Recently, Sen. Lisa Murkowski ran an op-ed on “Why Alaskans should care about Keystone XL pipeline.” I agree with Murkowski that Alaskans should care about the Keystone pipeline, but for entirely different reasons. I aim to be equally straightforward on the other side.
First, I must draw your attention to the elephant in the room. The Keystone XL pipeline is more than an oil and national security issue, it’s the biggest climate change issue before all of us as Alaskans, and as Americans. Why? Because oil from tar sands is a new breed of fuel producing three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Secondly, the Alberta tar sands are absolutely huge — on scale with Saudia Arabia — and represent the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
Burning up Saudi Arabia, a slightly bigger field, is the reason the Earth’s temperature is already a degree higher from pre-industrial levels. One degree might not sound like much, but the international community recognizes if we have any chance at all to avert the worst of climate calamity we must contain global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Fully exploiting the vast Alberta tar sands oil would be throwing fuel instead of water on an already simmering fire. With atmospheric carbon dioxide currently at 392 parts per million, well above the 350 ppm scientists say is the maximum safe level, we can ill afford to burn such heavy, carbon-laden oil. This is why one of the most respected and outspoken climatogists in the world, James Hansen, equates opening up the entire tar sands as “essentially game over” for the climate.
Stopping the pipeline by itself will not prevent climate change; but opening the pipeline and burning this high-pollution fuel is clearly moving in the wrong direction. Sadly, the United States has not passed any climate legislation, signed treaties, or joined other countries in the world in taking responsibility for our status as the world’s second largest (China recently nudged ahead of us) producer of greenhouse gases. Evaluating the Keystone Pipeline in the context of climate is the least we can do.
While the Obama administration has yet to approve the Keystone pipeline, neither have they publicly acknowledged any concern over what the project means in terms of climate policy. This too is a function of election year politics. No one has the courage to face this issue honestly, fearing that they will be portrayed as ‘doom and gloom’ naysayers during a ‘jobs and the economy’ election cycle. I get all this. I also get that from the immediate national security perspective it’s far more preferable to buy oil from our neighbor instead of elsewhere in a troubled world.
But the costs of accelerated climate change are huge and here too there are national security risks of global instability due to droughts, pandemics, violent storms and mass migration. Just think about the 14 “billion dollar” extreme weather events of 2011 — Hurricane Irene, tornadoes in the Lower 48’s Southeast etc. – and you get a sense of why it might be in the public interest to view the Keystone XL in the context of climate change. What does our response on the Keystone XL pipeline portend for how we as a nation intend to deal with the climate risks of a growing dependence on unconventional oils, like the tar sands? Since we can’t seem to address these matters during the heat of the election season, it seems most prudent to evaluate them carefully immediately after the election.
Murkowski mentions the possibility that if the State Department permit is denied, Canada will likely sell their tar sand oil to Asian markets, including China. While this may be true, Murkowski fails to mention that the western pipeline route to ports in British Columbia crosses First Nations lands and is already a contentious issue with Native communities. In other words, re-routing Canadian oil to China is no slam dunk and presents another whole set of hurdles.
I realize that to the vast majority of Americans who accept the reality of climate change, it may seem dramatic or a bit extreme to link the Keystone pipeline to such a critical juncture of our climate and energy policy, but in the context of “game over” as noted by Hansen, I believe this truly is an important choice between two futures, one in which we work toward dealing with climate change, and one in which we turn toward sticking our heads in the tar sands. I recognize that we still need oil and will for the foreseeable future, but where’s the plan to wean ourselves off our unsustainable habit? Where’s the plan to lessen our dependence on oil from tar sands? Can we not pause, post-election, and consider all the implications and options? The short-term boost of 6,000 (State Department estimate of US jobs from pipeline construction and operation) additional jobs to our struggling economy may seem important to some, but it pales in comparison to the long term implications of fueling our appetite for such carbon-laden oil and fully exploiting the highly toxic Alberta tar sands. We should take the time to really examine the Keystone project and all that it portends for our children’s’ future. This is why Alaskans should care about the Keystone XL.
• Troll is a longtime Alaska resident and resides in Douglas.