What Now?

By Keith Kloor | November 11, 2011 10:04 am

Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration to postpone a final decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 20012 Presidential has triggered much chatter and insta-analysis. There are two smart takes worth pointing out. The first is this NYT op-ed by Michael Levi, a climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which I summarized in this tweet:

 @levi_m has Fri op-ed that argues anti-keystone victory is triumph of BANANA, and bodes ill for U.S. clean energy econ.

BANANA, for those of you not familiar with the acronym, means “Build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything.”

While I understand the larger aims of the McKibben-led pipeline protest, I am in agreement with Levi that green NIMBYism represents a real threat to long-term clean energy and climate goals. I’ve previously made that argument here. As Levi notes in his piece:

The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.

The success of the anti-Keystone coalition may well trigger the law of unintended consequences, Levi cautions:

…oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.

The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.

He concludes:

Energy experts often note that it would be impossible to recreate today’s energy infrastructure, given the intensity of opposition to pretty much any new development. The environmentalists’ victory against Keystone XL will only reinforce that judgment. But realizing their broader vision “” a low-carbon economy that enhances the nation’s security and helps avoid dangerous climate change “” will require defeating the same sort of local opposition that they have just embraced.

Now on to Bryan Walsh’s article in Time, which astutely observes:

Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention””and fear””on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good

But Keystone may have been a special case””and a throwback. The local concerns in Nebraska had less to do with the climate risks of oil sands crude than fear of a pipeline spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That’s a real concern””but it’s local, not the same as the global nature of the climate threat. As veterans of the environmental movement know, it’s a lot easier to get people motivated to stop development than it is to organize them to push for something new. And sometimes that anti-development feeling can backfire as well””look at some of the resistance to new wind turbinessolar projects and power lines that could connect to renewable sources.

So what comes next for McKibben and company? Walsh offers this advice:

If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy, spending more government money on energy research and development and passing climate legislation. This is hardly a secret””there were protests and campaigns for the climate bill in 2009 and 2010, and McKibben’s own 350.org campaign is about a lot more than just stopping fossil fuel development. But I’ve rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates that I’ve seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example. Protests and passion may have helped stop the Keystone pipeline, but will it be enough to build a new energy economy?

Good question. I think the answer will start to emerge by the time the final decision on the pipeline is made soon after the 2012 Presidential election.

  • Ed Forbes

    No worries “¦this project will be built.
    The current admin saw no overall upside for approval prior to the next election. After the next election it will be approved regardless which party claims the WH. Way too much money here to pass on.

  • Keith Kloor

    I think you are right.

  • Gaythia

    Transport and refining of Oil Sand crude apparently already happening:
    http://www.coqa-inc.org/06102010_Segato.pdf
    “”This Investment confirms Suncor’s
    commitment to building our Denver
    operations as a key component of the
    company’s long-term strategy.”
    On completion of the project, Suncor said it
    expects to integrate 10,000 to 15,000
    barrels per day of oil sands sour crude into
    the refinery, and also will increase the
    refinery’s capacity to process bitumen used
    in asphalt production.”
     

  • harrywr2

    Transporting by rail only adds at most an additional $12/barrel. The bulk of that additional $12/barrel is to pay for diesel fuel for the train.
    What a victory…stopping the ‘least’ carbon intensive way to transport liquids.
    What’s next…banning energy efficient air conditioners?

  • Nick P.

    Really trying to work through the relevance of these two pieces.  The most resonant excerpt is this: “If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy…”  …OK….

    Levi’s conclusion: Opposition’s appeal to NIMBY undermines our ability to develop alternative energy.  (This is a very strange argument to me.  NIMBY wrt alternative energy infrastructure – especially when coupled w/ popular support for ditching fossil fuels – is different from NIMBY wrt tar sands oil infrastructure.) 

    Alternative conclusion: Temporary victory against the development of “game-over” pipeline is very much symbolic, and enhances public awareness about U.S. energy policy, climate change, and potential alternatives – all of which should have some influence on NIMBY sentiment.

  • Fred

    The Administration decides to put off an energy project that would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in service of a harebrained theory put forth by an eccentric Swedish scientist more than a century ago.

    Meanwhile, the Republicans are putting forth proposals to drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and offshore.  See:

    http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/193087-house-gop-wants-massive-drilling-expansion-to-fund-infrastructure-

    I guess we will have a real choice in the next election.

  • Tom Scharf

    Shovel ready infrastructure project, already approved.  This was a spineless call by a guy only interested in getting elected, not governing.  Definitely a wedge issue in his own party, but that is what you have to do as YOUR JOB as a politician, make the hard calls.  

    This is Obama’s same strategy of allowing people to project the answer they want on this decision (he cancelling it! he’s just waiting until after the election to approve it!) in order to maximize votes.

    I think America is sick of political cowardice on all sides. 

  • gmak

    Dear anti-Keystoners:

    A pipeline will be built – if only to our west coast where tar sands oil can be shipped to Asia (China, anyone?).

    You can keep buying your oil from violent sadistic rulers in the Middle East. Good luck when that runs out.

