Wherein Our Hero Yells at a Hurricane and Scares It A Little Bit

“Stop it, you godforsaken misbegotten excuse for a force of nature, just freakin’ stop it!”

Screen shot 2013-05-24 at 2.28.09 AM

King of the Road points to a Robert Rapier  article simply entitled “Why Environmentalists are Wrong on Keystone XL” wherein he cogently makes the familiar arguments, but I’m unimpressed. Rapier points out that

 this debate isn’t really about a pipeline. This pipeline isn’t going to make or break the development of Canada’s oil sands, nor — as I will show here — is it going to make a measurable difference with respect to climate change.

This is of course unquestionably true. But it misses the point.

Look, the future of the world is going to be written by the people who live in it now. The choices we make are enormously consequential. And among the most consequential of these choices is how we deliver energy.

So we have an infinite set of scenarios to choose from. In some of them, the tar sands are exploited completely, while in others they are abandoned with haste. (The scenarios where they remain untouched are no longer accessible to us.)

Now among these scenarios, some are more plausible than others. And among the more likely scenarios, it is plain to see that those where the tar sands are minimally exploited are more likely to be those where humanity thrives into the future on a beautiful, healthy and peaceful planet; and those where the tar sands are maximally exploited are more likely to be grim, nasty, threadbare, rat-infested, mean and malicious worlds.

The separation is not perfect. Perhaps in some worlds, Alberta wins some sort of international lottery. All other fossil fuel sources are untapped, and we nevertheless live happily ever after. In other worlds, climate science really was delusional (as was chemical oceanography) and fossil fuels do only the amount of damage we originally bargained for, and no extra. And we live happily ever after. And in another world, a cheap carbon sequestration option comes up, we manufacture lots of carbon rich soil, restore the deserts, and live happily ever after. (I’m really rooting for that one.)

And in other worlds, we switch to solar, leading to some unexpected toxicity. Or we switch to wind, leading to some sort of economic collapse. Or we switch to geothermal, and get hit by an asteroid. Or we switch to fusion, and succumb to a fascism established by badly designed security robots. Who knows, many things could happen, and some of them are not under our control.

But what is under our control is what we need to control. One of the ways we choose our future is by deciding what energy sources we use and which we eschew. This matters at a planetary level, and ultimately a planetary consensus must make the decision; only a global agreement including not only all governments but really all people really has proper standing to make these decisions.

Such a consensus, plainly and sadly, is very far from existing at this time, and most people are more concerned with how hard it is to imagine such a thing than with how necessary it is to achieve it, unfortunately.

But, suppose it existed? Would it go for the diluted bitumen pipeline solution? It is hard to imagine any rational, forward looking policy that would do this.

The producers of this product know, or might reasonably be expected to know, that the fuel they produce is more degrading to the environment than other competing sources. Sufficiently so,  that in beginning to wean ourselves from these fuels, their source should not be considered, even if its production costs (barring socialized costs) are competitive. This is because their externalities, their socialized costs, are unambiguously more severe than those of competitive sources.

Tar sands are on the wrong side of ANY line we might reasonably draw at this juncture. And that is why we oppose their exploitation.

So when Rapier goes on to say

“The truth is that the Keystone XL pipeline is symbolic. The environmental movement sees the pipeline as a continuation of a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle that is leading to a climate catastrophe. Pipeline supporters argue that the pipeline will create jobs and strengthen our relationship with Canada, our most important source of oil imports. The truth is that it isn’t that big of a deal either way.”

he is wandering somewhat off the track. Keystone is indeed a symbol, but it is not MERELY symbolic. It is REPRESENTATIVE of what we should not be doing. It is a CLEAR INSTANCE of the sort of thing we should stop doing, and a prominent one. It is so far over the line that it is utterly bizarre that it is even under consideration.

See that Keystone XL thing? Nobody should do that. The people who are building it know or ought to know that nobody should do that. They are hurrying to build it quickly so that it is in place before we realize that we should not have done that. Their urgency is deceptive and their motivations are malign. It is not mere negligence but willful negligence of the highest order. Accordingly, their actions are not due the respect that we would afford good faith investments.

