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By Robert Rapier on Mar 26, 2013 with 30 responses

Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns

I started to go with “Fiddling While Rome Burns” in the title, but I know many people who would take great exception to the notion that the Keystone XL protesters are fiddling. Indeed, they do not believe they are fiddling. They believe they are standing up for the most important cause of our generation. Yet, as I argue in this column, the fire in Rome is burning faster than ever. Except in this case, Rome is China and what they are burning is coal.

In my most recent column – Why Environmentalists are Wrong on Keystone XL – I argued that the level of attention environmentalists are devoting to stopping the Keystone XL pipeline expansion is grossly disproportionate to the impact that the project can possibly have. I provided some numbers to support my argument, and observed that those opposing the pipeline are generally making emotional arguments.

As if to emphasize that point, the comments and emails that I got from people who were unhappy with my article were almost exclusively emotional in nature. Comments like “this post is dumb” and “we have to stop the dirtiest, filthiest oil on the planet” were typical. But nobody challenged the numbers.

People extrapolated a lot — “well, maybe this alone won’t amount to much, but add it all up and it will amount to a lot.” Or they viewed these protests with the expectation that they will snowball into something of great significance: “this is the beginning of a revolution, much like when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus.” And how dare I speak out against Rosa Parks? Racist!

The Downside

But really, what is the harm? If the protesters succeed in stopping Keystone XL, and that ultimately makes no measurable impact on climate change — why should I care if they are wasting their time? Well, what if we really can’t afford to waste any time?

There are two issues that I think are relevant. The first is that putting so much energy and effort into this particular problem takes focus away from a much larger problem. Here is the way I think of it. Let’s say I go to the doctor with two problems — an infected toe and a growing brain tumor. The doctor and I spend our allotted time together on the most obvious problem, which is my throbbing toe. But that isn’t the most serious problem, it is just the one that is screaming for attention. Meanwhile, the tumor continues to grow.

Now it is true that the toe could get worse, and we could argue that just possibly it might cause greater harm down the road. We might also argue that some of what we are doing to treat the toe might spill over and help the tumor. Somehow. But the thing is, the tumor needs my immediate, undivided attention or it is going to kill me. And the time and attention I spend on the toe is time and attention I am not spending on the tumor. That tumor is growing day by day.

Here is the tumor:


Asia Pacific is on a trajectory for 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2020

Carbon dioxide emissions in the Asia Pacific region are already more than 50% greater than those in the US and EU combined. But of even greater significance is that per capita energy consumption is very low (they just have lots of people) and as the graphic shows their emissions are growing rapidly as these areas industrialize.

But it isn’t just Asia Pacific. While they do have the lion’s share of global carbon dioxide emissions, every developing region in the world increased their carbon emissions by double digits over the past decade — in spite of oil prices that increased by nearly an order of magnitude.

Carbon dioxide emissions are growing rapidly in developing regions.

It is true that the US is responsible for the largest share of the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Regardless, this problem can’t be solved by the US unless we invent an efficient way to pull carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere. (Plant a trillion trees, maybe?) On the current trajectory with developing countries, the US could vanish and it wouldn’t make much of a dent in global carbon dioxide emissions.

The Coal Eaters

To illustrate the point, consider this. If US carbon dioxide emissions immediately dropped to zero, then global emission levels would still be at the level they were in 2004. Further, since US carbon dioxide emissions have been declining — partially offsetting the gains from developing countries — removing the US from the global picture would make the global rate of acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions even greater than it is today.

In the year and a half that Keystone XL protesters have been trying to stop this 700,000 bbl/day pipeline, Asia Pacific’s oil consumption has gone up by more than a million barrels per day. And oil isn’t even the biggest concern there — it is coal. Asia Pacific consumes nearly 70% of the world’s coal, and that number has been growing rapidly as countries in the region industrialize. That is the brain tumor — the problem that requires immediate, undivided attention. The Keystone XL pipeline is the sore toe that is consuming time and energy while the tumor grows.

