In the Ground

I'll be honest. There were times, particularly in the early years before tens of thousands marched in protest, when I wasn't confident that President Obama would reject Keystone XL. This was, after all, a president who bragged about the surge in domestic oil and gas development under his watch and who seemed to drop the phrase "all of the above" into every energy-policy speech.

But when the president finally did announce that Keystone would be rejected, "all of the above" was replaced with an historic new message: "We're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground."

Some Keystone supporters have argued that Obama's decision to cancel Keystone was a "symbolic" move rather than a substantive response to the threat of climate disruption.

Although the pipeline did acquire symbolic importance, the real issue was always how we should think about tar sands and, by extension, other large, and largely undeveloped, carbon reserves. Do we have the self-control to leave them in the ground, or will they be impossible to resist? A USA Today op-ed was typical of the latter viewpoint:

"Most or all of that Canadian oil will likely be produced anyway, perhaps to go to consumers in China or elsewhere via alternative pipelines..."

Just this week, Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, effectively killed another proposed oil pipeline (Enbridge's Northern Gateway) by ordering a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia's North Coast. The Northern Gateway was one of the alternatives that USA Today so optimistically guessed would send Canadian oil to China.

More "oil is inevitable" rhetoric from USA Today:

"Environmentalists' campaign to keep tar sands oil in the ground is unlikely to succeed. Current low world oil prices are making it less inviting to move the oil now, but if history is any guide, oil prices will rebound as they always have."

Sorry, but history cannot be our guide here. History has no precedent for the situation the world has found itself in. That's why world leaders will soon gather in Paris with a goal of finding a path toward peaking and ultimately reducing global carbon emissions. For that to happen, though, we'll need to rethink our relationship with all fossil fuels -- and consider how extracting them will affect our climate. Seen through that lens, there's no defense for any policy that would facilitate extracting and burning an increased amount of tar sands oil. That is why Keystone was defeated.  

This is not solely a moral calculus, however. It's also an economic one. The more serious the world is about reducing carbon emissions, the less sense it makes to invest in a fossil-fuel future. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is optimistic that the U.S. will actually surpass its goal of cutting CO2 emissions 32 percent by 2030 for exactly this reason. According to her, energy efficiency and renewable energy are already "where the investment is heading."

In the meantime, though, we need to start making more decisions like Obama's on Keystone that support our climate goals. That means holding all fossil fuels accountable for the damage they are causing.

Fossil fuel producers sense this, and they are circling their wagons. This week, the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance announced that they will merge their operations. It's a logical move, because oil and gas have more in common as climate polluters than most people realize. New research from Cornell University has found that, in terms of climate pollution, fracked shale gas is more dangerous than both coal and oil.

What makes fracked shale gas so dangerous to the climate are methane emissions, which have been consistently underestimated by both industry and the EPA. As a greenhouse gas, methane has a much greater short-term impact than carbon dioxide does. In fact, it's possible that U.S. methane emissions from fracking during the past decade were enough to negate our reduction in CO2 emissions over the same period.

We have no shortage of reasons to stop fracking for shale gas -- from earthquakes to air pollution to groundwater contamination. But the revelation that shale gas could undo all our climate progress has got to be near the top of the list. The U.S. has been fracking shale gas for barely a decade. During that time, no one really knew how it might affect our climate. Now we do. If we choose not to keep that shale gas in the ground, no one will be able to say that we didn't know better.

Senator Jeff Merkley has unveiled a new bill that would keep dirty fuels in the ground where they belong. Urge your senators to support keeping dirty fuels in the ground!