Rapier goes on to a conclusion that is no more surprising than the rest of hist article, but by this time he has gone seriously astray.

“Some might argue “Well, at least they are trying to solve the problem.” But this particular issue would be like me going down to the beach as a hurricane is incoming and yelling for it to go away. I could organize protests against the hurricane (and get myself arrested in the process for my noble cause), and make emotional pleas that we can’t afford more hurricanes. But most people would recognize that I am wasting time and resources that could be better spent in more productive pursuits.

The reason many Keystone XL opponents have yet to come to this conclusion is that they are still convinced that yelling at the hurricane can make it change course. It can’t, but there are actually effective things that could be done to mitigate the impact of hurricanes.”

Here is where Rapier is wrong. Because if the pipeline is approved and built and the tar sands exploitation expands IT WILL STILL BE UNETHICAL AND ANTISOCIAL. And because those who built it in the first place knew or could reasonably have been expected to know that it would be unethical and antisocial, they are ethically, and possibly legally, culpable for damages, very much as the tobacco companies were.

But here’s the practical difference: there is little unit cost capital investment to recoup in producing a cigarette. But that pipeline, it will have to be filled for some years before it even breaks even.  And even when and if you build it, there will still be an ethical and political case for shutting it down.

So here is my yell at the hurricane.

If you are thinking of getting a permit and building this thing, understand that there is no scenario in which it makes ethical sense to do that. Understand that it is your responsibility as a human being to take this into account. Understand that if you fail to do so, our responsibility to stop the operation does not go away.

Sooner or later a carbon restriction policy will be in place. And as we campaign for it, we will retain a special place in our hearts for a world in which there is no dilbit pipeline. The campaign to deauthorize this operation will not stop. As such, each additional investment you make in this infrastructure puts more money at risk. If you can’t account for the ethics of the situation, consider its politics.

Opposition to Keystone will not go away once the pipeline is built. We don’t want tar sands being dug up, we don’t want dilbit being piped, we don’t want tar being refined. We may not be able to give up oil cold turkey, but we do not need your crap. Even if you build your pipe, we will still fight to leave the tar in the ground where it belongs, and shut down the pipe.

This battle will not be over when the pipe is built. Your investment is at risk.

You cannot yell at a real hurricane. A real hurricane has no fear.

You can yell at market forces, because market forces are just aggregates of human behavior. Humans avoid unnecessary risks.

Investors considering tar sands plays, your money is at risk even after the pipeline is built, as well it should be. If the the literal climate gets worse, the climate for your investment deteriorates all the more. 

Put your capital somewhere else!

I am not suggesting sabotage (ewww…) On the contrary , we really don’t want that pipe breaking! In fact that’s the whole point!

But the political battle should not and will not end if the pipe is built. Which in turn means that it is a bad bet to build it.



  1. It is quite telling that Rapier quotes the EIS document that famously claimed that Keystone XL "would not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects" as if it were somehow the gospel truth, when in fact, as EPA and many others have pointed out, it is based on flawed assumptions (eg, that Keystone will have no real impact on Alberta tar-sands oil development) and poor (and just plain biased) analysis.

    Horatio is far more impressed (and convinced) by the “energy path" or "energy policy” argument made by Michael (above), Andy Skuce (in Keeping the Cork in the Oil Sands Bottle) and also by Adam Riedel in KEYSTONE PIPELINE PERMIT DENIAL IS SOUND ENERGY POLICY)

    "why does the denial of the pipeline permit make good energy policy? The policy argument in favor of denying the pipeline permit is that a denial does not contribute to the indefinite perpetuation of a fossil fuels-based energy system. A multi-billion dollar project such as the Keystone pipeline only makes economic sense based on projections of continued utility for decades to come. Thus, it creates a strong vested interest in the continuation of an energy system based on the combustion of fossil fuels and sends an unofficial message that fossil fuels are expected to play a major role in our energy system for decades to come. In this case, it ensures the viability of a particularly carbon intensive form of oil and would likely encourage additional development of oil sands projects. While we will not wean ourselves off of fossil fuels overnight, if new low-carbon energy sources are to become a major part of the U.S. and global energy system, policy signals need to be sent to markets and participants in the energy system that the current fossil fuel-based energy system is slowly winding down, not ramping up. The denial of the Keystone pipeline is just such a signal

  2. This one was just too hard to resist:

    "Like Yelling into a Hurricane"
    -- Horatio Algeranon's slandering of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane"

    Once I thought I saw you
    in a crowded protest line,
    Yelling with all your might
    from time to time
    Far across the loonbeam
    I know that's who you are,
    I saw your clown eyes
    turning once to ire.

