Debunking Fareed Zakaria on Keystone -- and Rethinking 'Acceptable' Energy Policy

FILE - This March 22, 2012 file photo shows President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushin
FILE - This March 22, 2012 file photo shows President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. Embarking on a second term, Obama faces mounting pressure on a decision he had put off during his re-election campaign: whether to approve the $7 billion proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Lately, we've seen one misleading and fallacious pro-Keystone XL article after another. One such recent piece in TIME magazine was, unfortunately, penned by none other than Fareed Zakaria. It's time we not only put the old Keystone XL myths permanently to rest, but also hold intellectuals and the media accountable, and -- crucially -- reframe the way we define "acceptable" energy policies and outcomes.

Refreshingly, Zakaria's piece doesn't make the usual claim about jobs -- which is good, because the pipeline could provide as few as 20 permanent ones. But let's look at some of the arguments he makes:

The title itself is misleading: "Reducing our dependence on oil will do far more to slow climate change than blocking the Keystone Project."

Fact Check (again!): The Keystone XL pipeline will not reduce our dependence on foreign oil nor "substantially influence" our energy security, as even the State Department's inadequate Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) points out. This is an export pipeline, designed to go through, not to, America. Even pro-Keystone policymakers and oil industry officials have been clear on this point.

Zakaria goes on to argue that "the facts don't really support singling out Keystone" in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. In truth, the Keystone pipeline would account for less than 0.5 percent of global GHG emissions. Sounds like nothing, right? Here's another way to look at it: The Keystone XL pipeline, if combined with the already-planned further development of the oil sands, could produce more GHG than countries such as Kenya and New Zealand -- combined.

One can argue that any and every individual fossil fuel-related project in the world has a relatively small or "negligible" impact on climate. What can't be argued is the fact that planet Earth is on the brink of climate disaster. Despite having few or no single projects that produce "significant" emissions, we're at a position in history where, within the next few years, we need to dramatically change our energy policy while doing so can still have an impact.

Mr. Zakaria also writes, "One way to think about the Keystone project... is to ask what would happen if it is never built," suggesting that if we don't build it, somebody else will. Of all the arguments for supporting Keystone, this is surely the most naive. For one thing, it is by no means a certainty. Other proposed tar sands pipelines are dead in the water, halted by intense public pressure and unyielding local opposition.

Furthermore, the very idea that if we don't do it, somebody else will, is a particularly dangerous false dichotomy. I've read similar arguments (espoused before my time) defending slavery, which was once viewed as the only practical way to harvest cotton. The rhetoric went something like "if we abolish it, other states will continue to use it and benefit from it."

This manner of thinking, which is precisely not the job of the SEIS, was strongly incorporated into the State Department's report nonetheless. That alone should raise an important flag. The State Department's responsibility is to weigh the environmental impact of the project, not to imagine who else might approve a similar project if this one is denied.

This brings me to what I believe is the most crucial point. The biggest problem with Zakaria's article lies not with the numerous and repeatedly debunked arguments about Keystone XL in particular. No, the big issue here is that this article is part of an alarming trend by respected academics, policy wonks, and other prominent figures. It reflects a prevailing thought process that has outlived its usefulness, one that absolutely must be discarded and replaced with something new.

Zakaria suggests that if we have to get oil from elsewhere (which we've now established would be the case whether or not this Canadian pipeline is built), it will be a "big step backward for the environment." Not only is this argument wrong, but the entire line of thinking is completely flawed.

Science tells us we have a very tiny window to take meaningful climate action before we hit irreversible tipping points. We simply can't afford to give serious consideration to any suggestion that we replace big steps backward with slightly smaller steps backward, or maybe we take one big step forward and two medium steps back, or how about we just shuffle sideways?

When influential "very serious people" such as Zakaria come out with high-profile articles that promote these arguments, they lend credibility to the idea that "slightly better than terrible" outcomes can be part of an acceptable energy policy. That line of thinking is beyond dangerous -- by precluding any hope of averting global warming greater than 2 degrees Celsius, it borders on suicidal.

The science is irrefutable: We have to stop stepping backward, and start stepping forward -- fast.

Zakaria and I both hope that science and analysis aren't trumped by ideology. The analysis has been extensive, and is conclusive: This pipeline is bad for American jobs, health and safety, energy security, innovation, and smart growth. Its passage would also be a major step in a direction we can't afford.

America has what it takes to produce real jobs and be an innovation leader in the global green economy. Let's stop this pipeline, move forward, and build the America of the future.

But let's do more than that. Let's reexamine our arguments, and even reconstruct the way we think about these problems, to make sure that they are compatible with the science of today and a livable future on planet Earth.