Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Contrarian Post on the Keystone XL Pipeline

I'm going to say some things in this post about the Keystone XL Pipeline that are likely to irritate liberals and conservatives. So let me begin with some premises about what's going on in the world.

1) Global warming is a real threat. Exactly what will happen in the next 100 years is not certain at this time. Maybe global warming won't be so bad. Maybe it will be our worst nightmare. The potential downside, however, is enormous if we do not take steps to control global warming. I'm reminded that we were told by industry experts and hotshot conservatives that nuclear energy poses no significant problems. The accident at Fukushima was supposed to be a once in a thousand year incident. It's rather odd how once in a hundred year events or once in a thousand year events keep happening. The worst case scenarios for global warming are too dangerous not to be taken seriously.

2) The fossil fuels we're using today are not only more expensive, but they are much dirtier and more prevalent than they were sixty years. Even if global warming were not an issue, it is pretentious to think that pollution from fossil fuels is not an issue. The growing acidification of the oceans is a major issue. The sulfurous clouds hanging over Asia are also an issue. These issues concern everyone, particularly the U.S.

3) The exploitation of tar sands, despite many measures taken to address environmental concerns, is proof that we're in trouble if we have to turn to such a dirty and expensive fuel. Light sweet crude is in decline and has been for several years.

4) The oil industry has convinced millions of Americans that global warming is not real, that alternative energy is a job killer and that oil can continue indefinitely to solve our energy needs. All three assertions are lies and are propaganda paid for by the oil industry, with considerable help from the people who control the Republican party.

5) The hour is late. We have put off the inevitable since the 1970s. Given the lateness of the hour, it will take an enormous amount of investment and work to create an economy based on alternative energy. And it will take time. I have seen very little that puts a number on how long it will take to cut our use of fossil fuels worldwide by 50%. Here I do not have the facts, but my guess is that it will take 15-30 years.

6. To power the transition, we will need a strong economy. It very likely will take the burning of more fossil fuels to power the transition to that economy. If we abruptly stop burning fossil fuels, the transition probably will not happen. Of course, as the use of alternative energy goes up, the use of fossil fuels can go down, but the consumption of fossil fuels cannot decline too fast.

7. The use of fossil fuels may possibly drop rapidly due to declining reserves of usable fossil fuels. Though the oil industry is beginning (just barely) to admit that fossil fuels other than coal will soon become much more difficult to bring to market, we again have wasted decades by not turning to alternative fuels sooner.

8. If by chance, or through incompetence of the far right, the economy of the U.S. collapses, or even if it simply declines, it is likely more fossil fuel will go to power the economy of Asian countries. Countries like India and China show no signs that they will be cutting the use of fossil fuels any time soon. The leadership role, by default, goes to the United States. It's true that Europe can be helpful but the continuing monetary crisis in Europe shows how difficult it can be for the Europeans to lead. Keep in mind, however, that over the last thirty years, Europeans have done a much better job than the U.S. of turning to alternative energy. But they are vulnerable to swings in the oil and natural gas markets. Europe has twice the population of the U.S., and if one does not count Russia, their oil reserves are considerably less.

Okay, here it goes.

I have very mixed feeling about the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite everything, we may need it. Republicans have handled our energy problems with such extraordinary incompetence that they have threatened our future.

I find it curious that some proponents and critics of the pipeline say the building of the pipeline won't significantly bring down the price of oil. Actually, the pipeline will bring down the price a small amount—not necessarily something to cheer about. It is politically not feasible, but I believe we need to make sure the price doesn't come down too far. Better yet, we need to slowly raise prices to match the real cost of oil, including clean up and CO2 emissions. We need to stop passing on the real cost of fossil fuels to our children and grandchildren. And Republicans need to stop indulging in the fantasy that some scientist will come up with some magic solution—this is ironic given how little Republicans have faith in science and how little they are willing to pay for major buildup in research. Right wingers cannot keep cutting the budget for science while expecting miracles.

