“Yes” to Carbon

I went sailing once. Using the inordinate amount of tact I clearly possess, I mentioned to my partner–a girl who happened to have a dramatic lazy eye–that she would be an optimal sailing buddy as she could keep one eye on the tiller while simultaneously watching the ropes.

After reading an article in Inside Climate News on Obama’s “Yes” to tar sands and “No” to coal, I was reminded of my unfortunate comment to my sailing partner: Obama is trying to keep one eye on his election poles and one eye on his long term carbon and energy goals. Unlike my lazy-eyed friend however, his vision seems to be mostly focused on the poles.

People are a bit flabbergasted with Obama at present: he is endorsing the tar sand moving  Keystone XL pipeline and all the while is creating initiatives that will put more stringent regulations for future power planets. A portion of the new regulations would limit carbon emissions from those new plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Current coal fired power plants hover around 1,800 pounds.

Opponents of Keystone point out that any reductions seen in carbon emissions from the EPA’s new regulations may be moot if the entire 1,702 mile behemoth pipeline is erected. The predicted 900,000 barrels of tar sand extracted, transported, and refined per day will emit 27 million metric tones more carbon dioxide than emissions from conventional crude oil. The EPA estimates that’s equivalent to to the annual emissions from 7 coal-fired power plants.

As power plants remain in commission usually for 50 some odd years, the EPA’s rules for new plants are key in preparing for what we want future emissions to look like. It’s important to note, however; that the EPA’s rule’s impact will be meager until existing plants are retired as they aren’t required to adhere to the same standards. It’s also important to realize the rules don’t apply to the dozen or so power plants that have already obtained building permits and breaking ground in the next year. As plants breaking ground today will be around for the next 50 some odd years they will still be polluting the same amount into the next few decades.

As of now, there are no new proposals in the queue that would need to be held accountable to the EPA’s new standards.

As Robert Walther, an energy adviser with the think tank Third Way states, “Coal was already falling away as an option. It can’t compete in the marketplace.”  If the EPA is basically ensuring no new coal fired power plants will come online, what is the point of their new regulations that solely apply to future power plants? Walther says it will sow the seeds for new regulations for existing power plants, which would only happen post-November, if Obama is reelected. At this time, it just seems to be a way for the Obama administration to appear to be making headway as far as limiting the emissions from coal fired power plants.

Obama’s support of the Keystone pipeline may just be a symbolic gesture to ease the public’s gas pump woes, but that doesn’t discount the fact that at least half of the pipeline is being constructed and it will create a huge carbon bomb on the planet. Obama supporting the EPA’s new rules to regulate emissions from new power plants may be a way to cut carbon emissions, but it doesn’t discount the fact that no new power plants are being built and the rules don’t apply to the hundreds of carbon spewing electricity generators.

We can’t just switch from one dirty energy source to another and expect to accomplish much. It seems that Obama is just saying, “Yes” to carbon at this point.


Keystone XL: The Cockroach Who Refused to Die

The unrelenting pipeline project that aims to transport more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf is at it again. When TransCanada was told in January the project was being turned down, what do they do? They make plans to build the southern half of the pipeline while they “work out” a new route for the northern half which was slated to go through ecologically sensitive areas in Nebraska. The strangest part of all of this, is that TransCanada doesn’t need approval from the State Department, and even if they did, the Obama Administration has decided to back the idea.

The Southern half of the pipeline will divert tar sands from Oklahoma to Texas. It’s not technically the Keystone XL pipeline but will still provide the same service to oil companies that Keystone would.

Controversy around the Keystone pipeline stems from many avenues from potential oil spills to indigenous issues, but for most people their primary issue is climate change. Tar sands are more carbon intensive than mining conventional sources of oil, emitting between 5-15 percent more greenhouse gases. As Climatologist, James Hansen has stated, “it is essentially game over” for climate if tar sands are exploited along side coal reserves.

Obama took a lot of heat on his initial decision to reject pipeline construction from his rival presidential candidates. Rick Santorum claims going through with pipeline construction will lower gas prices. While Newt Gingrich has been swearing up and down that Obama’s playing favorites with “environmental extremists” instead of spending time lowering gas prices.

Other advocates of the pipeline argue the benefits of importing from our friendly neighbors to the North instead of the Middle East. Another benefit they claim, the creation of jobs–which has been a matter of intense debate as the numbers have ranged from 5,000-20,000–would mostly only be temporary positions. My own personal favorite argument (noted above by pipeline proponents Santorum and Newt) in favor of the pipeline is that it will lower gas prices. The fact is that once the oil from Canada reaches the Texas Gulf it will not be be pumped around the U.S. for domestic oil use. It will enter the global oil market from Texas refineries and is very likely to be shipped overseas. It will raise gas prices as much as 20 cents per gallon. It’s the same scenario with the “half-pipe” from Oklahoma to the Gulf: we’re looking at a rise in gas prices while remaining vulnerable to price spikes.

While people argue that the purpose of Keystone pipeline and the “half-pipe” is to lower gas prices for the American people, TransCanada’s plans don’t mesh. The construction of the pipeline will subject the U.S to increased costs of heavy Canadian crude oil. Philip Verleger, founder of PK Verleger LLC (an energy consulting firm) told Bloomberg, “The Canadian plan was to use their market power to raise prices in the U.S. and get more money from consumers”.

It’s a little disconcerting the “half-pipe” is moving forward in that there is little stopping the entire Keystone XL project from taking over the Midwest which would be harmful not only to gas prices, but that pesky thing we call Climate Change. There should be no “half-pipe”, no whole-pipe. We need to start making a concerted effort to get away from an oil based society instead of crawling back to the same fossil fuel burning, environment polluting energy sources.

Keystone is like a cockroach. They’re difficult to kill, but it’s definitely not impossible.