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Glenn Hurowitz on the tar sands

In this week's Going Green column, I talk to political and environtmental consultant Glenn Hurowitz (for whom I served as a research assistant in 2006-2007) about the Keystone XL pipeline -- aka the story that's not getting enough attention. 

I had to cut the Q&A for space reasons in the paper, but I think Hurowitz's points are important enough to be printed in full here on the blog. And ps: If you don't think this affects us locally, consider this, from a press release sent out today by the Natural Resources Council of Maine:

"The Natural Resources Council of Maine has joined with four other environmental organizations in an effort to block a Canadian pipeline project that could make Portland, Maine, the 'tar sands capital' of the eastern United States. The groups have sent a letter that calls on the National Energy Board of Canada to deny a special exemption request by oil and gas giant Enbridge, Inc. to reverse the flow of a portion of a pipeline that would eventually deliver crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Portland, to be shipped to refineries on the mid-Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico."

Here's my interview with Hurowitz, with info about what you can do at the bottom:

1)       Can you briefly summarize your position on the Keystone oil pipeline?

The Keystone XL pipeline would set off a giant North American carbon bomb. The tar sands hold billions of tons of carbon dioxide, one of the world's greatest stores of carbon. As a result, tar sands is one of the few things that makes regular old dirty oil look green in comparison. Because tar sands oil is locked up in an extremely viscous form, it requires a huge amount of energy to transform into something you can use in a car, and that means significantly more greenhouse gas emissions. Exploiting these tar sands also requires huge amounts of natural gas, placing significant new demands on the North American gas market. If the oil industry's plans are realized, it's estimated that the tar sands industry alone will require at least two billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. Tapping and transporting that additional natural gas itself involves significant environmental impacts, and will also cause prices for consumers to rise. At a time when we should be investing limited resources in massive deployment of solar, wind, and energy efficiency, it's simply crazy to be doubling down on an energy source that's even more polluting than oil.   


2)       What do you make of the State Department's report that the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would have "no significant impact" on the environment? 

The State Department's Environmental Impact Statement is quite shocking: it recalls the worst days of the Bush administration's ignoring science in order to do the oil industry's bidding. Specifically, they're not doing basic things like analyzing the impact of extra toxic pollution from burning tar sands crude in the refinery communities in Texas and elsewhere. And State amazingly continues to refuse to analyze alternate pipeline routes that wouldn't imperil so much of the Sand Hills (home to the Greater Sand Hills crane) or the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer, the source of about 30 percent of America's groundwater irrigation - despite entreaties from Democratic and Republican senators from the pipeline route.  Although the analysis acknowledges that tar sands includes greater greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil, it presumes that if the pipeline isn't built, the tar sands oil will be burned anyway because it will be transported to other markets.

To put it mildly, this flies in the face of what the Canadian oil industry itself is saying. The other major potential market for tar sands oil is Asia, but to get the oil to that market, oil companies would have to construct a pipeline to Canada's west coast and that's facing far more obstacles that Keystone XL: fortunately, Canadian First Nations have for years successfully used their substantial legal authority to block construction of both the pipleline and a suitable port. For that reason, Alberta's pro-pipeline energy minister Ron Liepert in June told Canada's Globe and Mail that if the Keystone pipeline didn't get built, the province would be "landlocked in bitumen" - meaning all that carbon wouldn't be burned into the atmosphere.

Of course, even without looking at any of these analytic factors, it doesn't seem like the Transcanada company is capable of running a safe pipeline: a smaller pipeline they're already operating to bring some tar sands oil to the United States has spilled 12 times in the last year alone. Even if you believe in burning every last drop of tar sands, it's hard to see how we can trust Keystone/Transcanada to be the ones to do it.  


3)       What about President Obama's action (or not) on this issue?

President Obama has not yet weighed in on the issue, and the final decision is in his hands. This isn't one of those actions he can blame on Congress. He has the sole authority to approve or reject the pipeline. This is his opportunity to show he's really serious about the climate crisis and to start to fulfill his promise that in his presidency "the rise of the oceans would begin to slow" and the "planet begin to heal." It's hard to see either of these things happen if he sets off the North American carbon bomb. This decision would also very specifically undo some of the positive steps he's taken on climate. In particular, Obama, to his credit, increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks to 54 miles per gallon. That's great, but if those cars are burning extra-polluting tar sands oil, much of the air quality and climate gains from that extra fuel efficiency will be wiped away. 