    Regards,
    Canada. 

  • NewYorkJ

    On the contrary, this was a brave move by Obama, as he will have to take heat and listen to alarmists like Fred who will claim Obama is killing hundreds of thousands of jobs while doing all sorts of unpopular things that would bring us back to the stone age.

    So questionable move politically.  It’s not as if anti-Keystone individuals were going to change their vote in favor of Obama based on this decision.  Good move for the environment, at least for now.

    I’m with Nick (#5) on Levi’s questionable argument.  It’s a nonsequitur and and apples and oranges comparison.  Let’s examine the reverse equivalent.

    Anti-wind victory is triumph of BANANA, and bodes ill for U.S. fossil fuel production.

    If only!

  • http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com bigcitylib

    I think Levi’s argument is pretty naive.  Green NIMBYISM has been around for awhile and Keystone won’t in itself do much to alter that

    For example, here in Ontario Canada a fairly big issue in the recent provincial election was the placement of turbines/solar arrays in a number of rural ridings.  The ruling party lost some seats over its aggressive Green Energy policy.  NIMBY groups sprung up (probably with some help from the Ont. power worker’s union) and raised all sorts of heck.  And these people were complaining about turbines that occasionally exceed 45 decibels and solar arrays that look ugly when viewed a mile away from the deck on your cottage.  I should say, though, that most of the major enviro groups shunned the NIMBYs, and as of today we still have a government committed to becoming implementing green energy in the province and becoming a green energy technology manufacturer.

    Anyway, the point for enviros is that every project will be different, the local vs. national concerns will be different, and they will have to find their way on a case by case basis.  Which is something I suspect most of them already know, but which Mr. Levi is apparently startled to realize.

  • http://planet3.org Michael Tobis

    The likelihood that this pipeline will be built has gone down. It would then fall to the people of British Columbia to oppose a (vastly more expensive) pipeline across their rugged terrain, or those of Manitoba and Ontario to oppose one as far Lake Superior. These populations might just have it in them. This is a glimmer of good news.
    I saw someone suggest that if we want a carbon tax, and if we believe that we should “be the change we want to see”, we should be a carbon tax, doing whatever we can to make carbon expensive enough to account for its immense externalities.
    But to the extent that this potential victory contributes to BANANAism, to the triumph of the local when problems are becoming increasingly national and global, to an empowered generic opposition to new infrastructure, it is indeed problematic.
    The key is to note that we lack a social contract on how to make such decisions. Each one then becomes a proxy battle between overwrought and superficial arguments. But our problems are national, international, and global. We need to be starting up a conversation, not shutting one down. I applaud this piece by Keith and the two articles he quotes as leaning in the direction of such a conversation.
    I’d like it even better if Keith didn’t end so passively. “I guess we’ll find out later” is a conventional journalistic ending. “It’s time we started to think about these tradeoffs in earnest” would have been more constructive. But if Keith won’t say it, I will.
     

  • Gaythia

    @Michael Tobis, finally someone who has taken note of geography!
    Also, it bears repeating:

    “It’s time we started to think about these tradeoffs in earnest”

  • Anteros

    Not being American, I hope I can use a broader perspective than that solely concerned wih the Keystone pipeline.

    Does anyone see large amounts of fossil fuels being left in the ground – permanently – while they are ready to provide energy at half the cost of the alternatives? Bearing in mind that there will always be a vast number of people willing to A) dig it up, and B) buy it at a price which offers a large profit to people A)

    Gmak @8 makes the point above. I don’t get the American parochial attitude – and I don’t mean to be confrontational. I only think of warming in its global context, and my scepticism extends to the idea that vast amounts of fuel – hundreds of billions of barrels of oil-equiv’ – are going to be left, sitting in the ground while being cheaper than the alternatives. I haven’t seen any sign of it yet – anywhere.

    Another way of looking at it is that the value of fossil fuels will only ever increase, and the externalities (of climate change, say) are not the concern of the those who dig/drill and those who buy. With a global market, nothing short of a totalitarian world government will prevent the burning of what is economical to burn.

    That probably sounds cynical to those concerned about climate change, but isn’t it, kind-of, reality?

  • Ed Forbes

    Tobis:  “It’s time we started to think about these tradeoffs in earnest” would have been more constructive. But if Keith won’t say it, I will.

    I agree…though I do not think we mean it the same way :-)

    As peolpe see what the costs really are, most of the green energy ideas are going right into the dust bin.

    I used to be worried about the direction we we going, but no longer.

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael (11),

    Well, I don’t believe in spoon feeding people. Also, I gave a link to this previous post of mine, which lays out the problematic tradeoffs that will need to be addressed.

    Also, on that thread, I’d suggest revisiting this excellent comment by Raypierre.

    I will tell you this, though: in following some of the greenie twitter chatter directed at Levi and Walsh, it is obvious they don’t want to have this conversation.   

  • Ed Forbes

    Loved this quote you highlight and it is so true.

