On Keystone XL and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Civil Rights Metaphors Are Inappropriate for Getting Off Oil

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Environmentalists who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline have invoked comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement as a way to organize the fight against fossil fuels around a central focal point. But no amount of marching and civil disobedience is likely to stop the construction of the project. Neither protests and presidential promises in the United States, nor very high gas taxes in Europe, have appreciably reduced the dependence of modern economies on petroleum as a transportation fuel. Developing real alternatives to oil won’t happen quickly and will come at a significant cost. Easier to give another sermon quoting Martin Luther King.

February 06, 2014 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Writing on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” former green-jobs czar Van Jones invoked Dr. King to justify the environmental movement's singular focus on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

If you want to understand why the pipeline—which, the State Department concluded last week, won't have much impact on carbon pollution—will likely go forward over the objections of environmentalists, and why no amount of marching and civil disobedience is likely to stop it, it is worth considering just how misplaced Jones' comparison is.

Imagine that after the "March on Washington" in 1963, the 300,000 or so participants all got on segregated buses for their return home. The equivalent is precisely what happens every time Keystone opponents climb into gas-powered vehicles after their D.C. protests. Whether the next destination is the hinterlands of Alberta, the gates of the White House, or the next stop on the lecture circuit, even the most hardened protesters depend upon petroleum-fueled transport because oil is the lifeblood of the American economy. And the basic political economy of oil, not the political power of fossil-fuel companies, is what keeps America’s pipelines and oil rigs humming, despite the high economic and environmental price that we pay.

It's true that we have weaned ourselves off oil before: After the energy crises of the 1970’s, the U.S. stopped using oil to generate electricity, but that was because coal, natural gas, and nuclear power were easy substitutes. Were similar substitutes available to replace oil for transportation, the political power of the fossil fuel industry would be no match for public outrage over $4-per-gallon gasoline.

The problem is that oil is a remarkable transportation fuel. It is energy-dense (just ten or fifteen gallons of the stuff in your tank will take you hundreds of miles) and easy to transport (a single pipeline can carry hundreds of thousands of barrels a day). If new pipelines aren’t available, rail cars or supertankers can be easily substituted with little technological or economic difficulty.

When gasoline prices rise, presidents respond. It doesn't matter that oil prices are set on the global market, or that oil from any particular oil patch, be it in Alaska, Alberta, or the Gulf Coast, is just a drop in the giant pool of global petroleum that sets the price. No politician worth his or her salt wants to end up on the wrong side of public anger over rising gas prices, and opposing major oil development—or a pipeline to carry that oil—in most cases is one sure way to end up there.

Neither protests and presidential promises in the United States, nor very high gas taxes in Europe, have appreciably reduced the dependence of modern economies on petroleum as a transportation fuel. Europe’s lower consumption of gasoline is almost entirely a function of greater population density allowing for shorter trips and more mass transit.

Electric and fuel-cell vehicles show great promise and merit billions in long-term public and private sector investment. It will take decades, though, before they significantly impact total oil consumption. And doing so will require not only that electric cars meet or exceed the performance of gasoline-powered vehicles at a price that the average American can pay, but also building an enormous electric charging infrastructure and roughly doubling the size of our current electrical system.

The leading lights of the Keystone opposition appear to have little patience for such pragmatic efforts. Writing in Rolling Stone last December, Bill McKibben accused President Barack Obama of offering empty words on climate change, describing Obama's efforts to develop better alternatives as akin to “eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's.” But it is not the president’s words that have proven empty. After leading the environmental movement on a two-year crusade against Keystone, McKibben half-acknowledged in that article that “the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline” had been a distraction.

By contrast, over the last five years, Obama has directed billions in public spending toward electric cars and battery technologies, bringing Detroit back from the dead while greening it in the process. These and other measures taken by the president have had far greater impact on emissions than the Keystone decision will ever have. U.S. emissions have fallen faster than those of any other nation in the world since Obama’s election. Yet his legacy, McKibben claimed, will have been to turn America into “a global-warming machine.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that Obama’s efforts have proven unsatisfying to his environmental critics. Once you get beyond the self-satisfied comparisons to Dr. King and other civil rights legends, many Keystone opponents turn out to dismiss or outright oppose just about every proven strategy to reduce emissions, whether it is public investments in electric vehicles, replacing coal with natural gas, or building new nuclear power plants.

