Keystone XL is a "Historic Decision"—New Book

A new book, Keystone and Beyond by New York Times reporter John H. Cushman Jr., attempts to put the Keystone pipeline project in a historical context. The book, which was published by Inside Climate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization, is subtitled: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change.

In it, the author argues that Keystone XL is a relic of Bush-era energy policy and that the energy landscape has changed sufficiently in the intervening years to warrant reconsideration. At that time, the question of cutting back oil imports was prominent, while the president was noncommittal on the subject of climate change. Since then,  oil imports have fallen from a peak contribution of just over 60% of supply in 2005, to 45.6% in 2011. It is expected to fall to 28% this year.

Tar sands as an energy source, have several disadvantages over conventional oil stemming from their unique characteristics. While the supply might be abundant, the challenges of extracting and transporting it are considerable, particularly in light of climate disruption. There was a time when this hydrocarbon source was considered “not economically recoverable” because it has to be heated in order to get it to flow. The net energy return on investment, per barrel, is roughly half of that realized from conventional oil production. But as oil prices have risen, the economics have become more palatable.

Ten years ago George W. Bush signed an executive order expediting cross border pipelines. Two years later, in 2006, Bush’s Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman toured the Canadian tar sands and concluded that, “no single thing can do more to help us reach that goal than realizing the potential of the oil sands of Alberta."

Cushman, who worked at the Times’ Washington Bureau for 27 years, said that when he looked at the mountain of expert documents pertaining to the pipeline, “I saw before me a mountain of contradictory analysis and heard a cacophony of firmly voiced assertions from all sides.”

The book, rather than taking a comprehensive look at the issue, chooses instead, to look at it primarily as a decision required by a leader in a historical context.

In the author’s words,” The Keystone story has been told by many others, from various vantage points. Our telling, while informed by theirs, omits many facets of the debate. It does not examine important environmental issues in Canada, such as the tailings ponds associated with bitumen production, or the possible health effects of water pollution and toxic deposition. It does not reflect the intense concern over pipelines among Native Americans and First Nations. It does not give full attention to all the individuals and organizations that have engaged in the fight over this pipeline or paint a full picture of the hazards of oil pipeline spills, or the feasibility and safety of moving oil by rail. What I have done, however, is try to "think in time," as Neustadt and May [authors of Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers] recommended, using the past to illuminate a decision.

Like many of the major issues of our time, this one is heavily immersed in scientific and technological questions. The debate ran along two parallel tracks: energy and climate change.

But, as Cushman points out, those two tracks have now converged as we begin to understand in detail the realities underpinning the climate crisis that now confronts us. If, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, a target that the Obama administration has officially endorsed, then in Cushman’s words, “you [already] have all the oil you need,” without the pipeline.

There was a time when we operated our economy without any consideration for the natural world. We took it for granted that the land, the skies, and the ocean were big enough to absorb any waste products we could generate without impact. Today we know better.

In the end it comes down to this. Will the president make this momentous decision, which James Hansen has already said would constitute “game over” for the planet, looking into the future, or backwards into the past? The game has changed. That means that both our tactics and long-term strategy must change along with it.

Perhaps another analogy will be illustrative. Let’s say you’re a smoker and your doctor has told you that by the time you smoke 10,000 more cigarettes, you will have lung cancer. Since then, you’ve smoked 7,000. Now you suddenly see a great deal on 5,000 cigarettes. Tar sands oil is that deal. It might have made some kind of sense a few thousand cigarettes ago, but it doesn’t make any kind of sense at all now. That’s what Dr. Hansen meant when he said “game over.”

Let’s hope that when President Obama makes his decision, he make the health of our country and the planet his prime concern, because without your health, you have nothing.

[Image credit: C Ray Dancer: Flickr Creative Commons]