McKibben: With the Keystone Pipeline, Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands

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Environmentalist author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben writes: “It’s increasingly possible … that we’ll just replace cheap fossil fuel with more expensive fossil fuel. Only a price on carbon can really prevent that from happening — but there won’t be a price on carbon soon, because Obama wouldn’t stand up to the oil companies. And so, backs to the wall, North American environmentalists are now fighting a simpler, more basic battle — not for overhauling laws and economies, but simply to keep carbon in the ground.”

Our friend Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org. He is the author of a dozen books about the environment, most recently Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

He writes, at Yale Environment 360 (“With the Keystone Pipeline, Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands”):

In the last three years, three things have happened to the climate movement, one political, one meteorological, and one geological. Taken together, they explain why 1,253 people were arrested outside the White House in late summer protesting the Keystone XL pipeline — and why that protest may be the start of something big and desperate. … [read the full article here]

Re-posted from Bill’s conclusion:

And here’s the geological thing. It’s been slowly dawning on people over the last couple of years that oil and gas companies are finding lots of new supplies. Peak oil was true in the sense that we’ve run out of the easy stuff — but as that realization spiked prices, engineers set to work making hard stuff easier, and they’ve succeeded in ways most people hadn’t expected. So now we have shale gas wells tearing up the countryside in the eastern U.S., and shale oil operations turning North Dakota into a Lutheran Kuwait.

And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, the tars sands megaproject in northern Alberta. Geologists had known about this vast deposit for years, but never figured it would be economical to develop. At $80 a barrel, and with new technologies, it turns out you can get it to work, which the Canadians have done with a vengeance. They have a pool of oil — and hence of carbon — about the same size as the one we’ve largely burned in Saudi Arabia. If we torch most of it, then it’s “essentially game over for the climate,” in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

In other words, the idea that we’ve had for two decades that we’re destined to transition to renewable energy may be wrong. It’s increasingly possible instead that we’ll just replace cheap fossil fuel with more expensive fossil fuel. Only a price on carbon can really prevent that from happening — but there won’t be a price on carbon soon, because Obama wouldn’t stand up to the oil companies.

And so, backs to the wall, North American environmentalists are now fighting a simpler, more basic battle — not for overhauling laws and economies, but simply to keep carbon in the ground. It’s not an elegant battle with lots of complicated legislation; it is an elemental one, easy to understand, worth going to jail for. We know that we’re simply buying time — given enough years and a high enough price, Canada and everyone else will figure out some way to get oil and coal out of the ground. But if we can stop them, maybe the planet will come to its senses about global warming. … Maybe the time we’re buying is precious.

For now, it’s a desperate battle to keep things from getting worse. We fight coal plants and coal mines, tanker ports and pipelines. Keystone XL is such a huge deal because the president can actually stop it himself, without consulting our inane Congress. …

Earlier posts:
Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”

Letter from scientists calling on Obama to block the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

Keystone XL pipeline decision a clear test of Obama’s character and commitment on climate change

In support of protest at the White House to call for veto of Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

“Greening of Canadian Oil Sands: A View Across the Border”

Obama’s approach to climate change is both part of the solution and part of the problem

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