Republicans have been bad-mouthing Detroit for almost four years, but Detroit is actually moving more and more toward efficient cars. What Republicans fail to understand is that Americans need both jobs and more efficient cars and transportation (don't anyone pretend that the pipeline will create a huge number of jobs; they will create some, but that's all). That the current Republican leadership would let Detroit go under says a great deal about the incompetence of Tea Party Republicans and other right wingers.

It is ridiculous, as some 'experts' have argued, that the building of the pipeline will make us dependent on Canada. Oil from Canada is a far safer bet than depending on keeping the Straits of Hormuz open. Yes, our navy can keep the straits open and probably will have to continue to do so. But having a secure supply of oil should not be discounted. There are going to be energy disruptions in the next twenty years. I despise the tar sands, but we may need those reserves to fuel the transition.

Now I'm going to really be contradictory. To a large extent, I support the protests against the pipeline. It is disgusting that we are relying on tar sands and talking as if oil is forever and that global warming is of no concern. The protests are a sign that Americans are at last waking up to concerns about our future. The obstructionism and incompetence of Republicans will continue for some time to come until somebody starts rebuilding the party on more pragmatic lines. In the meantime, I would like to see the protests geared more towards actually getting more green energy projects installed. But no one should pretend that we can quickly go without oil.

In some respects, I find it more urgent to start going after coal. Coal is tar sands in its worst form. If Congress had any sense, no more coal plants would be built. Again, it will take time to transition, but coal plants that go offline should not be replaced. This is where green organizations should be focusing. Not just closing coal plants, but replacing them with green energy. The money is potentially there. If progressives can raise money for political causes, they can raise money to build windmills, solar roofs and other forms of alternative energy.

UPDATE:    Jan. 21, 2014

It's two years later and much has change. The only thing useful about the tar sands is that it's proof that the fossil industries are dying. The energy return on the tar sands is criminal. Why? A high energy return on fossil fuels generates wealth for society as a whole. A very low energy return, as is the case with tar sands, only helps the very rich.

The other problem is that fracking is a bubble, nothing more. One can already see major problems in North Dakota. Production will continue to climb, in some months, but the number of months when production actually falls is continuing. North Dakota is simply running into a wall. Every land owner receiving money from the oil companies should look seriously into wind turbines and the necessary power lines to send electricity to out of state markets.

Secretary of State John Kerry should not approve the pipeline. That pipeline is not in the interest of our future.

President Obama should be doing as much as he can to get alternative energy moving along as quickly as possible. Prices in alternative energy are falling. As they continue to fall, alternative energy is America's best hope for an energy future and a healthy economy.

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Blogger skudrunner said...

Global warming is still a theory with no proof. From the standpoint of the enviroquacks, it is real, from the standpoint of reputable scientists, it is questionable.

Twelve of the last 20 years we have had a democrat president and not established an energy policy so the fault is on all sides.

There are thousands of miles of pipeline running through the aquifer for the last several decades without concern. The pipeline industry has said the will do a re-route but the current administration is bowing to the environmental groups so he doesn't lose their votes. The American people pay at the pump doesn't matter, it is all about votes.

Alternate fuel sources are available now. CNG and LNG we have an abundance of but the government would rather throw money at solar and wind companies that are decades away from having a viable product but their votes and campaign contributions can be bought now.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Ben Jones - Data Centre Design said...

In the UK we pay a "green tax" on many items where the government considers that the item is damaging the environment. Do you think they are doing this to save the environment or as a great way to raise more taxes?

4:29 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

I'm not sure what I should do about people who use terms like 'environquacks.'

Should I simply call them 'dinoquacks' or educate them or merely delete them?

7:00 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Update: June 23, 2014

It's more than two years later. Alternative energy is now growing at 25% a year.

At this point, I oppose the XL pipeline. It is unnecessary for our transition to alternative energy.

Many fossil fuel investors are trying to buy Congress but the fossil fuel age is over. Oil and natural gas will be around to some degree for another 30 years. In twenty years, the world needs to reach 50% energy. More would be better. And sooner would be better. Sometime in the next few months, new measurements will tell us how fast we need to switch to alternative energy, though ASAP should be the general rule.

11:10 PM  

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