Would An Emissions Deal Break The Deadlock Over Keystone XL?
Bloomberg and others have reported that in August the Canadian Prime Minister sent a letter to President Obama, proposing to work with the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector as a way to facilitate US approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL.) The only surprising aspect of this story, if accurate, is that it has taken so long for so obvious a solution to be floated. If, as I believe, opposition to the pipeline has little to do with potential spills and local rights of way, and everything to do with the emissions profile of Canadian oil sands crude — accurately or not — then environmentalists should welcome this overture.
All CO2 Is Equivalent
You would never know it from protest slogans conflating all types of air pollution as if they were identical, but the characteristics and effects of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like CO2 are very different from the smog-forming emissions from automobile tailpipes or the sulfate pollution from coal power plants. For that matter, air containing 400 ppm of CO2 (0.04%) is no more harmful to breathe than pre-industrial air with 280 ppm of CO2. More relevant to the current topic, it is also a fact that the climate consequences of each ton of CO2 emitted to the atmosphere are the same as for every other ton, regardless of where they are emitted or from what source. While scientists can distinguish CO2 from fossil fuel combustion from the CO2 you just exhaled, based on differences in the ratio of carbon isotopes they carry, the effect of these on global warming is essentially identical.
That sounds trivial, yet it has great importance for expanding our options for managing the accumulation of these gases in earth’s atmosphere. Not only don’t we have to handle GHGs the way we do local air pollutants, it can be more effective not to. In practical terms, that means that unlike the well-established approaches for mitigating smog, it isn’t necessary to tackle all GHG emissions at the source, particularly when it’s expensive or impractical to do so. Saving a ton of CO2 by preventing deforestation or improving vehicle fuel economy is exactly equivalent in its effect on the climate to reducing a ton of CO2 emitted from producing oil, which accounts for less than 20% of the emissions from the oil value chain.
A Test of All Parties’ Seriousness
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Harper’s proposal has been greeted with skepticism by some environmental groups, including a representative of Sierra Club Canada who expressed doubt that Mr. Harper was serious. I am in no position to comment on that, other than to point out that entering into negotiations on a proposal such as this one would be an excellent test of his government’s seriousness about reducing emissions.
In fact, a proposal to approve Keystone in exchange for a deal to reduce emissions provides a test of the seriousness of all the parties involved. If the project is worth pursuing for the Canadian government and Canada’s oil sands producers, then it should be worth some additional efforts on their part, over and above those already undertaken, to reduce emissions from oil sands production and to find suitable offsets elsewhere. Of course it’s also a test of how serious President Obama was when he explicitly linked approval for KXL to “whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere.” And because the administration’s protracted delays in approving or rejecting the project can fairly be attributed to political considerations, the proposal also tests the seriousness of “movement” organizations like 350.org that influence the politics of Keystone within the President’s political base.
What’s the Real Issue with KXL?
Opponents of the Keystone XL project who are genuinely concerned about addressing climate change ought to at least be willing to consider a framework that links approval of this project to quantifiable and verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on a comparable scale. Since the determination of such reductions depends on the assumptions governing the alternative state of the world against which these reductions would be compared, that would require a willingness to accept a reasonable set of baseline assumptions about what would happen if this pipeline were not permitted to cross the US border. While I don’t pretend that would be easy, it would be difficult to reject such an approach outright and still claim to adhere to sound science and consensus policies.
This strikes me as an opportunity to embrace the kind of constructive and responsible compromise, the absence of which in our government so many Americans have lamented. Or, to put it bluntly, is opposition to Keystone not really about greenhouse gas emissions, after all?
The beauty of this offer, if it has actually been made and depending on its details, is that it provides President Obama with a potential two-fer: a pathway for approving a project that would please a large majority of Americans, while obtaining significant greenhouse gas reductions that wouldn’t require the highly unlikely enactment by Congress of comprehensive climate legislation. I look forward to learning more details of Canada’s Keystone-for-emissions proposal.
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