Alternative: Oil-by-Rail

I said there were two issues. Here is the other. There have been some passionate defenses of the Keystone XL pipeline protesters, in some cases from people who acknowledge most of the above. What I have yet to see from the protesters or their defenders is recognition of the risk that they may be making the situation even worse. If Keystone XL is stopped but the demand for petroleum remains, then the oil is going to find its way to market via more inefficient means of transport. This is where I run into a brick wall when talking to pipeline opponents. They will insist that rail can’t scale up to take away Keystone-like volumes of oil — and yet the railroads are already doing just that. We don’t have to speculate whether it can be done. It is being done.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.B) owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which already carries a third of the oil from the Bakken shale formation (primarily in North Dakota). Last year the company indicated that the railroad was prepared to haul oil from the oil sands of Alberta if the Keystone XL is rejected. BNSF has seen shipments of oil grow from almost nothing five years ago to 500,000 bpd today. They envision growing this business to 1 million bpd — which is already the amount of oil that is being shipped by all the North American railroads.

Yet it is more than three times as carbon intensive to ship oil by rail than by pipeline. The rate of accidents by rail is also far higher than by pipeline. So while the protesters assume that if they shut down the pipeline the oil won’t be produced (or at least development will be slowed), the reality may be increased carbon emissions and decreased safety. That is why I argue that the best target to go after is reducing petroleum demand, not restricting supply. The railroads are showing exactly what happens when a mode of supply is restricted, but the demand remains.

Conclusion: Refocus on the Real Problem

In conclusion, while I can appreciate that the protesters are passionate about their cause, I still believe that this particular cause is a distraction that could simply make matters worse. Years down the road, you won’t see any measurable impact on global carbon emissions from Keystone — whether or not it’s built. The impact is simply too small relative to much, much larger sources of emissions. I view the Keystone protests as like trying to lower the level of the ocean by gathering a bunch of people at the beach and having them scoop out water with buckets.

One very reasonable reply to my argument has been “OK, so if you think the protesters are wasting their time, suggest something better.” I have struggled with this question for years. The real problem today and in the years ahead is going to be from developing countries, but what do you do about that? Somehow prevent them from developing? Of course an obvious answer would be for them to develop without the benefit of fossil fuels. But no country has yet shown how to do that. Nobody can show them that it can be done given the reality of economic and political constraints. Nuclear power can help, but most of the people protesting Keystone would also protest nuclear power.

There are no easy answers here, which is why the global atmospheric carbon dioxide inventory continues to climb. If there was anything I could say to the protest organizers, it would be to take the passion of the protesters and redirect it toward the bigger problem. How to do that? I am open to suggestions on that one. But the clock is ticking, and the tumor is growing.

Link to Original Article: Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns

By Robert Rapier

  1. By TimC on March 26, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Skyrocketing coal demand in the Asia-Pacific region is not just for power generation. China’s rapidly expanding coal-to-methanol industry is expected to exacerbate regional water shortages and destabilize global coal prices while increasing net carbon emissions*. Methanol, DME, acetic acid, and formaldehyde from coal are building block chemicals that China expects to use as the basis of a fuels and chemicals industry that will meet their growing domestic demand, while also competing in export markets against increasingly costly petroleum-based products. Within China, methanol is blended into gasoline, and DME into LPG, often illegally, helping to mitigate liquid fuel shortages. China has capped 2015 methanol production at 50 million tonnes, but the cap is not legally binding.

    This will not just matter in Asia. Yang and Jackson conclude, “China’s Methanol Economy is too big to ignore… In light of recent developments in China, US policy researchers may re-examine the US experience and consider how China’s growing methanol economy could affect coal and other raw material prices and whether methanol fuels might make a comeback in the United States.”

    *China’s growing methanol economy and its implications for energy and the environment,
    Chi-Jen Yang and Robert B.Jackson, Energy Policy 41 (2012) 878-884.

  2. By art esian on March 26, 2013 at 11:24 am

    The carbon ‘footprint’ of the oil sands is 4% of canada’s 2% of the global 2% that is industrial. So that would be 0.04 x 0.02 x 0.02 = 0.000016% of the global input or 0.000016% of 390 parts per million. That is a meaningless 6 part per billion. The total land are is 0.07% of Alberta (7/10,000) The impact is negligible and remediation is ongoing so that there will be an equilibrium biased toward clean sand under the boreal forest over the next 100 years.