Developing real alternatives to oil won’t happen quickly and will come at a significant cost. Electrifying the entire transport sector will require more investments in the years to come. And it will require hard work and the perseverance necessary to sustain such an effort.

Easier to give another sermon quoting Martin Luther King.

 

This article originally appeared in the New Republic.


Comments

  • New fuels will come ... but you are also forgetting the demand reduction that will be created by CAFE ...
    “Old-line predictions see a future US demand for 10.7 million barrels per day, up from the current use of 9. However, when the new standards push that average mpg to 50, demand will drop to 3.8. Extreme hybrids can create a drop in demand to 1.2mbd. “

    By Jane Twitmyer on 2014 02 10

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  • Just because efforts to block the Keystone XL pipeline are largely symbolic doesn’t mean the pipeline is a good idea. And just because the authors think high-tech innovation will replace fossil-fueled internal combustion engine motor vehicles doesn’t mean it’s the best approach, or that it will succeed.

    Here are my comments about Keystone XL to the state department:
    This pipeline proposal has become a symbol that some believe should not be getting all this attention. I disagree.

    While rejection of this pipeline project may not affect the tar sands market to the same degree it has affected the political landscape, its symbolic role is important and accurate.

    The kind of oil that it is proposed for, tar sands oil, generates in its extraction and processing substantially more greenhouse gas emissions than even conventional crude oil. Opposing such stupidity represents long-term patriotism.

    The U.S., and in fact all countries that seek to increase their access to and use of fossil fuels, are acting like addicts who continue to ingest a substance that is slowly killing them, even though this substance is becoming harder to obtain and more hazardous to our planetary health.

    I hear foolish talk of ‘energy security’ that some deluded people think lies in more-intensive methods of fossil fuel mining, such as fracking. These temporary energy sources offer only a brief illusion of security, to be followed by the long-term effects of fossil fuel addiction, namely, climate weirding.

    While rejecting this and similar proposals may cause short-term discomfort, it will increase long-term ecological health. And the sooner we step off the path of fossil fuel addiction, the less will be the short-term discomfort which we will INEVITABLY face sooner or later. And while pipeline delivery may indeed operate with less pollution from spills than delivery by train or even truck, that is not a good enough reason to approve a project for delivering a product that should just stay in the ground.

    I hear talk of carbon sequestration. The cheapest and easiest way to sequester carbon is to just LEAVE IT IN THE GROUND.

    Now it’s certainly true that ending our fossil fuel addiction will not be easy. But it is true that it is inevitable; the only unknown is the timing and disruption we (and our children and grandchildren unto the seventh or 100th generation). We can end this addiction the easy way, by starting IMMEDIATELY to make continuous changes in our current fossil-fuel technology and infrastructure, replacing them with traditional technologies and infrastructure of the sort humans had used for millennia until just the last few hundred years. Or we can end our addiction the hard way, by keeping our heads firmly in the sand and continuing with ‘business as usual’ until the system crashes catastrophically.

    Personally, I prefer the first, more sensible and more truly conservative, approach. Now again, I acknowledge this will be very challenging. So I offer this essay describing the challenge in some detail, and suggesting some ways to proceed: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2222988

    If this is too abstract, here is another summary of a sensible approach: http://bio-paradigm.blogspot.com/

    By Muriel Strand, P.E. on 2014 02 10

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  • The movement for minority uplift gave itself a shot in the arm by “environmentalizing” itself as “environmental justice” so I suppose it is only to be expected that things would come full circle with rhetoric that associates an environmental cause with the civil rights struggle.  Social movements learn from one another and that has generally been a productive thing.  But how far does such talk get us, exactly, is an energy world consisting of seven billion Bull Connors?  Not far I think.

