As the Pipeline Turns: Obama’s inescapable drama

January 28, 2014

“Keystone: A central cohesive source of support and stability; lynchpin; crux; principle” — The Free Dictionary

No one would have written it this way. No one, that is, except a xl

The Keystone XL decision – a permit for a pipe – turns out to be the moment of truth for the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the nation with the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis and the greatest capacity to deliver solutions. And it arrives at the last hour, or certainly the last Presidency, when we can change course before we become locked in to catastrophic climate disruption.

Thoughtful voices worry that Keystone is the wrong fight, that it’s “only symbolic,” that it has eaten up too much time and attention at the expense of battles that might have delivered more substantive results. They are being too literal-minded. Keystone is a well-chosen pipeline in the sand on climate, and a source of momentum and inspiration for climate action generally.

Part of the power of this battle is that – unlike, say, national climate legislation or ratifying an international treaty – it is the President’s decision alone. One of the toughest nuts to crack on the way to climate solutions is that responsibility is everyone’s, so, as a practical matter, it often ends up being no one’s. Keystone is a focused moment of accountability on the single human with the greatest power to effectuate solutions – the person whose evasion of the challenge would make all other efforts seem pointless.

To his enormous credit, the President put the Keystone decision squarely where it belongs: in the context of the imperative to stop aggravating the climate crisis. Now we will find out whether he has the integrity to do what is right and necessary when the decision is his.

But Keystone isn’t just symbolic – a gratuitous test of Presidential will, or an organizing stunt. The pipeline is an enormous piece of long-lived capital infrastructure that would mainline one of the world’s biggest carbon pools to the world’s hungriest energy markets. It is both a powerful symbol and a honking concrete example of exactly what we must not do if we are to avert climate calamity. As the IEA has repeatedly warned, we cannot keep feeding the climate beast with capital and hope to slay it. An up or down decision on a permit to build this pipeline is an excellent test of whether we got that memo.

This is a bare-naked question of whether the President will observe the most central principle for climate action – the Keystone, as it were, for solutions: Will we stop making it irrevocably worse, now, before it’s too late?

But ultimately, the most important reason Keystone is a (not the) right fight is because we’re having it. And lo and behold, that turns out to be the first condition for winning. We have slipped and slithered and dithered and dodged for well over a quarter century since it became clear that we had a five-alarm fire on our hands. And yet only now, in the context of Keystone XL, is climate emerging as a fight with the level of intensity it deserves, the passion needed to overcome the raw economic power standing between us and solutions.

One may very well be able to make a hypothetical case for why another defining battle would have been better. But that’s just it: this one’s not hypothetical.

The President says we should just all settle down – that both sides of the Keystone battle are overblowing it. But calmness in the face of calamity is part of what’s killing us.

No matter: as much as the President may wish his climate legacy would not be defined by the Keystone XL decision, that’s not his call anymore. It was the climate movement’s.

Go figure: Giant dirty oil pipeline is a climate problem

December 19, 2013

Keystone XL could dramatically increase climate pollution.  So suggests an important new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute, available here.

The authors have identified and fixed a critical flaw in how the question of net climate impact is generally analyzed.  They’ve shown that big capacity additions in global markets have price effects that tend to sustain and expand demand and therefore production over time.  Intuitively, this seems straightforward, but many economic models miss this effect.

In a sane world, this would not be news.  The pipeline is designed for the express purpose of mainlining up to 830,000 barrels per day of extremely carbon intensive fuel into global energy markets.  It should hardly be surprising or contentious that climate-wise, it sucks.Dog bites man

And yet the President raised the question in his historic June climate speech, promising to reject the permit for Keystone if it “significantly exacerbates the problem of climate pollution.”  At the time, the State Department’s scandalously flawed draft EIS had already given us reasons to worry that he would arrive at the wrong answer.

This part of the President’s speech was a big surprise – the pundits said he would avoid KXL like the plague.  But we still don’t really know what he meant.  It’s been a bit of a Rohrschach test for climate advocates.

Eric de Place at Sightline thought it means we’re toast.  This freaked me out, because Eric’s a flippin genius.  However, I remain hopeful – if only by sheer will – that the President’s climate test on KXL will turn out to be a watershed, and a good one.  Just the fact that he made climate impact a dispositive test is huge, a genie that can’t be rebottled.  Regardless of what he meant or how he intends to apply the test, it establishes and highlights a vital principle for climate action:  first, we have to stop making it irrevocably worse (the Keystone Principle).  (The principle has conspicuously not been applied to other critical federal actions, like environmental review of coal export, or coal leasing.)

