HARRIS: Looking for a better way to sell the Keystone pipeline

Global warming is a place to start

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No basketball coach would direct his players to cover everyone on the opposing team except their leading scorer. That would be a recipe for losing the game, not to mention the coach’s job. Yet virtually all supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands to refineries in the United States are doing exactly that in their promotion of the project.

Rather than properly addressing the arguments from the strongest players on the anti-pipeline team — climate activists such as 350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council, not to mention the New York Times, which now opposes the project — pipeline supporters mostly ignore the climate issue. Instead they promote Keystone XL just as they did before President Obama rejected it in 2012. This is a serious mistake. If Mr. Obama again cancels the pipeline, it will almost certainly be because of the feared impact on the climate, not because of the points upon which pro-Keystone state governments and industry are focused.

It is owing to the climate issue that the pipeline may not even get as far as the president this time. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is a well-known climate activist, and he must approve the pipeline before the file can go to Mr. Obama. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came out in support of the project even before her department had approved it. However, Mr. Kerry remains noncommittal. In fact, he used his first major address as secretary to make an urgent call for strong action on climate change. This should concern Keystone boosters.

Since Mr. Obama no longer has to worry about getting re-elected, he can now do what he really wants. The question then is: Which does the president think is more important, climate change or energy security?

His priority appears to be climate. If his overriding concern were energy security, he would not be trying to kill coal, America’s leading source of electric power. The United States has enough coal to power the country for centuries, and new technologies make it cleaner than ever before. Coupled with its long-term price stability, coal is an ideal base-load power source.

However, coal produces more carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas of most concern in the climate debate, than its competitors. The Obama administration wants to end coal usage in the United States — no matter the consequences for energy security.

Anti-Keystone activists are similarly trying to kill the oil sands project because it would produce more carbon dioxide than conventional crude-oil production. They are working to prevent all methods of delivery of crude from the oil sands. Yet most pipeline supporters apparently think that they can simply focus on the economic benefits of the project, its enhancement of energy security, its relative safety and its source in Canada, a country that respects human rights and the environment, and they will win the day. That is naive.

Keystone XL proponents must adjust their marketing of the oil sands, the pipeline included, to properly address climate change. It is not enough to assert that the oil sands constitute only 0.1 percent of world greenhouse-gas emissions or that they are becoming less emissions-intensive. If humanity’s output of carbon dioxide were causing dangerous climate change, then we would need to set an example by trying to cut back, not grow, projects that emit large volumes of the gas.

Oil sands pipeline supporters need to help the public realize that the fundamental premise of the global-warming movement is unfounded. The science is too immature to predict the future of the planet’s climate. Moreover, actually controlling global climate will remain science fiction for the foreseeable future.

With the Obama administration’s Keystone XL decision coming up soon, there is no time to dither — the public must be educated about the realities of climate science or risk losing one of the most important energy projects ever.

Tom Harris is the executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition and an adviser to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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