The Obama Administration has delayed its decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. I think this is a qualified victory for climate activists, and I think it’s incredible. A few months ago we hosted a cross-country caravan of Tar Sands Action protestors sleeping in our living room and carport on their way to DC to be arrested (along with Bill McKibben, James Hansen and more than a thousand other less well known folks), for protesting en masse in front of the White House. I thought it was a near-hopeless battle. Really, who knows what’s possible when we get our shit together?
RealClimate looks at Hansen and McKibben’s statements that the Keystone XL is essentially “game over” for the climate. All that really matters in the big picture is the absolute amount of carbon we release. How fast or slow we do it is of little consequence, because the effects last on the order of 10,000 years. If we’re aiming for 2°C of warming, or 450ppm CO2, and we assume that all of the world’s conventional oil and natural gas reserves are going to get burnt because they’re just too convenient, then we’re left with another 260 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon that can be released cumulatively from other sources. The Athabasca oil sands in total contain 230 GT (close enough to call it game ending) but not all of that will be producible economically. Even if we decide to go ahead, only a fraction of that will end up in the atmosphere. The Gillette coalfield in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin on the other hand contains about 70 GT of carbon in total, maybe half of that eventually being exploitable. Globally there are only 2 large tar sands deposits (the other being in Venezuela), but there’s a pretty large amount of coal… something like 800 GT of carbon equivalent appears to be economically accessible, and that’s far more than enough to fry us. So the Keystone XL pipeline and the tar sands in general are certainly significant battles, unlocking vast amounts of carbon, but in isolation, they’re not enough to end us. But then of course, they don’t exist in isolation. Going ahead on these non-traditional fossil fuel projects means we at some level intend to just Burn It All.
Pravda has put out a helpful timeline of the current Georgia-Russia conflict
Maybe I have a one track mind but, I don’t think this kind of conflict often erupts for purely egotistic political reasons. There’s a lot of energy backstory that isn’t being told in that Russian chronicle, such as the sabotage by someone of natural gas and electricity supplies headed into Georgia from Russia (gee, I wonder who it could have been… in the depths of a Caucasian winter in January 2006), the subsequent commissioning of the South Caucasus gas pipeline in December 2006, and all of the wrangling that’s been going on over the trans-Caspian gas pipeline since the mid 90s (Russian and Iran don’t want it, everyone else does, because Russian and Iran have gas already, and everyone else gets their gas from them).
Perhaps the largest diplomatic stick Russia can wield today is its oil and gas reserves (assuming they don’t want to actually like, invade a NATO country, or shoot off some plutonium fireworks), and they are jealously guarding the ability to wield that stick. Georgia has successfully circumvented them with the pipeline from Baku to Turkey (and eventually on to Europe), and I think in part now, they’re paying the price, so that others in central Asia with gas they’d like to independently pipe out of the region, including, perhaps most importantly, Iran, think twice about setting up their own circumvention. For instance, Iran built a pipeline into Armenia. It was supposed to be extendable, eventually onward to Turkey and Europe. Before it was built, Gazprom bought a controlling interest in the pipeline company, and summarily reduced the diameter of the pipeline from 1.4m to 0.7m, making it unable to carry enough gas for extending it to Turkey and Europe to be worthwhile.
I think that the blurring, or erasure, of the lines separating nations and corporations is interesting, and at least somewhat unexplored. (Maybe one major difference is that a nation-corp can more dependably rely on its nation’s armed forces to step in occasionally. Though, historically, US companies have had a pretty good chance of getting help on demand, at least in Latin America). We wouldn’t be surprised if Exxon did something like buy up a potential competitor, but when a nation does it, how do we react? In oil and gas, all of the major players are nation-corps. I think this is actually one of many very good reasons for the industrialized world (that, by and large, has used up its oil and gas) to invest heavily in renewable alternatives to oil and gas. If we develop renewables for national security (and environmental) reasons, the costs may well be reduced enough that other economies can use them simply because they’re cheap, distributed (more difficult to sabotage than a pipeline or LNG terminal), and don’t require you to be on good terms with Russia, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or get permission from the IAEA to spin up your centrifuges.
Pipelines are beasts curiously subject to consensus, because they are so easy to destroy. If anybody in the area doesn’t want one to function, it doesn’t. So Russia may well be able to maintain its pre-eminent position as gas supplier to Europe for a long while to come, and keep the squeeze on in central asia indefinitely. At least, until we stop relying on natural gas. Or until someone in central asia really decides it doesn’t want Russia’s natural gas infrastructure to function. Now wouldn’t that be fun for everyone!