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A Pipeline to the Past

Condoleezza Rice sells Keystone XL as a Solution to the Crisis in Ukraine

This is not the first time Condoleezza Rice has used a political crisis to advance the interests of the petroleum industry. In an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, the former Secretary of State connected the political fate of Ukraine to the pending approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

photoname Photo courtesy World Economic ForumFormer Secretary of State doesn't quite explain how the approval of a crude oil pipeline in the
United States would alter the petro-politics of natural gas in Ukraine.

Given her work in the Bush Administration to advance US military presence into oil-rich areas and her prior work for Chevron to advance their interests in Kazakhstan (Chevron even named an oil supertanker after her) she might not be the most unbiased source on the subject. You can read the entire WaPo piece here, but this is the excerpt that is noteworthy:

“Soon, North America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity. Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that. And Europe should finally diversify its energy supply and develop pipelines that do not run through Russia.”

The first problem with Rice’s argument is that the current conflict in Ukraine has much more to do with natural gas. In contrast, the Keystone XL pipeline is intended to transport crude oil from the tar sands of Canada, a source that is especially carbon-intensive. Even once operational, the pipeline will only provide less than one percent of total world oil use – hardly a “bounty.” Rice overstates the effect the pipeline will have on global market prices while minimizing the many environmental risks and the higher carbon intensity of extraction from tar sands. And, even if the pipeline were operational by the targeted date of 2016, the United States is currently barred from exporting crude oil. How will approval of a crude oil pipeline in the United States alter the petro-politics of natural gas in Ukraine?

Rice also claims that we need to champion our natural gas exports to send a “signal” that the US’ oil and gas bounty is more than Russia’s. This signal has long been sent. Obama’s Department of Energy has already approved six of 21 applications to build port facilities to export liquefied natural gas (LNG). Our petro-exports are already being expanded and these prior approvals will already lead to the export of around 9 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day.

But as this Politico article notes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given a boost to those calling for the US to speed up gas exports in order to “help” allies abroad curb the Kremlin’s growing influence in the region. It should be noted though, that Ukraine doesn’t even have an LNG terminal where it can receive this bounty of US natural gas.

The most laughable statement is Rice’s claim that “Europe should finally diversify its energy supply.” Coming from a former government official of a country that doesn’t even make top 10 on the most energy efficient countries in the world, the advice rings hollow. Whereas the US uses more than 9,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per dollar of GDP, the top 10 most energy efficient countries can accomplish the same economic productivity at a more efficient 7,500 BTUs or less.

For the sake of example, Germany (at 7,396 BTUs per dollar of GDP) is the number two in the world in energy efficiency scorecard (only behind the United Kingdom). Thanks to its proactive policy of Energiewende, Germany obtains a higher share of electricity from renewables than any other large country. Rice’s argument is even more flimsy when we add the context that Ukraine is one of the least energy efficient countries in the world, using 138,000 BTUs per dollar of GDP. Why reward inefficiency with lower energy prices and a carbon handout?

The most troubling point Rice makes is that “America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity.” This impulse to accelerate the pace of extraction and combustion of fossilized solar energy is wildly at odds with the bulk of peer-reviewed science that strongly recommends a move in the opposite direction.

“Swamping” Russia’s capacity also means swamping the planet with yet more CO2 emissions. The result of accelerating climate change will certainly result in negative outcomes that are far more terrifying than the specter of WMDs that Rice helped conjure up to sell the American public on a costly intervention in an oil-rich region over a decade ago. What is one “mushroom cloud” compared to, for example, oceans that will absorb so much CO2 that they become too acidic for life?

Rice is correct that authorization of Keystone XL provides a signal: It tells future generations that we decided to double down on the dirtiest source of fuels – tar sands – and that we lacked the political resolve to truly diversify our own energy supply while there was still time. It is a pipeline to the past.

Björn Philip Beer
Björn Philip Beer is writer, in Charlottesville, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @BjornPhilipBeer

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