Stopping Keystone XL Isn't Just Smart, It's Important

Posted by Brad Johnson Sun, 10 Nov 2013 22:00:00 GMT

Below is an editorial comment from Hill Heat editor Brad Johnson, a new feature. In addition to occasional commentary from leading climate voices, Hill Heat will continue its aggressive and accurate reporting on climate politics and policy.

I just read Ryan Cooper’s excellent post on Bill McKibben, 350, and the climate movement. His rejoinder to Jonathan Chait’s misguided screed was spot on and well needed. As someone who has engaged in the professions of blogging and organizing, I have to say Ryan hit the nail on the head on how much harder it is — or at least how much a different set of skills is required — to help build a movement than it is to be a pundit:

Organizing a mass movement is hard. I’ve done a bit of organizing myself—I started a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in college, and I was extraordinarily terrible at it. Like many pundits (not necessarily Chait), I’m cynical, easily discouraged, lazy, and most importantly, an absolutely atrocious leader. By contrast, sitting in my chair writing blog posts, while not exactly easy, is compelling and interesting and satisfying in a way that makes it no problem to sit and work for hours.

There’s one dissonant note in Ryan’s piece. At one point, he fell into a classic pundit trap: he qualified his defense of the Keystone XL opposition with this “expert” criticism:
Second, Chait is indeed correct that new EPA regulations which phase out coal-fired power plants would have a much larger impact on carbon dioxide emissions than stopping Keystone XL.

Despite the conventional wisdom, a little investigation finds that this claim doesn’t hold water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s own regulatory filing for the proposed new-plant CO2 standards, “the EPA projects that this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.”

The EPA’s new regulations aren’t expected to have any significant impact on CO2 pollution because new coal plants aren’t economically competitive with other forms of electricity generation (or efficiency efforts) in the United States. By contrast, the Obama administration’s long-delayed limits on traditional pollutants will have a much greater impact on the nation’s coal fleet. The importance of the new-plant CO2 regulations is largely symbolic — an initial stake in the ground that greenhouse gases are pollution that needs to be regulated.

Whereas the EPA CO2 regulations are expected to have a negligible impact, the Keystone XL pipeline, if constructed, will have an annual carbon footprint of 120-200 million tons of CO2 from operating plus its tar-sands crude output. Thus, the pipeline’s impact would be equivalent to the ten biggest existing coal-fired power plants in the US (179 million tons of CO2 per year), or the equivalent of about 40 average US coal plants.

So Ryan is right that mobilizing to stop Keystone XL makes sense politically. It also makes sense policywise.

Update: Ryan Cooper responds on Twitter: “I agree that KXL is worth stopping, but in there I meant to refer to potential regulations that would apply to existing plants.”

The Obama administration has just held a series of “public listening sessions” about possible regulation of existing power plants, but has made no proposals.