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ASU experts discuss Keystone XL Pipeline, national energy policy

four male energy experts sit on stools to discuss Keystone pipeline
February 28, 2013

Experts from Arizona State University recently joined the national discussion about the 2,000-mile Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed to carry crude bitumen from Canadian tar sands to oil refineries on the U.S. gulf coast.

The national dialogue is often contentious. Opponents of the pipeline argue that the project would increase air and water pollution, affect conservation efforts, infringe on indigenous cultures, and stall America’s pursuit of clean energy. Proponents contend that a North American energy supply is more secure than oil coming from the Middle East.

The Feb. 22 panel discussion at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability was moderated by Carbon Nation Director Peter Byck, and featured former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, ASU sustainability scientist Mike Pasqualetti, and visiting sustainability scientist Wally Broecker, considered by many to be the “grandfather of climate science.”

Reducing emissions is critical

“We cannot any longer use the atmosphere as the waste basket for carbon dioxide,” Broecker contends. “All we do all day is create CO2 one way or another, so to change the world in any way is a huge enterprise. It’s only when the really bad side of global warming starts to show up that people will start to do something,” he says.

“If we don’t burn [the tar sands oil] here, it [is likely to] be burned in China, unless the miracle of non-carbon energy comes along before it’s depleted. [Stopping the tar sands from being mined] is never going to win because tar sands are worth so much money,” says Broecker.

“My strategy would be to work to get a price on carbon,” he says, in addition to improving technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Wally Broecker is the Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a visiting sustainability scientist at ASU.

Pipeline gives momentum to fossil fuel-based future

Pasqualetti likened Keystone to drilling for oil within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an ongoing political controversy since 1977. Pasqualetti pointed out that opponents to Keystone, like opponents to ANWR, are not only opposed to the messy prospect of drilling for oil.

“[The pipeline] sets some things in motion. It gives momentum to carbon-based fuels in the future, and pushes us in – as these people see it – in the wrong direction,” notes Pasqualetti. “Some of the biggest public protests in recent memory have been over this. This is that line in the sand.”

“We have to establish a direction in which we want to move. I don’t think this pipeline is the direction we want to move in,” adds Pasqualetti. Martin (Mike) Pasqualetti is a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU, where he is also a member of the graduate faculty in Global Technology and Development.

Increased supply increases security

While the oil supplied by the Keystone pipeline would not lower oil prices, Hofmeister believes stopping the pipeline would have a negative impact on economic and national security. “I would approve [the pipeline] instantly because of the national security risk of not approving it.”

“Our whole society is predicated on personal mobility,” says Hofmeister. If the oil imports we depend upon are jeopardized, he asks, “How do people get to work? How do they live?” The lack of availability becomes an issue of national, economic, and environmental security, he says. 

“Until we can substitute for the internal combustion engine, then we’ve got to have that oil.” John Hofmeister left Shell Oil to establish his nonprofit, Citizens for Affordable Energy. He is a distinguished sustainability scholar and the Julie A. Wrigley Private Sector Executive-in-Residence for Sustainability at ASU’s School of Sustainability.

Politics and our energy future

“I can envision a 50-year journey to a cleaner future,” says Hofmeister. “It’s not that we don’t have the technology; it’s because of the politics. We have to address the governance. If we don’t address the governance, our grandchildren will be sitting here addressing the governance because we can’t get anything done.”

Moderator Byck believes the Keystone pipeline deal will be signed, but he wonders whether President Obama is using the debate as a way to leverage negotiations. “Imagine if [Obama] said he’ll sign it if Congress says we will have a 20-year tax credit for wind and solar,” muses Byck. People who might be upset about the Keystone deal might be somewhat appeased to know that the President is thinking about the big picture, too.

The pipeline today

As of Feb. 25, the section of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas is almost complete, and could be transporting oil by the end of the year. The pipeline’s construction has been hindered by protestors since the very beginning. On Feb. 13, environmentalists, including the Sierra Club’s executive director, and celebrities were arrested at the White House for tying themselves to the front gates.

For now, the pipeline’s future hinges on Obama’s final decision during the latter half of 2013.