If you want to construct a simple, suitable-for-casual-conversation argument in favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline, you probably already know everything you need. The ideas are easy to grasp, and the people who want you to construct such arguments have a lot money to get their message out. Here are the pieces:
- The oil sands are just sitting up there in Canada. BP says: “The province of Alberta contains recoverable oil sands reserves of approximately 170 billion barrels, the third largest reserves in the world.”
- Giving our oil money to Canada makes a lot more sense than giving it to Saudi Arabia or Iran or Venezuela. For a lot of reasons: Of all the people in the world, Canadians are the ones most likely to send that dollar right back to us by buying something we make or coming here on vacation. They’re also probably not going to use the money to fund terrorism or anti-American propaganda. And we don’t have to worry much about them shutting the oil off to manipulate us or punish us politically.
- Building the pipeline would employ a lot of people. Paul Ryan’s budget claims (page 48) “20,000 direct jobs and 118,000 indirect jobs.” But the construction-job figure appears to be inflated by a factor of about 10, and the “indirect jobs” are just wild guess.
Probably you know that the case against the pipeline has something to do with global warming, but unless you’ve gone out of your way to study the issue, the pieces of that argument don’t come quickly to mind and aren’t as easy to assemble. It’s not actually a difficult argument, it just doesn’t have as much money behind it, so you don’t have it constantly in front of you.
So let’s start at the beginning.
Global warming is real. It’s not “controversial” or “disputed” in any genuine scientific sense. People who profit from selling fossil fuels have spent a lot of money to buy political controversy and to dispute the scientific results in the media, but that’s different from there being any real scientific controversy about whether the planet is getting hotter, whether greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing it, or whether burning fossil fuels puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Our solar system already gives us a clear example of a runaway greenhouse effect: Venus, which otherwise is the planet that most resembles Earth. The atmosphere of Venus is 96% carbon dioxide, and its surface temperature is over 800 degrees Fahrenheit — even hotter than the hottest parts of Mercury, which is much closer to the Sun. Nobody’s saying that lead is going to start boiling here on Earth, but the greenhouse effect is not some speculation out of science fiction. It’s happening on the next planet over.
There’s a time lag between putting more carbon in the atmosphere and the Earth getting hotter. It’s not like the thermostat on your furnace. (It’s more like putting on a sweater that you can’t take off.) So we can’t wait until apocalyptic things start happening and then say, “Damn. I guess we better do something about this.” If tomorrow, we stopped burning fossil fuels completely — not that anybody expects that to happen — the planet would keep getting hotter for the next several decades.
Estimating how much carbon results in how many degrees warmer how fast is where the science gets iffier. (This is where there is honest debate and more research is needed. Of course, the fossil-fuel people and their minions want to cut off this research, so they can keep exploiting the uncertainty.) In general, though, this graphic sums the best guesses we have:
So, for example, carbon already released (say, by that driving vacation you took ten years ago) is going to increase the global temperature by 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. A carbon budget that would keep further warming down to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) beyond that is already starting to look impossible.
And this is the mainline scenario, not the worst case. Short of Venus, it’s hard to know what the worst case is, because we could at some point set off some feedback loop we currently know nothing about. At some point, for example, the methane frozen into the Siberian permafrost starts to evaporate into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, so after that the hotter it gets the hotter it gets.
If we don’t want to have an ecological catastrophe, a lot of fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. Nobody wants to hear this, and people who hear it have a way of forgetting. But take another look at that graphic: Just burning the gas, oil, and coal that corporations already list on their books will take us to a point about 12 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than we are now. That’s about the difference between Chicago and Atlanta, or Atlanta and Baghdad. The entire state of Florida would need a serious seawall, and hurricanes would hit New York or Boston every few years. I’m not sure what happens to the cornfields of Iowa or the vineyards of California, but I bet it’s not pretty.
The drill-baby-drill scenario, where we find every last hydrocarbon on the planet and burn it, is much, much worse.
If you’re going to leave any oil in the ground, the Canadian oil sands are a good choice. While not as bad as coal for generating energy in general, oil sand is a carbon-intensive way to produce liquid fuels like gasoline. There’s some debate about how much worse than ordinary crude oil it is, with estimates running from 12% worse to 22% worse. Another way to look at that: If carbon is the limiting factor on how much gasoline the world can have, producing five gallons of gas from oil sands might prevent us from producing six gallons from crude oil somewhere else.
Also, the sands are in the early stages of development; leaving them in the ground is a much easier decision now that it will be after we’ve spent a bunch of money to build a pipeline and install other infrastructure. And they’re in a rich country. (Imagine telling a poor country that its people will have to starve rather than develop known energy resources.)
What’s Plan B? Pipeline advocates want to take that argument off the table by saying that the oil sands are going to be developed anyway. At its worst, this is a defeatist the-planet-is-already-hosed-so-we-might-as-well-live-it-up-now argument.
But even ignoring that, the argument is disingenuous. The point of building the pipeline is that it makes developing the oil sands more economical. No energy deposit gets completely exploited — there’s always some oil at the bottom of the well that is recoverable, but only at a higher price. So building the pipeline clearly changes how much of the oil sand will be exploited.
And finally, the economic projections are based on a world that has no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, which is another way of saying that we’re acting as if changing the climate had no cost.
But if the Canadian oil sands are going to be burned in their entirety (or close to it), what is going to be left in the ground? And if the answer is nothing, then what’s the plan for mitigating the damage? What’s the plan for relocating all the Bangladeshis when that country is underwater? How high does the seawall around Florida have to be? What’s the food-supply plan when Iowa turns into a desert and the ocean is too acidic to support fish?
Pipeline advocates would have you believe that the opponents are being impractical, that even if you believe in climate change (i.e., if you believe in science), this is not the place to take a stand.
So: where is the place to take a stand? And will it still be above sea level when we get there?