The tubes have been buzzing over a new New York Times report on Secretary of State John Kerry’s aggressive pursuit of a new global climate agreement, which has some clear implications for approval of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. In a nutshell, things ain’t looking so good, and that has us wondering if the US coal industry is also going to face some serious problems down the road.
The Keystone XL pipeline requires White House approval because it crosses a US border. For those of you new to the topic, the Canada-based project will convey diluted bitumen (yes, that dilbit) down from Canadian tar sands oil fields (yes, that tar sands) through the US midsection to Gulf Coast refineries, destined for overseas markets.
However, tar sands oil is not the only fossil at stake here. As a fossil fuel export-enabling project, Keystone is a big, fat, square peg aimed at the round holes of Kerry’s global climate policymaking efforts. Now, think about that for a minute, and then take a look at what the New York Times article implies about that other square peg, coal exports from the US.
Coal Is The Canary In The Coal Mine
The Times notes that in the absence of Congressional action on climate management, President Obama has focused on executive action. That includes, notably, a new EPA regulation that will eventually shut down the worst-polluting coal fired power plants in the US while preventing the construction of new ones.
That’s all well and good but we’ve frequently noted that as US coal consumption declines, US coal exports have gone up, so as a matter of global emissions the EPA action simply shifts the problem overseas.
This is where Kerry comes in. According to the Times, Kerry is looking ahead to the negotiation of a major climate pact in 2015, which means that coal-hungry China will be front and center.
Now let’s connect the dots. If the 2015 pact does happen, and if it sets some meaningful milestones for transitioning out of coal fired power production, the global market for US coal will start to dry up.
The key to Kerry’s success is US credibility on the subject of greenhouse gas management, which is certainly helped by the EPA action. Additionally, the Times notes that Kerry has established some important trust with his counterparts in China, having just brokered an agreement with that country for a joint phase-down of hydrofluorocarbon production.
Now take a look at that Keystone XL pipeline, and you can see how approval of the project would pull the rug out from under everything that Kerry has been working for. It puts the US in the position of aiding and abetting the introduction of more fossil fuel into the global market, while putting domestic safety and security at risk.
John Kerry And The Keystone XL Pipeline
Kerry has stated that he will not involve himself directly in the Keystone review process, which was well under way when he became Secretary of State. However, Keystone raises the kind of red flags that he has been pursuing over a decades-long record of climate action, one highlight being the 2007 publication of This Moment on Earth, a book on the power of individuals to change environmental policy.
More recently, one of Kerry’s first major speeches as new Secretary of State in 2013 was a real barn-burner, in which he outlined the economic benefits of an aggressive global policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if you imagine that there is no scientific consensus on the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming:
Well, the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.
Having said all that, we’d be surprised as anybody if the Keystone XL pipeline does get approval. However, now might be a time to get your forks ready.
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