TOPICS > Science

Tar Sands Pipeline Plan Renews Energy vs. Environment Debate

August 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
A proposed pipeline would carry oil from Canadian tar sands fields to Texas refineries, but the project has sparked high-profile protests. Jeffrey Brown discusses the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's Robert Bryce and environmentalist Bill McKibben.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a friendly and safe new source of oil for the U.S. or an environmental disaster waiting to happen?

The tar sands of Alberta, in western Canada, are today considered one of the largest oil reserves in the world, a source of crude petroleum known as bitumen. But the extraction of oil there has come with concerns about the environmental impact. And now those concerns have exploded with a plan by the Calgary-based company TransCanada to build a massive pipeline to carry that crude oil deep into the U.S.

The proposed Keystone X.L. pipeline would run 1,700 miles through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma on its way to refineries in Texas. It’s projected to cost $7 billion and carry an estimated 800,000 barrels of oil a day. The plan has galvanized a growing opposition from those who fear it would increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the prospects of leaks and spills in environmentally sensitive areas.

Activists are now in the midst of a two-week protest at the White House. Some 400 have been arrested so far. On Friday, they were dealt a blow by the U.S. State Department, which released a report finding the pipeline project will present no significant environmental problems.

A final decision to allow or reject the pipeline will come from Secretary of State Clinton and ultimately President Obama. It’s expected by the end of the year.

And we have our own debate on the Keystone pipeline project now with Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” and Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, author and organizer of the ongoing protests in Washington this week.

Bill McKibben, why these protests? What are — what’s the key problems you see with this project?

BILL MCKIBBEN, environmental activist/writer: You know, this has turned into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement in a generation.

And the reason is that this is — this tar sands in Alberta is a big deal. It’s the second largest pool of carbon on Earth, after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Jim Hansen of NASA, who was arrested today, really the world’s foremost climate scientist, said — as he was speaking this morning, said, if we go ahead and begin tapping these unconventional energy sources, of which the tar sands are the biggest example, it is — and here I quote – “essentially game over for the climate.”

Since, for once, Obama can stop a project without having Congress in the way, this has become the focal point. And these arrests have — actually now over 500 people. The numbers are just growing and growing day after day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will go into some of the details. But, first, as a general proposition you support this.

ROBERT BRYCE, Manhattan Institute: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it should go through?

ROBERT BRYCE: I do.

Well, Jeff, I appreciate Bill McKibben passion on the issue. I understand his position. But my position is very simple. I’m for cheap, abundant, reliable energy, particularly now in the U.S., when we have over 45 million Americans on food stamps, we have more than nine million unemployed. The actually unemployed or underemployed is probably twice that number.

We need cheap, abundant, reliable energy. And this project will in particular provide abundant and reliable energy. The tar — the oil sands in Canada have over 100 billion barrels of oil in them. And we need it no, given — particularly because we want North American energy production. Better off if it’s domestic. But we have been relying on Mexico and Canada for many years.

Over the last decade, Mexico’s oil production has fallen by 600,000 barrels and Canada’s has risen by more than 600,000 barrels. I would like that — we need that reliable energy production as close to home as we can. And if we can buy it from friends and allies, that’s even better.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so that’s the argument. The U.S. needs the oil. Why not get it from a friend, rather than be more dependent elsewhere, and especially if it provides U.S. jobs.

ROBERT BRYCE: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s — that’s the argument we hear for it.

BILL MCKIBBEN: You know, there’s got to be a better way to deal with our food stamp problem, especially when, as we’re now beginning to see, after a year of the most violent and extreme weather we have ever recorded around the planet, after the price of food has gone up around the world 80 percent because we’re missing harvest after harvest with drought and with flood.

We have got to take global warming completely seriously. I understand the realism that Robert brings to this, but there is a deeper realism at work here. And if we do not get to work on climate change now — and this has become the proxy fight for climate change in the Obama administration.

This is a guy who when he — the night he was nominated said, in my presidency, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal.

Congress has kept him from keeping many of those promises, but, this time, he can.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the State Department report, if I understand this rightly, they’re saying the extraction is going to happen anyway and the greenhouse gas emissions…

BILL MCKIBBEN: That’s what’s so interesting, because the Canadians aren’t saying that. They have to have — Alberta is a long way from anywhere. They have to have a pipeline to get it out.

The one they’re trying to build west to the Pacific has been completely blocked for years by Indian tribes in Canada, who have a lot of legal power. The energy minister of Alberta said a couple of weeks ago, if we don’t get this Keystone pipeline, we’re going to be landlocked in oil.

And that’s what we need. It’s not that we’re going to necessarily keep it in the ground forever by blocking this pipeline. But sooner or later, the world is going to come to its senses about climate change. And, therefore, preventing it for five or 10 years is a pretty good thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one issue is the extraction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, go ahead.

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, let me talk about the CO2.

And, again, I respect Bill’s position, but let’s look at the numbers. Over the last decade, during which we have heard — and Bill has been in on the forefront of this front, and Al Gore has been on the forefront talking about CO2 limits, CO2 taxations, et cetera. And what have we had? We have had meetings in Copenhagen. We have had meetings in Cancun. We will have meetings in Durban, South Africa, later this year.