The claim that KXL will not meaningfully increase climate pollution rests first on the assumption that the Alberta tar sands will be fully exploited, with or without the pipeline.  This has been roundly and repeatedly refuted.  But what bugs me most about it is the implicit fatalism.  The tar sands are one of the largest global carbon pools that must remain in the ground if we are to stabilize the climate before it spirals out of control.  Assuming that they will be fully vaporized is simply capitulating to climate disruption, and to the fossil-fueled tyranny that keeps us careening toward this cliff with no accountability, no policy, no democratic control of our institutions.  It seems like an innocent analytical assumption, but it amounts to ratifying Jim Hansen’s dire warning:  Game over.

Surely that is not what the President meant when he posed this test, toward the end of his rousing climate speech, in which he effectively said for the first time, Game On.  When he talks about Keystone now, his message is basically, “Settle down.”  He complains that everyone is overblowing it:  the proponents vastly overstate its economic benefits, while opponents exaggerate its climate impacts.  He seems irked that this has become a defining test of his resolve on climate.   He gets cover from liberal opinion leaders like Eric Chait, who contend that Keystone is the wrong fight.

Like Joe Romm, I strenuously disagree; I think it’s a fair and appropriate and vital test.  Keystone is both a conspicuous example and a powerful symbol for the single most important and immediate thing we must do to execute a winning climate strategy:  stop making long-term fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make the problem not just worse, but completely intractable.

But whether Eric Chait or Joe Romm or even the President himself thinks Keystone is the ideal test of his commitment to responsible climate action is now completely beside the point.  The emerging climate movement made it the real-world test.    The only question left is whether the President will pass or fail it.

Dear John: Don’t make it worse

May 11, 2013

Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline.  I don’t see it.

Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period.  That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there.  (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy.  As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.Maple syrup not dilbit

And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act.  We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address.  Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone.  If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.

Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle).  It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.  Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one.  But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone.  There’s no symmetry, no justice there — just political games, and losing ones at that.

I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:

May 8, 2013

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State  

Dear Mr. Secretary,

As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  

We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.

We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.

But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.

Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.

There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.

Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.

We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”

But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,


KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category

Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner

James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

The Keystone Principle

February 15, 2013

The big President’s Day rally on the National Mall is more than a Keystone pipeline protest.  It’s a statement of principle for climate action.

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future.  It’s about physical and moral consequences, now.  And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement.  It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption:  Stop making it worse. stop making it worse 2

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.   Keystone is a both a conspicuous example of that kind of investment and a powerful symbol for the whole damned category.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline – even one as huge and odious as Keystone – will not literally “solve” climate disruption.  No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation.  The question – for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks – is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

Stopping Keystone nails the core principle for climate responsibility, by preventing investments that make climate disruption irrevocably worse.  Again, it’s not just that burning tar sands oil produces a lot of emissions; it’s that long-term capital investments like Keystone (and coal plants, and coal export facilities) “lock in” those dangerous emissions for decades and make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable.

Now, if you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits.  It is your business strategy, precisely.  For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water.  We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle.  It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

But it doesn’t take a supercomputer to confirm that the Keystone Principle is basic common sense.  It’s step one for getting out of a hole:  Stop digging.  A comprehensive strategy for global climate solutions called “Design to Win” put the point succinctly:  “First, don’t lose.”   The choice is clear and binary:  Do it and we’re toast.  So don’t.

In contrast, the many things we must do to advance positive climate solutions – clean energy, more efficient cars and buildings, better transportation choices – are full of grey areas.  Implementing them is inherently slow, incremental, and subject to tradeoffs based on economic and other factors.  Should new fuel economy standards make cars 80% more efficient or 90%?  Over what period of time?  The answers are judgment calls, not moral absolutes.  But when it comes to stopping Keystone and other fossil fuel infrastructure investments, the choice is stark, clear.

“Climate solutions” are millions of Yeses and many shades of green, over a long period of time.  But they also require a few bright red Nos, right now.  These Nos are, you might say, the “keystone” for responding to the climate crisis, as in “something on which associated things [like, say, all efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption] depend.”  No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now.

Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power.   Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy.  Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought.  Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean.   This is what climate disruption looks like.

