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!
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.
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.