quest” was used by Dan Yergin in his new book, which in 800 pages (!) largely seems to agree with our estimate of what the “quest” is. And I, ironically, have been saying that emission-free fuel which is not based on biomass is the new “prize.”

I think the world is looking at Germany. They have taken the “common wisdom” renewables approach, which we think may be really a difficult path, but they are very committed to making it work. It probably can work up to a point, and the question is will they do the ancillary work (i.e., make load balancing work without emissions or leakage) to result in a reliable, truly emission-free electricity system. And the question is how much will it cost them to do it this way? They will still have the fuel problem. They have at least tried to prevent their low-carbon fuel standards from impacting food supply. I think its a good bet there won’t be enough biomass for their needs. So watching Germany will be one factor societal learning.

If I knew the answer to your question, though, I would be shouting it from the mountaintops. One idea is that now is the time for philanthropy to kick in big-time. Our government is clearly broken on this issue. Members of the administration have said that they can’t even go on the Hill and say the word climate anymore I think there are foundations out there that have been spending a lot of money on trying to get a climate agreement and not getting progress. Perhaps instead of pushing for an agreement which is hard because we really don’t how to implement the required changes, they might turn their attention to more strategic elements of the energy system itself so the world has options.

The only other answer I can think of, is to help enable people to be better citizens through simple clarity, accuracy and honesty in describing what the energy system is all about and what is required to change it.


The whole exchange at Dot Earth, which also includes input from other energy experts, is well worth the read.

Category: climate change, Energy

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

I’d say this qualifies for President Obama.

Category: Energy, energy policy, politics

Give up Gadgets and Big Screen TVs? Get Real.

 According to the Guardian, a UK report finds that

despite householders’ efforts to switch to energy-efficient products, we are actually consuming more energy than five years ago, with almost a third of all the UK’s carbon emissions coming from the home.

Hmm, where have I heard about this phenomena before?

As highlighted in the Guardian’s subhead, the UK organization that conducted the study seems to suggest this solution:

…consumers must be weaned off TVs, laptops, tablet PCs and fridges if emission targets are to be met.

Good luck with that.

Category: climate change, Energy

A Race With No End in Sight

I’m not sure what to make of this story in Foreign Policy. It seems like a textbook case of China’s nationalist capitalism trumping U.S. security interests. On the other hand, the writers of the piece might have a bad case of sour grapes (but they are upfront about their advisory role to a Western oil & gas firm that got outbid by the Chinese).

In related news, Steve LeVine informs us that

The great Arctic oil race is under way.

Yes, it is.

Category: Energy, energy security

Bridge Fuel, My Arse

That’s my translation of Monbiot’s position on the huge gas reserves recently discovered in the UK. Today, in a follow-up post, he writes that

any shale gas finds raise our exploitable reserves of fossil fuels, just as we should be reducing them. The world’s minerals companies have already found far greater reserves than we can afford to burn without triggering climate breakdown. What is the point of prospecting for new supplies?

I thought the point (speaking only of natural gas) was make coal go extinct and buy time for renewables to scale up and new generation nuclear to come on line?

Category: Energy, shale gas

A Silver Bullet?

I can’t remember the last time I stood in a room full of people concerned about climate change that was so full of optimism.

That would be the launch party of a new foundation devoted to promoting the advancement of thorium. Why would we want that?

The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel.

So, with prospects for a global climate treaty all but dead (for the foreseeable future), which has a better chance of succeeding first: a thorium breakthrough or a true scale-up of renewables that can meet our voracious energy needs?

Category: climate change, Energy, renewable energy

The Climate Easter Bunny Fable

Here’s some straight talk on climate politics:

A facile explanation would focus on the ‘merchants of doubt’ who have managed to confuse the public about the reality of human-made climate change.  The merchants play a role, to be sure, a sordid one, but they are not the main obstacle to solution of human-made climate change.

The bigger problem is that people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work.  This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

And from the same essay, some straight talk on energy:

Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future?  It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway.  But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of ‘policy’ thinking of many liberal politicians.  Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. – maybe even a tar sands pipeline.  Why the inconsistency?

Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan.  They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics.  They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels.

Partisans in the climate concerned community are quick to badmouth or dismiss alternative policy prescriptions that-even if you disagree with these alternative options-are at least honest about the scale of the energy challenge and the geopolitical realities.

In his essay, James Hansen proposes a different path than these guys, but he and they are advancing their respective arguments based on the world as it exists, not on Easter bunny fables.

H/T: Andy Revkin

Category: climate change, Energy, energy policy, renewable energy