  3. By Andrew Lundell on March 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I oppose keytstone (and northern gateway, kinder morgan expansion, eastern pipeline, etc).. I live near the tar sands and i oppose any expansion of this disaster. The tailings ponds are leaking into the ground water, the habitat for caribou and many other species are being destroyed, the toxins in the water are making people sick, the toxins are accumulating in lakes all around the region. Toxins in the air are causing people to flee their homes near tar sands facilities The only reason to construct new pipelines is to expand the production of tar sands at least three fold in the next decade. I oppose the KXL and all other pipelines from the tar sands based on these facts. The only reason not to get emotional about these issues if is you are dead…

    • By Robert Rapier on March 26, 2013 at 2:53 pm


      There are certainly other reasons for opposing tar sands development. I have not addressed those at all. My essay here is merely directed at those who think this is an important climate change fight. In my view, it is not.

      As far as the environmental impact of tar sands, all I can say is that the Canadian government has to make sure the environment is protected. There is never a free lunch when it comes to energy, but we certainly can’t sacrifice water quality for energy. I can’t personally speak to the environmental impacts in Alberta; all I have are 2nd hand accounts on both sides.


      • By Andrew Lundell on March 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm


        Even if we just consider the climate change argument i think the proponents of keystone xl are not responding to real thrust of the argument that environmentalists are making. The way i understand the argument is that investing in major fossil fuel projects at this time (regardless of the global warming impact of any individual project) is going to bind us to a fossil fuel economy for most of this century. Yes, the elephant in the room is the developing economies – yet both china and india are doing way more to invest in clean energy than Canada is. Canada seems to symbolize the folly of doubling down on the destructive sources energy that we all know have to be phased out sooner rather than later. History tells us this is a very bad idea… i.e., Easter Islanders cutting down all the trees to build statues they think will save them from the consequences of cutting down all the trees to build statues.

        • By arrow2010 on March 26, 2013 at 4:23 pm

          The point is if the left argued on the basis of protecting clean water, they’d get far more support. What alternative is there to fossil fuel energy for baseload generation?

          • By Jesse Huebsch on March 26, 2013 at 6:40 pm

            Nuclear. Pick one of coal or nuclear. If you don’t pick someone will pick for you. Niether is not an option.

          • By Andrew Lundell on March 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

            The battle over northern gateway pipeline is about protecting clean water. The canadian government labels people fighting this pipeline as radicals.

            The alternative to fossil fuels for base load are a diverse mix of renewables combined with more efficient use of energy. A decreasing reliance on fossil fuels will also be part of this mix.

      • By CarbonBridge on March 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm

        —The Keystone XL pipeline is the sore toe that is consuming time and energy while the tumor grows.—

        Kudos for this thoughtful column RR, – a very touchy subject without a lot of easy answers. I could bring up complete/slagging gasification of same Tar Sands once again – and outputting a biodegradable, more profitable liquid fuel instead of bitumen source separated by steam. But who believes such nonsense? Chicken and egg in order to simply demonstrate.

        The Tumor of CO2 emissions in Asia is real. So is this present winter’s smog in Chinese big cities. I enjoy learning anything new from posters concerning methanol use in petroleum-derived hydrocarbon fuels over there.

    • By Optimist on March 26, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      Admire your patience and persistence, RR.
      As this post shows, those who are emotionally involved won’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
      As for the specific points raised in the post: surely tailings dam containment isn’t rocket science? Surely, it can be done, toxins can be eliminated without endangering profits?
      If only the “environmental community” were interested in solutions, rather than spectacle…

      • By Andrew Lundell on March 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

        Currently there is no way of dealing with the tailings ponds. They sit on top of the second largest fresh water aquifer in the world. Ever heard of the precautionary principle? The facts are that the tar sands have a massive ecological footprint that is not acknowledged by its proponents. It is just constantly greenwashed.

