What Now?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 11, 2011 9:04 PM


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Yesterday's announcement by the Obama Administration to postpone a final decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 20012 Presidential has triggered much chatter and insta-analysis. There are two smart takes worth pointing out. The first is this NYT op-ed by Michael Levi, a climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which I summarized in this tweet:

@levi_m has Fri op-ed that argues anti-keystone victory is triumph of BANANA, and bodes ill for U.S. clean energy econ.

BANANA, for those of you not familiar with the acronym, means "Build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything." While I understand the larger aims of the McKibben-led pipeline protest, I am in agreement with Levi that green NIMBYism represents a real threat to long-term clean energy and climate goals. I've previously made that argument here. As Levi notes in his piece:

The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.

The success of the anti-Keystone coalition may well trigger the law of unintended consequences, Levi cautions:

...oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy. The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.

He concludes:

Energy experts often note that it would be impossible to recreate today's energy infrastructure, given the intensity of opposition to pretty much any new development. The environmentalists' victory against Keystone XL will only reinforce that judgment. But realizing their broader vision "” a low-carbon economy that enhances the nation's security and helps avoid dangerous climate change "” will require defeating the same sort of local opposition that they have just embraced.

Now on to Bryan Walsh's article in Time, which astutely observes:

Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention"”and fear"”on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good But Keystone may have been a special case"”and a throwback. The local concerns in Nebraska had less to do with the climate risks of oil sands crude than fear of a pipeline spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That's a real concern"”but it's local, not the same as the global nature of the climate threat. As veterans of the environmental movement know, it's a lot easier to get people motivated to stop development than it is to organize them to push for something new. And sometimes that anti-development feeling can backfire as well"”look at some of the resistance to new wind turbinessolar projects and power lines that could connect to renewable sources.

So what comes next for McKibben and company? Walsh offers this advice:

If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy, spending more government money on energy research and development and passing climate legislation. This is hardly a secret"”there were protests and campaigns for the climate bill in 2009 and 2010, and McKibben's own 350.org campaign is about a lot more than just stopping fossil fuel development. But I've rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates that I've seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example. Protests and passion may have helped stop the Keystone pipeline, but will it be enough to build a new energy economy?

Good question. I think the answer will start to emerge by the time the final decision on the pipeline is made soon after the 2012 Presidential election.

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