But what has happened over this last decade, where we have had an unprecedented amount of media coverage and discussion about CO2 taxation, et cetera? Global energy consumption has gone up 27 percent. And global carbon dioxide emissions have gone up 28.5 percent.

During that same decade, U.S. CO2 emissions have fallen by 1.7 percent. The issue now is not the U.S. It’s the rest of the world, where people are desperate for electricity, they’re desperate for gasoline, they’re desperate for diesel fuel. It’s countries like Vietnam, which has had the biggest percentage growth in CO2 emissions of any country on the planet. Vietnam, China, India, Malaysia. It’s Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, all around the world.

So…

JEFFREY BROWN: So you mean it will go somewhere else.

ROBERT BRYCE: If it doesn’t come to the U.S., it is going to find its way to the market. Why? Because we have a billion motor vehicles on the planet and people want mobility. So, again, my thesis is cheap, abundant, reliable. And this pipeline is a key part of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

It’s going somewhere? It could come here? It could come here more safely than…

BILL MCKIBBEN: It may go some place some day.

And Robert is absolutely right. We have lost the battle for the last 10 years to do anything about seriously regulating greenhouse gases. But that’s because the oil industry and the fossil fuel industry have won all those fights. And no surprise. They have more money than any industry on Earth.

That’s why we have been working hard to find a different currency to work in. For the last two weeks, it’s been our bodies here in Washington. And it’s beginning to make a difference. This tide is beginning to turn at least here. And the one thing I would say, since I do a lot of work around the world on this, look, places like Vietnam are using more energy.

But let’s not let America off the hook as not a part of this problem. Your average Vietnamese uses a tiny fraction of the amount of energy your average American does. We have got to take care of our — the real example, the real place to look at here for me, it’s more like this. Twenty-five years ago, we figured out that Brazil had a unique biological treasure, the rain forest.

And we asked them to preserve it. And they have done a pretty good job, you know? They have slowed deforestation. They have reduced carbon emissions more than any country on Earth. It turns out North America has a unique geological formation, this huge pool of tar sands. It’s not too much to ask us to forego that and to instead take this opportunity to really begin bending the curve.

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, let’s talk about Brazil then, if you don’t mind, because what’s happened in Brazil over the last decade?

Oil production in Brazil has grown faster perhaps than any other country on the planet. Their offshore oil industry, led by Petrobras, their national oil company, is — they’re among the best in the world at offshore drilling. They’re now producing on the order of 2.3 million barrels a day.

So, this idea that somehow we’re going to get this carbon in the ground, again, the premium for better lives around the world among the billions that live in energy poverty is too great.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask you about one other — we’re talking about the emissions aspect of this.

ROBERT BRYCE: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the other thing the people wonder about is the pipeline itself, the possibility of leaks and spills. We just saw this in the Yellowstone River this summer. How concerned…

ROBERT BRYCE: Sure. And we saw the Macondo blow out last summer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

ROBERT BRYCE: Look, every energy source, every power source exacts a toll on the environment. There is no such thing as a free lunch in energy or anything else.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well…

ROBERT BRYCE: So, is there a possibility of leaks and damage?

Of course. But we have two million miles of natural gas pipeline in this country. The cheapest, most effective, safest way for transportation of natural gas and oil is with pipelines.

BILL MCKIBBEN: The precursor pipeline to this one, a much smaller one, in its first year of operations managed to spring 12 leaks, OK?

For some reason, we’re running this particular pipeline over the Ogallala aquifer, the biggest source of freshwater in the middle of our continent. I mean, the desire to prevent a terrestrial BP spill is an important part of this, too.

But even if that — even if it gets there safely to Texas, OK, that’s just that much more oil to spill into the atmosphere.

This thing is dirty at every turn. And it’s why, it’s why, finally, for the first time in a long time, there are people going to jail right now to try and stop it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Briefly, please.

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, let me just turn back to the CO2 emissions, because Bill and I were talking about this just a little bit ago.

I mentioned global CO2 emissions have risen by 28.5 percent in the last decade. Well, that’s 7.3 billion tons per year. You could zero out U.S. CO2 emissions of 6.1 billion tons and global CO2 emissions on an annual basis still would have increased.

The problem is, again, the U.S., why do we live well and why do we have high CO2 emissions? Because we use a lot of energy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you briefly — because you’re wearing your Obama ’08 button there. You clearly supported him last time around.

BILL MCKIBBEN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you have set this up as a major challenge to him.

BILL MCKIBBEN: What people are saying outside the White House is, we need to be reminded of why we were so enthusiastic four years ago.

When I was in jail in Central Cell Block the other day, someone who was lying there on the cot next to me said: “The last time I was this uncomfortable, I was in a church basement waiting to go knock on doors for Obama. I want to remember why it was that I was that fired up.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bill McKibben, Robert Bryce, thank you both very much.

ROBERT BRYCE: Thanks, Jeff.