    You yell into hurricanes
    There's Keystone in your eye.
    And you’re gettin' blown away
    By someone smarter
    who understands the way
    You want to stop it but
    You’re getting blown away.

    You are just a dreamer,
    And solar’s just a dream,
    You are just e-
    motional to me.
    You’re past that moment
    When sanity tips
    That manic feeling
    When reality slips
    Away and sends you
    on your foggy trip.

    You yell into hurricanes
    There's Keystone in your eye.
    And you’re gettin' blown away
    By someone smarter
    who understands the way
    You want to stop it but
    You’re getting blown away.

  3. Expect pushback of this sort: "but we'll lose sunk costs in our oil infrastructure!" To which the fantasy response is, yes, to encourage the others.

    The real response will be bailouts and buybacks.

  4. Pingback: Wherein Our Hero Yells at a Hurricane and Scares It A Little Bit | Planet3.0 | evolveSUSTAIN

  5. "It makes no difference", that classical excuse, is either childish or a declaration of moral bankruptcy. This is clearly characteristic of U.S. polit discourse and should be pointed out more often and explicitly.

    (Here's one of the crassest examples. I heard it many times in my youth from elderly Germans: "Auschwitz made no difference. See, the Jews are still around.")

  6. Well, since you asked, Horatio actually wrote a version of Imagine a while back, but never did a recording (lucky you)

    And putting that goofiness next to Connie's beautiful rendition would be comparing (rotten) apples to oranges.

  7. Did y'all know the bridge collapse was caused by drilling equipment? Once again I am lifting wholesale from Tenney Naumer; she also

    A trooper says the truck whose oversize load caused the collapse of an interstate bridge in Washington state was hauling drilling equipment from Canada.

    .... Francis says the tractor-trailer was hauling drilling equipment housing to Vancouver, Wash....

    Witness Francisco Rodriguez looked at the damage Tuesday evening and realized the area has lost an important transportation link.
    Initially, it wasn't clear if the bridge just gave way on its own. But at an overnight news conference, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste blamed it on a tractor-trailer carrying an oversize load that hit an upper part of the span.
    Traffic could be affected for some time. The bridge is used by an average of 71,000 vehicles a day, so the roadblock will cause a major disruption in trade and tourism between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.


    The manufacturer and designer of complex gear capable of moving 10 million pounds of heavy-duty oil and natural gas rigs all across the world is booming.

    From Alaska to Calgary, Houston to the United Arab Emirates, the long-time family-run business is evolving and growing....

    there are some big players in the logistics industry in Alberta's oil sands. For example, Mullen Trucking L.P. has a $2.5 billion market cap. Terrible road conditions mean trucking equipment around is hugely important. Tahiliani said rig-moving equipment is "the latest thing."

    The Chinese are involved too, no surprises there. Clearly this is huge business, and no resistance will be tolerated if it is possible to ignore or steamroller it.

  8. You are seriously implying that Rapier's analysis is morally equivalent to German anti-semitism and equivocation on Auschwitz? I find that to be fairly contemptible. In an environment where you have a limited number of arrows in your quiver, where each arrow is of questionable utility, and you have vastly more enemies than arrows, how is it not reasonable to argue that those arrows should be employed in shooting at a target where they have a reasonable chance of a kill?

    Until Canada (or Alberta) wins the lottery Michael mentions, or until a carbon tax or other method of rationally allocating all externalities to the bitumen are implemented, it will be extracted and exploited. Even if either of these happens, it may still be extracted and exploited. Does anyone on this site think it will stay in the ground? Likely, a pipeline will be built. Also likely, it will ship by rail to a port facility.

