I hope the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350.org coalition go crazy.
I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change.
We don’t get such an opportunity often – namely, a second-term Democratic president who is under heavy pressure to approve a pipeline to create some jobs but who also has a green base that he can’t ignore. So cue up the protests, and pay no attention to people counseling rational and mature behavior.
We need the president to be able to say to the GOP oil lobby, “I’m going to approve this, but it will kill me with my base. Sasha and Malia won’t even be talking to me, so I’ve got to get something really big in return.”
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Barack Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate.
This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events – droughts and floods – and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale – wind, solar, bio, nuclear – to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
It’s great that shale gas is replacing coal as a source of electricity, since it generates less than half the carbon dioxide. As the oil economist Philip Verleger Jr. notes in the latest edition of the journal International Economy, these breakthroughs will also lead to much more oil and gas at lower prices, which will help American consumers, manufacturers and jobs.
But, he adds, “it will be harder and harder to push for renewable energy programs as hydrocarbon prices fall,” and “the new technologies that allow us to tap shale oil and shale gas could release vast quantities of methane” if not done properly. Methane released in the atmosphere contributes much more to climate change than carbon dioxide.
If Keystone gets approved, environmentalists should have a long shopping list ready, starting with a price signal that discourages the use of carbon-intensive fuels in favor of low-carbon energy. Nothing would do more to clean our air, drive clean-tech innovation, weaken petro-dictators and reduce the deficit than a carbon tax. One prays this will become part of the budget debate.
Also, the president can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to order reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal power plants and refiners by, say, 25 percent. He could then do with the power companies what he did with autos: negotiate with them over the fairest way to achieve that reduction in different parts of the country.
We also need to keep the president’s feet to the fire on the vow in his State of the Union address to foster policies that could “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.” About 30 percent of energy in buildings is wasted.
Finally, the president could make up for Keystone by introducing into the public discourse the concept of “natural infrastructure,” argues Mark Tercek, the president and chief executive of The Nature Conservancy, and the co-author of “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.”
“Forests, wetlands and other ecosystems are nature’s infrastructure for controlling floods, supplying water, and doing other things we need to adapt to climate change,” Tercek wrote in an email. “Before Hurricane Sandy, Cape May, N.J., had the foresight to restore its dunes and wetlands to provide storm protection and wildlife habitat. When Sandy struck, Cape May was spared the damage that neighboring towns suffered.”
Since the president is rightly calling for infrastructure investment, which makes sense at a time of high unemployment, added Tercek, “he should emphasize natural infrastructure as well. Federal programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Farm Bill can be expanded to make communities more resilient; changes in the tax code and other federal rules can incentivize private investment.”
So, sure, we need to be realistic about our near-term dependence on fossil fuels, or we will pay a big price. But we also need to be realistic about the need to keep building a bridge to a different energy future, or we will pay an even bigger price.
Let’s make sure we don’t forget the latter in the Keystone debate.Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.