  4. By yt75 on March 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    If you had any true sense of politics you would at least ask for a serious volume based tax on fossile fuel in the US, instead (or in addition to) thinking developing countries.

  5. By John Smith on March 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Yes, Keystone XL will help China convert from coal to gas, and it will keep gas prices from crashing, which will help renewables’ prices stay in the ballpark without excessive subsidy.

  6. By arrow2010 on March 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    The left will block any project that has to do with fossil fuels. They couldn’t give a rat’s ass about China.

  7. By Disgruntled2012 on March 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    The author leaves out one important point…


    The protests against Keystone are weak from an environmentalist viewpoint, as he correctly points out. They are stronger if your real objective is destroying American capitalism.

    • By Jim Housman on March 26, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      Wow. I was expecting intelligent comments to Robert’s reporting. This comment stands out in stark contrast to that expectation.

      • By Disgruntled2012 on March 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm

        Are you intelligent enough to understand the scientific process? You probably should have learned it in junior high or high school. It’s all you need to know to understand that the whole thing is a lie.

        • By Thomas Willis on April 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

          This is not the site for you DG. People come here to learn about the issues without red meat hyperbole. Please return to the “Black Helicopters and the NWO” forum you normally frequent.

          • By Disgruntled2012 on April 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm

            If you want to learn something, then you need the facts, not propaganda.

            But then again, idiots like you aren’t really interested in learning anything or teaching anything. You just want to bully people, and shout down and ridicule opposing viewpoints, i.e. “Black helicopters”.

            I suppose I’m used to that narrow-minded approach, but it DOES get under my skin when you try to cloak your lies in claims of scientific legitimacy that does not exist. It reminds me of German “scientists” claiming Aryan superiority as scientific fact. Pathetic.

  8. By Tara (Energy Citizens) on March 26, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, approving KeystoneXL is better
    for the environment than rejecting it. Canada has stated
    that oil shipped via KeystoneXL will be done so under terms of an agreement
    that cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 17% ( In addition, shipping oil via KeystoneXL will
    reduce the number of trucks, trains, and barges needed to move the oil, further
    lowering these emissions.

  9. By Douglas6 on March 26, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Credit default swaps on the Burlington Northern railroad company debt currently cost less than credit default swaps on US Treasuries. Much less. That means that the Burlington Northern – which is owned by Warren Buffet – is a better credit risk than the US Government. If I were a cynic, I would suggest that shutting down Keystone would be an indirect way for Mr. Obama to throw a lot more business Mr. Buffet’s way – but really, how much better can it get for Burlington Northern?

  10. By ben on March 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Hats off to “Tim C” for bring to our attention the analysis of Prof. Chi-Jen Yang and

    Robert B. Jackson at Duke University’s Nicholas School.

    I thought interested readers might like to see a take on their research from the fine folks
    over in West Virgina’s coal country:

    Plenty to chew on here, as we think long and hard about dynamics in Asia, even as we delude ourselves that what’s done here in the good ole USA is make or break for

    global carbon emissions. We’d do well to embrace the big picture of supply-demand dynamics before manning the ramparts of any cause de jour independent of the practical consequences to our competitiveness. I emphasize this because an ability to achieve and sustain consensus on sound public policy, and that of private actions, seems to flow out of a well-grounded sense that individual interests need not preclude collective action. This is always easier said than done, of course. Yet, the process begins with a thorough and open-minded understanding of the challenge at hand. The professors down in Durham have done justice to the subject.

    Thanks! Ben

    • By TimC on April 1, 2013 at 10:22 am

      Thanks for the link, Ben, that’s very interesting. I guess we shouldn’t expect US coal to sit still and watch their industry shrink, while China and India ramp up. As products made from Chinese coal find their way into new markets around the world, US coal interests will want access to those markets too. Meanwhile, the EIA says that NG futures are back above $4/MMBTU, and climbing. Reports of the death of US coal may have been somewhat exaggerated.