Overall, this decision is an opportunity for Obama to begin to repair a pretty disastrous environmental record when it comes to fossil fuels. His administration approved a massive expansion of coal mining in the West that will result in an amount of emissions equivalent to that burned by 300 coal-fired power plants in a year. Put another way, that's approximately 30 times the amount of clean energy his administration has deployed or is planning to deploy on public lands. He also is dramatically expanding offshore and onshore oil drilling. We've already seen immediate disastrous consequences from that action: his administration allowed BP a special waiver from environmental laws for its Macondo offshore well that ultimately blew out. His administration has also signaled they're going to allow some very unsafe drilling in highly ecologically sensitive whale habitat off Alaska's north coast. Stopping the tar sands would at least show that he's willing to stand up the oil companies for once. 

Doing so will also require a significant political reevaluation by the President. Up until now, his political strategy has mostly been an attempt to avoid conflict with oil companies, Republicans in Congress, and other entrenched interests. He really does seem to believe in "bringing people together to get things done," sometimes without concern for exactly what those things getting done are. Of course, this strategy has had a negative impact on the environment, but I fear it also imperils his political viability: all this investment in oil and coal are sucking resources away from clean energy and other green economic activities that generate more jobs per dollar of investment than fossil fuels. The number one factor affecting Obama's reelection chances is likely to be the health of the economy. Unless he's using every leverage point he has to create jobs, he's going to be in trouble. In addition, making the oil industry richer itself holds political danger for him. No matter how much he does, it's a safe bet that the oil industry prefers a Republican in the White House. The more resources he puts in their pockets, the more they have to use against him. 

Showing he's willing to actually stand up to a major industry could signal a recognition that this appeasement strategy isn't delivering the results he needs to restore the economy and win reelection. That would be a welcome change across the board. Some late-breaking good news: I'm told by an administration source that the protests are getting traction inside the White House. 

4)       You recently wrote a column for Grist.org, "Everything you've heard about tar sands and energy security is wrong." Why do you think people are so confused about the impact this project could have?

The oil industry has tried to claim that getting our oil from Canada is better than getting it from unstable petrocracies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and that argument has gotten some traction. But even a basic understanding of oil economics shows that exploiting the tar sands will do nothing to displace Middle Eastern oil. The reality is Saudi Arabia can produce oil several times more cheaply than oil from the tar sands (among other things, you can just suck Saudi oil out of the ground without spending billions of dollars to get it ready for refining). The only oil tar sands oil is likely to displace is other American oil. 


Interestingly, tapping foreign oil was originally seen as a national security priority. It would allow us to conserve our limited remaining domestic supplies until we really need them. "If we ever got into another World War it is quite possible that we would not have access to reserves held in the Middle East, but in the meantime use of those reserves would prevent the depletion of our own," said World War II Navy Secretary James Forrestal, echoing the postwar security consensus. This is truer now than ever - if we had to rely purely on American and Canadian supplies, we'd only have eight years left at current consumption rates. The reason conventional wisdom has changed is entirely due to oil industry lobbying: international oil companies tend to make more reliable profits from domestic oil and have focused their exploration there. As a result, they've been pushing the idea that domestic oil can somehow free us from reliance on unfriendly regimes, despite the economics. In reality, the only thing that can free us from reliance on foreign oil is freeing ourselves from reliance on oil period. 

5)       You write, "If we're really concerned about security, tar-sands oil should be a last-gap, man-the-barricades option - something we as a society hope we never have to use." Are we not there yet? What would indicate, to you, that we'd reached that last-gap point?

I see this situation as a major world war or oil embargo - basically a situation where we couldn't tap foreign oil supplies. I hope we can deploy clean energy alternatives like plug-in hybrids and more mass transit so that by the time a national emergency presents itself, oil addiction is a thing of the past. 

6)       There was a lot of hype about the weather over the weekend - but there continues to be little hardcore coverage/investigation into climate change (great On Point segment about this today...). Thoughts on this juxtaposition?

Our country and our planet are suffering more and more from climate change, but there is less and less concern from our political leaders, and some outright hostility. Part of the reason is that the political debate is entirely one-sided: climate denying politicians like James Inhofe and Rick Perry aren't shy about articulating their beliefs. In contrast, too many politicians who understand the gravity of climate change - like President Obama and Mitt Romney - are as yet unwilling to really lay out for the American people the urgency of the climate crisis. 

7)       Other thoughts? People can contact President Obama about the tar sands, and have other ways to get involved at http://www.tarsandsaction.org/obama-petition/. I'm at twitter.com/glennhurowitz 

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