    Raypierre:”AGW is nearly as much of an “inconvenient truth” for most of those who consider themselves environmentalists as it is for those who would like to continue relying of fossil fuels. AGW poses a classic conflict between disparate goals in environmental protection.”

  • huxley

    We need to be starting up a conversation, not shutting one down.
    I always wonder what sort of conversation the orthodox, like Michael Tobis, have in mind and whether it is actually a conversation and not a tedious process, regrettably necessary, of bludgeoning opponents into submission until the right social contract is in place to make the right global decisions to implement the right policies to factor in the right externalities for carbon etc.

    So much of Tobis’s post assumes the premises and arguments necessary for the conclusions he seems to have in mind.

    Where does democracy fit in this “conversation”? What if the majority of people in the US or other countries reject the social contract or the policies or climate change agenda? Is that allowed?

  • Fred

    New YorkJ @ 9:

    You say that the postponement of the Keystone decision is:

    “Good move for the environment, at least for now.”

    On what basis do you make such an assertion?

  • Paul Kelly

    MT so misunderstands the “be the carbon tax” idea that it is no wonder he has not embraced it.
     

  • Nick P.

    “But our problems are national, international, and global. We need to be starting up a conversation, not shutting one down.”
    “In following some of the greenie twitter chatter directed at Levi and Walsh, it is obvious they don’t want to have this conversation.”  
    I know many an environmentalist trained in non-market valuation and B-C analysis who would say that the Levi argument is just unpersuasive, if not strange.  Claims that NIMBYism is a neglected variable among the environmental masses is wrong, in my opinion.

  • Nick P.

    I’d also like to mention that 12,000 people were outside the White House on Sunday.  Nebraskan NIMBY’s?

  • harrywr2

    #11 Michal Tobis
    It would then fall to the people of British Columbia to oppose a (vastly more expensive) pipeline across their rugged terrain,
    From Platts – generally considered the ‘magazine of energy’
    http://www.platts.com/weblog/oilblog/2011/07/28/rail_makes.html
    A spokeswoman for national railway BNSF would not disclose specific numbers, but said that the amount of Bakken oil it was hauling, as well as the destinations, had doubled in the past year. She added that each train has about 680 barrels in each railcar, and the enormous train links enough of those cars to pull 70,000 barrels in each delivery.
    The Keystone XL project adds 510,000 barrels a day of capacity. 7-8 trainloads. Surely, for a railroad that moves 1 million tons of coal per day adding enough capacity to haul 510,000 barrels of oil, 90,000 tons won’t be a challenge.

  • Nick P.

    I guess that in the end, I’m just confused.  I don’t think that a coalition w/ Nebraskan NIMBYs undermines future alternative infrastructure development.  I don’t think that the NIMBY variable is lost to environmentalists (quite the opposite, in fact).  I don’t think that many people see the Keystone victory as much more than a good momentum builder (oriented in the right direction). 

  • harrywr2

    So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards.


    Warren Buffet is the second richest person in the US and the richest person in Nebraska. He also owns Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad which hauls a lot of OIL. A pipeline will harm his oil hauling business.
    From platts
    http://www.platts.com/weblog/oilblog/2011/07/28/rail_makes.html
    The Keystone XL pipeline would head that list, because it would give new capacity to take oil not just to Cushing, but also to the Gulf of Mexico…..So if the full force of Bakken-related pipeline deals ever hits the market, the 21st century revival of rail in transporting oil might be remembered as a quirky time when markets had to dust off a once-dormant means of transportation to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.

  • Eric Adler

    Harrywr2,
    So the claim is that an associate of Buffet gave a little money to an environmental organization in Nebraska that opposed the pipeline. This somehow proves that Buffet is behind it because of his railroad. This is guild by association.
    So who is supporting the Keystone pipeline? The answer is the Koch Brothers are responsible for importing 25% of the tar sands entering the US, and stand to benefit enormously from the pipeline. They contributed many millions to anti environmental propaganda groups, including Cato, Heritage and others, as well as to the  Republican Party and its Tea Party wing. No guilt by association is needed for this connection.
     

  • Steve E

    Keith, sorry for the late response. It was remembrance day here in Canada when you wrote your post. I think your agreement in comment 2 is correct; unless, of course, all hell breaks loose in the incredibly stable parts of the world where we currently harvest petrochemicals. /sarc. Meanwhile, I paraphrase my grandfather below:

    If a demon is needed; a demon will be found.

    If a saviour is needed; a saviour will be found.

    Ironically, someone’s demon may well be someone else’s saviour and someone else’s saviour may well be someone else’s demon. 

  • Steve E

    Oh and by the way:

    Gaythia Says:
    November 11th, 2011 at 3:49 pm
    @Michael Tobis, finally someone who has taken note of geography!

    Geography didn’t stop us (Canada) from building a railway through the same geography in the late 1800s to avoid your (US) policy of manifest destiny.

    Building a pipeline beside an existing rail line with our muscular Canadian petro-dollars would be child’s play.

    Don’t sell us short we once had a leader (a liberal by the way) who said the the 20th Century belongs to Canada. He my have only been off by a Century. 

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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