    If this material is so dramatically worse than crude, natural gas, or coal then shouldn't the effort be to build this inherent evil into the price? If no one will buy it, it won't be extracted, shipped, or processed. Until that happens, it's reasonable that the least potentially damaging means of getting it to refineries is the optimal (or least non-optimal) solution, along with some implementation of strict liability.

    As Rapier points out, it's hardly the case that the lands and aquifers to be crossed by Keystone are virgin prairie lands, untouched by human influence. They're industrially farmed, they're crossed by many other pipelines.

  9. "If this material is so dramatically worse than crude, natural gas, or coal then shouldn’t the effort be to build this inherent evil into the price? "

    That's exactly what I'm proposing. The risk of us winning drives up the price before we even win.

    "Does anyone on this site think it will stay in the ground? "

    Very few scenarios which dig up all the carbon have a happy ending. Of the carbon out there, this is clearly in the class that should not be exploited. Whether a happy ending is to be expected or not is beside the point. The happy ending is the target. We have no choice but to choose our future.

    "You are seriously implying that Rapier’s analysis is morally equivalent to German anti-semitism and equivocation on Auschwitz? "

    Calm down, Rob. No need to escalate. Let me be the hypersensitive one on Godwin's Law, please, at least around these parts.

  10. I'm not at all sure what these maps show or where the data comes from.

    Anyway a few gallons here and there is a very separate issue. Every time we drive our cars or run our furnaces there is something like I would call an oil spill into the air.

    Tar sands not only do more damage to the atmosphere than other oil. They cause more damage at the source and more on the way to market if they spill. Given the necessity to cut back, installing new capacity is over the line.

  11. You are seriously implying that Rapier’s analysis is morally equivalent to German anti-semitism and equivocation on Auschwitz?

    No, I wasn't. My intention was to illustrate the pattern (or anti-pattern as software engineers would call it). While there is a striking psycho-energetic similarity between Auschwitz and climate denial, I did not think them morally equivalent.

    But now, after a little reflection... and anyhow I got a private Godwin Award 2012 from grandmaster Neven for this piece...

    Here are some numbers: IPCC AR4 WGII In the year 2000, climate change is estimated to have caused the loss of over 150,000 lives and 5,500,000 DALYs. WHO Fact sheet N°266 (Oct. 2012): Global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140 000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004. (...) Many of the major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes. DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012: Nearly 1,000 children a day are now dying because of climate change, (...), and the annual death toll stands at 400,000 people worldwide.

    Add/multiply crisis amplification due to overpopulation, resource depletion, and the notorious difficulty of humans to starve peacefully. (E.g. Somalia, Darfur, the carnage in current Syria.)

    So, under the very likely BAU emissions scenario it seems quite likely to get a death toll of at least 100 million during this century. Which dwarfs Auschwitz. -- Of course murder by negligence is not morally equivalent to planned murder. But today's negligence of scientific facts (even trivial facts like the finitude of round objects) is all too often due to greed and ideological ego delusion - which makes it reprehensible enough to be almost morally equivalent to Auschwitz denial, for my weird taste.

    Me German (grown up with Auschwitz denial) has spoken.

  12. But how is this not of moving the goal posts? The discussion was about whether Rapier's argument that opposition to the Keystone XL is misguided is valid. I agree, in large part, with Rapier. I'd find it extremely surprising if someone who knows my views would consider that I'm a climate denier. Michael Tobis knows my views better than anyone on this site. I'd be surprised if he thought of me as a denier, though he and I disagree on many things and it's true that I'm certainly a huge carbon emitter. But your original post compared Rapier's contention that, ultimately, Keystone XL being built or not being built will make no difference to Germans who contended that Auschwitz made no difference. It was not about climate denial.