      • By ben on April 1, 2013 at 9:17 pm

        Yes, the “end of coal” would be a rather naive perspective to hold. Coal will remain central to Amercian commerce for the next generation (like it or not),
        as the same can be said of oil & gas. As I’ve said at every turn, I’d love to see renewables gain better/quicker traction, but this is predicated on viable economics much more than that of government fiat. Is there a role for government policy? Surely there are measures that can encourage progress toward our goals, but they should not bend back against the sensibility of fostering economic competitiveness. In short, policy must reflect sound reasoning not simply because “it makes me feel good about my humanity.”
        With the rise of the economic BRICs and the formation of new-found strategic alliances (See: Russia-China energy pact of this past week), the US will increasingly confront major challenges to our competitiveness. Our ability to
        access affordbable energy supplies may offer a measure of relief to an otherwise troublesome picture of the demands that will eventually require
        a new set of assumptions about American leadership in the next decade and beyond. I’m not sure we should get overly fixated on ironclad numerical goals, but we ought to make some marked headway in moving not so much to a post-carbon economy per se, as to rising above an all-too-comfortable carbon dependency that endangers our liberties even as it tempts our collective fate.
        Thanks again for pointing out the work of Prof. Yang and Jackson down at the Nicholas School. I would think it rather constructive to engage them in some exchange in this space, if we/they, are so inclined.

  11. By erikbl on March 29, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    If the planet has both an infected toe and a brain tumor, surely we can find both more than one doctor. Spend time and effort trying to get demand controls in place worldwide, and at the same time spend time and effort trying to shut down supply. Perhaps everyone concerned about the demand side of this equation has quit working the problem, feeling that it’s all up to the KXL protesters, and perhaps the KXL protesters aren’t putting any effort into demand side initiatives, but both seem highly unlikely. We have nearly unlimited resources that could be brought to bear on both the supply and demand oriented solutions to the problem of emissions, worldwide. Instead of arguing over allocation of a supposedly limited set of problem-solving resources, we could argue about how to get more and more efforts of all kinds underway.

    • By Donough on March 31, 2013 at 9:44 am

      I am currently reading the book ‘project sunshine’ and it sets out the
      difficulty of replacing fossil fuels well highlighting the need for
      these fuels in water and food industries. In my opinion without
      lifestyle reduction, delevoping alternative energies while necessary
      will have a limited impact.

      This clearly puts paid to your assertion that we have unlimited resources. We do not and will have to make some extremely hard choices. Stopping the use of coal would preclude the manufacture of steel for most countires with only those with access to massive amounts of gas or charcoal being able to continue.

  12. By Russ Finley on March 30, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Nice article, Robert.

    A lot of people have been convinced (wrongly) that wind and solar can replace our energy needs (solve the supply side of the problem). This is why they are deaf to arguments like yours, or arguments supporting nuclear energy.

    There have been a few credible studies suggesting that it might be physically possible to replace electricity with a mixture of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, biomass and on and on but not one claiming we could replace all energy with it. And those studies can’t prove economic viability, which is a link in a chain. Not to mention, hydro and biomass would be worse than fossil fuels if any serious attempt was made to scale them any where near fossil fuel levels.

  13. By San Juan Bill on April 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    I am wondering why the Canadians don’t simply build a brand-new state-of-the-art refinery atop or adjacent to the oil sands deposits. Would that not be far less expensive than building a 1,700 mile pipeline and pumping this heavy oil (after it has been diluted with lighter oil) across farmland and aquifers in the United States to the Gulf of Mexico ?

    The refined products can then be used domestically or exported with very little political objection.

    If they are looking for the most expensive, difficult and risky method of delivering it to a faraway place, they should consider delivery by rockets, taxicabs and pack mules.

    • By Thomas Willis on April 12, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      I believe increasing refining capacity in Canada was contemplated but ran into NIMBY problems. In addition, building a refinery costs billlions of dollars and 4- 5 years before the first barrel of refined product is produced. Refiners are often subject to getting their margins squeezed and many in the U.S. have closed in the last decade. Thats why oil producing countries like Mexico and Venezula send their crude to the gulf and import gasoline. Its the difference between being and OBGYN and a baby sitter. The margins are better upfront.

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