Hansen’s Own Goal: Anti-Keystone Movement Was ‘A Gigantic Mistake’

  • Date: 01/02/14
  • Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

The anti-Keystone movement was an accident. Indeed, the environmentalists’ obsession with Keystone began as a gigantic mistake.

The State Department today released its long-awaited environmental impact analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline. The analysis is key because President Obama announced last summer he would not approve the pipeline unless it was found to have no significant impact on climate change. And that’s what the analysis finds. It argues, as many other analysts have concluded, that if we block the pipeline, Canada will just ship the oil out by rail.

So, what public policy reason is there to block the pipeline? There really isn’t one. Indeed, the environmentalists’ obsession with Keystone began as a gigantic mistake. Two and a half years ago, the environmentalist James Hansen wrote a blog post alerting his readers to the pipeline, which he concluded would amount to “game over” for the climate, as it would lead to the burning of enough new oil to moot any effort to limit runaway greenhouse gases. His analysis was based on a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation that turned out to be wrong in several respects, the most important being the assumption that blocking the pipeline would keep the oil in the Canadian oil sands in the ground.

The anti-Keystone movement was an accident. I recently argued that it was a huge mistake. Numerous allies of the environmental movement replied that it did make sense, after all. (See Joe RommMatthew YglesiasCharles Pierce, and Ryan Cooper. All of them insisted that Keystone is indeed a good issue for environmentalists to organize around because it’s easy for people to understand. As Yglesias put it, “You sometimes need to focus on slightly eccentric issues that happen to have good organizing attributes.”)

Cooper mockingly asks readers to envision a protest where organizers shout,“What do we want?” “More stringent carbon dioxide emission regulations on extant coal-fired power plants!” “When do we want it?’ “After the extraordinarily complicated rule-writing process over which the president has no direct control!” It certainly may be easier to get people excited about opposing a pipeline. It may also be hard to get people excited about favoring new regulations.

But if your goal is to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, you need to have a strategy designed to advance policies that limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Stopping Keystone doesn’t do that. EPA regulations would. Would blocking the Keystone pipeline make it easier for Obama to issue tough regulations on existing power plants, and to negotiate an international climate treaty in 2015 after such regulations bring us into compliance with our reduction targets?

I don’t see how. I think it would feed criticism by opponents that Obama is captive to environmentalists, even to the point of following their quixotic and marginal obsessions.

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