    From what I've read of Rapier, he's not a "denier." His point is that (and yes, I know it's been said here and elsewhere and that there are many arguments against the point insofar as it's used to argue against the value of some particular policy to reduce our emissions) the huge problem with carbon is the developing nations of Asia (in particular) who already outstrip US and EU emissions with very low per capita emission rates but huge populations who desire the lifestyles we enjoy and who are burning coal to achieve them. These are simply facts. And because this demand will continue to increase (certeris parabus), the bitumen will find its way to the marketplace. Would it not be best to have it do so using the most efficient, least likely to cause damage method of transport to the refinery?

  13. Rob, please let's forget about that detour to old Germany. For here comes another crazy comparison. Hold your breath, don't take it personal 🙂

    And because this demand will continue to increase (certeris parabus), the bitumen will find its way to the marketplace. Would it not be best to have it do so using the most efficient, least likely to cause damage method of transport to the refinery?

    People tend to die. Natural death isn't easy going, e.g. cancer. Would it not be best to quickly kill them without pain before they get old and sick?

    Anyhow, forget the ceteris paribus - things are changing. Panta rhei. Meanwhile it looks China will again overtake this senile uncle Sam with defossilizing their energy and take a lead in climate politics.

    If there really is a serious long-term market for that Canadian crap, then forget about homo sapiens and a decent future for life. (The logic should be clear: Such a market situation would mean that homo sapiens is desperate to burn all fossil carbon it can get hold of.)

    But you can have your pipeline if you can prove beyond doubt that the future is necessarily apocalyptic. I would then apply the above pattern of antimoral logic and happily advocate your pipeline to speed up catastrophe. We don't want to suffer for too many generations (or in the worst case survive as an explicitly cannibalistic Mad Max on Greenland. (We are, in fact, already virtually cannibalizing our children.)) Mercy genocide!

  14. Ok, I'll forget that (though even your latest reply seemed a bit slippery - I'm making the point that .... oh, heck, never mind).

    But you've prodded me to think about not what should happen but what I think actually will happen. I don't envision an unalterably apocalyptic future. I do think that one significant measure of the "general happiness level" of humanity will be kilowatts converted per capita and we'll need to find where those kilowatts are going to originate. I'd speculate that we'll wind up with two or three billion people or so converting primary energy at the rate of two or three kilowatts (Americans are currently around 10kW and Europe about half that). That would be about 270 "quads" (quadrillion btu)/year. We currently convert about 490 quads (the latent physicist in me won't let me say "consume" since energy can't be consumed).

    Is this something that can be accomplished without fossil fuels? I'd say yes, though spectacularly large problems stand in the way. Land use problems, water use problems, infrastructure problems (probably the largest), political problems, etc. But it's either that or the Mad Max world.

    All of that said, I still agree with Rapier that Keystone XL, built or not built, will have no noticeable effect on the process of getting to my little utopian world, still think that the bitumen will be extracted and burned, and still think the pipeline is the least potentially damaging way to get it to a refinery. I am with Michael on attaching the external costs to the price. His concept of making the investment more at risk vs. simply driving up the price is quite interesting, though I'm not sure I go along.

    I note that the arguments I read in many places revolve around what amounts to red herring issues regarding a pipeline across the aquifer, etc. (as if it would be the first or as if what's happening both above and in the aquifer isn't already damaging it). Surely coal is a better target for the arrows in your quiver with their limited number and limited effectiveness.

  15. The point is that most of the carbon has to stay in the ground. I don't want to throw names around, but it seems to me that anyone who doesn't see that is part of the problem.

    Stopping coal specifically seemed to make sense a few years back, but now that new fossil fuel sources are coming online stopping coal is not enough.

    So "still think that the bitumen will be extracted and burned," is a problem, and it strikes me that this sense of inevitability is very much what the onwers of any given resource will prefer.

    And "the pipeline is the least potentially damaging way to get it to a refinery." seems to be belied by the Michigan and Arkansas accidents. Ruptures in these particular pipelines seem particularly difficult to manage.

    You say "Is this something that can be accomplished without fossil fuels? I’d say yes, though spectacularly large problems stand in the way." I more or less agree, but I am convinced as well that the political common interest vs vested interest problem is by far the hardest to surmount of these. One doesn't surmount one's most difficult problem by walking away from it.

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