The Keystone Distraction

How Environmentalists Got Lost in a Dangerously Misguided Battle

Climate activists amassed an impressive army to march on Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty oil it would bring from Canada to U.S. refineries and world energy markets. In this fight, however, a relatively small volume of carbon-dioxide emissions is at stake: the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that those from Keystone amount to a mere 0.2 percent of the “carbon budget” that scientists say we need to shrink in order to avoid catastrophic warming.

As two analysts committed to addressing climate change, we applaud the organizers’ show of strength, but recommend they switch targets and address a carbon enemy more worthy of their army: U.S. coal.

Coal is the essential “dirty” fossil fuel. Coal-fired power plants emit deadly particulates as well as smog-producing nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that harm human health. They also constitute one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Moving away from coal would not only slow climate change, it would also protect the health of countless Americans.

The stage is already set for this transition. With the emergence of cheap natural gas from shale, coal is no longer the most competitive energy technology in the U.S. Crippled, too, by increased production costs and more stringent federal regulations on pollution, coal is being used less and less in the U.S., even as the rest of the world uses more. Today, just 38 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal, down from 50 percent in 2007.

And shale emits far less pollution and carbon than coal does. By using more electricity from plants powered by natural gas, Pennsylvania, for instance, has been able to drastically reduce air pollution.

Renewable Power

Meanwhile, renewable-energy technologies, such as wind and solar, are gaining a foothold in niche markets where the weather and economic conditions are right -- such as Hawaii (solar) and Texas (wind). Since 2007, wind generation in the U.S. has quadrupled, and seven times as much solar power is in use. Combined, wind and solar provided 9 percent as much electrical power as coal did in 2012. As more innovative and cost-effective zero-carbon technologies reach the market, coal-based electricity can be phased out.

Targeting coal is also an appropriately ambitious strategy against climate change. While Keystone is a single project, U.S. coal is an entire energy system. A fight against it can draw support not only from Bill McKibben’s anti-Keystone troops but also from local clean-air organizers, conservationists who are against strip mining and mountaintop removal, and the many clean-energy industries that stand to gain from coal’s loss.

For years, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has shown how effective these coalitions can be; it credits itself with closing 142 coal plants, with plans to shut down one-third of the U.S. fleet by 2030. (The philanthropy of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg LP, contributed $50 million to the club’s campaign.) For whatever reason, this focus has been redirected toward Keystone. It needs to shift back.

Innovation is the necessary first step in switching to cleaner energy sources. The natural-gas revolution grew out of 30 years of government investment in research and development of new drilling technologies.

So we have two messages for climate activists: Focus on replacing coal with cheap low-carbon alternatives. And push for more innovation across a suite of energy technologies -- solar, wind, nuclear, batteries and biofuels -- to make them more able to compete on performance and price.

Coal is a dirty, expensive relic of the 20th century. Climate activists should unite behind a final drive to get the U.S. off it altogether.

This post originally appeared on Bloomberg.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Steve Rhodes