Now that the faces of the victims are regular features of the daily news, what will we say to them?  And what will we say to our children – the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters?  Defying the Keystone Principle is like saying “Sorry, you’re out of luck.  We will use our laws, our time, and our money to make it irretrievably worse.”

President Obama has begun to carefully edge away from the moral bankruptcy of this position.  As he said in his inaugural address:   “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

But no one will believe him, or us, until we stop making it worse.  That’s what Keystone is about.  It’s not just a pipeline.   It’s a principle.

After the darkest day…

December 22, 2012

After the double dark winter Solstice of 2012, a sign of light breaking on the horizon….

Pop quiz – Name the guy who recently denounced the “conspiracy of silence” on climate disruption, calling it:kerry 2

a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail. It is a conspiracy that has not just stalled, but demonized any constructive effort to put America in a position to lead the world on this issue….

I hope and pray colleagues commit to transformative change in our politics. I hope we confront the conspiracy of silence head-on and allow complacence to yield to common sense, and narrow interests to bend to the common good. Future generations are counting on us.

Wouldn’t it be cool if that guy was leading U.S. diplomacy in the international climate negotiations?  Can we put him on point for the Administration’s review of the Keystone Pipeline?

Done.  That guy is Senator John Kerry, the next Secretary of State.  Read about the pick and the prospects here and here.


And as we sign off on 2012, as we gather our kids close for the holidays, as we grope forward after Sandy and Sandy Hook, as the darkness begins to yield on the day after the Solstice… Is something is changing in us?   Is the “circle of concern” growing?

President Obama, in Newtown, at the interfaith prayer vigil:

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.

And we know we can’t do this by ourselves…. we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.

This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

The President, the Pipeline, and the first rule of the climate game: “Don’t lose”

May 13, 2012

I don’t trust any explanation of anything that begins “President Obama doesn’t get it.”  He’s not perfect, but he is scary smart.  I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid that it won’t all be okay if he would just read my blog!

But in his public observations about Keystone (in this Rolling Stone interview and elsewhere), the President is either missing or parsing his way around an essential truth:  the imminent prospect of economic lock-in to dangerous climate change.  The President told Rolling Stone:

“The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem.”

It’s true that Keystone became a defining battle in part because we were failing to have a serious climate discussion, and Keystone was a good way to restart one.

But the Keystone decision isn’t just symbolic.  Like coal export terminals, Keystone would be a major new link in the chain of transactions and physical infrastructure that connect the world’s largest carbon supplies to the world’s fastest-growing energy markets.  Bill McKibben calls them “fuses” that run from the match of global demand to the giant “carbon bombs” in the Alberta tar sands and the Powder River Basin coal fields.  Because they are so long-lived and so capital-intensive, they would be essentially irreversible commitments to dangerous climate change.  Keystone and coal export would violate the first rule of any viable plan to “win” the climate game:  “Don’t lose.”

Delivering climate solutions and extracting ourselves from our current fossil fuel infrastructure is great work, but quick it is not.  It will take 50 years of patient, sustained, strategic investment and action to “win” the climate solutions game and build a sustainable prosperity.  But we could lose it in a heartbeat.  We can’t keep making long-term infrastructure commitments that expand fossil fuel dependence while we invest in building a new energy economy.  We don’t have that much money.  We don’t have that much time.

The President has no doubt heard this from his science and energy advisors.  But he falls back on climate denialism’s most insidious secret weapon:  inevitability.  (The weapon is so lethal because climate deniers have somehow tricked the rest of us into aiming it at ourselves.)  Again from the Rolling Stone interview:

“…It’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That’s their national policy, they’re pursuing it.”

If we concede that the sum of existing national policies is our climate future, then we’re planning to leave a devastated planet to our kids. They are not amused.  Even if it were true that this would happen “regardless of what we do,” there’s no excuse for condoning, let alone facilitating it.

….”Regardless of what we do…..” 

Isn’t that the climate challenge in a nutshell?  Every individual, every mayor, every governor, every company, every nation that ever made a commitment to climate solutions has had to push past the sense that it could all be futile if others don’t act.  We have to buy into a culture of responsibility: we do the right thing and then use that as a stance from which to invite and challenge others to join, as Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed did so valiantly when he committed his low-lying nation to become carbon neutral in 10 years.

But building that culture of responsibility is tough when the POTUS dismisses huge investments in accelerating climate devastation as inevitable – and then poses for photo ops in front of the pipeline.


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