    By Chris Foreman on 2014 02 12

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  • Breakthrough article {My comments}: Imagine that after the “March on Washington” in 1963, the 300,000 or so participants all got on segregated buses for their return home. The equivalent {false equivalence} is precisely what happens every time Keystone opponents climb into gas-powered vehicles after their D.C. protests {for the Forward on Climate rally in D.C. on Feb 17 ‘13, many on buses or trains, including 50 from Tx on a Public Citizen chartered bus}.
    ...
    Oil is the lifeblood of the American economy.
    {It has been, but now the excessive worldwide use of oil is the equivalent of drinking Jonestown kool-aide for human civilization and 1000s of species.}
    ...
    Neither protests and presidential promises in the United States, nor very high gas taxes in Europe, have appreciably reduced the dependence of modern economies on petroleum as a transportation fuel. Europe’s lower consumption of gasoline is almost entirely a function of greater population density allowing for shorter trips and more mass transit. {In the U.S. too, most trips are short and could be taken by bicycle, mass transit, or walking. Because of high gasoline taxes and high value-added taxes on new vehicles, most Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans…ride bicycles, walk, or take mass transit for ordinary commuting.  For longer trips they usually take trains. Unfortunately, the US train system is very poor in comparison.}

    Electric and fuel-cell vehicles show great promise and merit billions in long-term public and private sector investment {a 300-600 mile battery might/probably not commercially viable}. It will take decades, though, before they significantly impact total oil consumption. {Decades of business as usual means climate hell}. And doing so will require not only that electric cars meet or exceed the performance of gasoline-powered vehicles at a price that the average American can pay, but also building an enormous electric charging infrastructure {fueled by coal or natural gas?} and roughly doubling the size of our current electrical system. {with natural gas and coal?}
    *“You can either take action, or you can hang back and hope for a miracle. Miracles are great but they are so unpredictable”-Peter Drucker
    A more realistic approach to Global Climate Crisis than Breakthrough’s hope-for-a-miracle technology breakthrough is northern Europe’s 5-6 dollar per gal. gasoline tax and value-added tax on new vehicles equal to the price of vehicle and 2X price for gas guzzlers (‘returned’ by lowering taxes on ‘good things’ like work income)—increased and expanded around the world to include coal and natural gas, too. Northern Europe already has trains, masses of bicycles, much more solar and wind than US…with commitment to much more….And China, India and the rest of the developing world has said they could be on board if the US signs on too AND GIVES UP ITS CARBON TRADING AND OFFSETS (Cap and Trade) APPROACH, WHICH THE DEVELOPING WORLD CONSIDERS TO BE ECO-IMPERIALISM OR ECONOMIC COLONIALISM, OR A WAY FOR THE US POPULATION TO CONTINUE TO LIVE RICH AND BIG WHILE THE DEVELOPING WORLD CONTINUES TO LIVE POOR AND SMALL.
    Northern European countries have a much higher percentage of its workforce in energy-intensive manufacturing than US. Norway, for example and in addition, has had a lot of oil since the 1960s, but its gasoline tax of $6 per gal has led, along with prescriptive standards, to Norway having ~1/2 the per capita carbon footprint of the US. This, even though Norway has a higher standard of living than US, has a higher percentage of its population in rural areas and is less dense than Minnesota.  Norway has same population as Mn with 70% greater area and its major metro area (Oslo) is 1/2 the population of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
    All of the above is contra to what Breakthrough is saying.
    I guess i’m contrarian in a different way than Breakthrough.
    How would any rational person think that Obama’s “all of the above” would work? I’ve also been been asking that about other policies pushed by non-climate denying politicians and environmentalists—electricity deregulation, carbon trading and offsets, cap and trade, TECHNOLOGY BREAKTHROUGHS*...—since the League of Conservation Voters endorsed my pro-coal and pro-electricity deregulation opponents in 2002 Arizona Corporation Commission election.
    The Breakthrough Institute - On Keystone XL and Martin Luther King ...
    thebreakthrough.org/index…/on-keystone-xl-and-martin-luther-king-jr
    Feb 6, 2014 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

    U.S.-centric lack of moral and physical fitness / When Norway’s team paraded by during the opening Olympics ceremony on NBC, the commentators mentioned US skaters Nancy Kerrigan and her infamous rival Tonya Harding from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.  No mention that this country of 6 million people had the most metals in 1994 and is expected to do that again this Olympics. 

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