January 20, 2015


The Keystone XL pipeline: How environmentalists may have lost sight of the real enemy (Neil Bhatiya, January 20, 2015, The Week)

The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that will allow oil from Alberta tar sands to be brought to existing refining infrastructure in the Midwest, has grow to outsized importance both for activists who see it as symbol of Big Oil's destruction of the climate, and for businesses that see it as contributing to their bottom line as well as America's energy security.  [...]

[O]ver 80 percent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2°C." For the United States alone, a full 95 percent of its existing coal reserves need to remain unburned.

This is a tall order for a world in which coal is the second-highest source of energy generation, accounting for 40 percent of the world's electricity needs, according to the International Energy Agency (the percentage is roughly the same for the United States). The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan is meant to ensure that a transition away from coal is realized in the United States, piggybacking on a renaissance in natural gas, which has been aggressively displacing coal as an electricity fuel.

Global demand, however, is still expected to increase from now through at least 2040, even taking into account recent moves by the Chinese meant to pave the way for a "peaking" of their coal usage. Even with the drop in price in renewables like wind and solar, coal is relatively cheap and abundant in places such as India, where crippling energy poverty necessitates an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. The Nature study concludes that India and China combined can only burn about 23 percent of their coal reserves to avoid breaking their share of the global carbon budget.

Most activists are, of course, aware of these facts, and, to their credit, they have resorted to grassroots activism to fight the export of U.S. coal overseas. Yet they nonetheless miss a lot of nuance in subsuming specific concerns about coal together into a general indictment of the fossil fuel industry's short-sightedness. This is a self-defeating strategy.

Coal is the near-term enemy -- an issue that deserves much more immediate thinking. It is a matter of grave concern to the developing world, where the climate change battle will be ultimately won or lost. Oil is the long-term enemy, a problem that will be with us for much longer. It cannot be defeated with opposition to one pipeline. There are, after all, alternatives to coal as an electricity generation fuel, as difficult as they are to deploy on a large-scale. For oil as a transportation fuel, however, competition is hard to come by. Even with advances in electrical vehicles, most people have and will continue to have traditional gasoline-powered cars and trucks. Stopping an oil pipeline will be a hollow victory when the demand infrastructure for oil will be in place for at least a generation.

Posted by at January 20, 2015 1:43 PM

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