Saturday, February 11, 2012

Nocera on the XL Pipeline

New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera courted controversy earlier this week, when he argued that the federal government should approve the XL Pipeline project that would transport oil from Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast (see here). He was widely criticized, including by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm (see here), for ignoring the environmental costs of oil produced from tar sands. Today, Nocera responded to his critics (here).

I don't necessarily disagree with the substance of Nocera's arguments against those who would label him (unfairly) a "climate change denier" or with his overall analysis of Project XL. He is surely right that the pipeline would not make much difference for climate change or other environmental concerns. By the same token, however, I don't think it would make much economic or energy-supply difference for the US. What most strikes me from Nocera's defense of Project XL is the following claim:
The seemingly inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of deeply ingrained human habits, which will not change if the pipeline is ultimately blocked. 
I have no qualms with the second clause, but the first strikes me as making what is for me a novel and wrongheaded argument that our reliance on fossil fuels is somehow a matter of habit or acculturation, like some kind of Humean convention. It's true that humans have relied on fossil fuels for energy for more than a century, and that our economy remains highly dependent on those fuels. But an argument from economic need hardly signifies "deeply ingrained human habits." I don't suppose most humans care a whit about whether their energy comes from fossil fuels, nuclear fission, solar power, hydrogen or any other particular source. What human producers and consumers care about is reliable and low cost energy, period. In other words, we have "deeply ingrained human habits" of (private, as opposed to social) cost-minimization.

Nocera is quite right, of course, that reliable and affordable substitutes for fossil fuels do not yet exist in sufficient quantities to move the economy off its reliance on carbon-based sources, and none are expected to exist for at least the next two to three decades. For that reason, I find it disagree with his conclusion that Project XL should be (and ultimately will be) approved. The more interesting and important question, however, concerns the appropriate balance between averting dangerous climate change and securing adequate energy supplies (which, I hasten to add, should have nothing to do with misleading, misguided, and downright mythical claims about "energy independence"). Neither Nocera or his critics offers much insight on how or where to strike that balance.

Finally, one argument against the Keystone XL pipeline that Nocera fails to consider, and the main reason I oppose the pipeline, is purely a matter of economic policy. If one believes that averting climate change is an important social goal, and one further agrees that the only way to accomplish that goal is to increase market prices of fossil fuels so as to create market incentives to innovate new, cheaper, low-carbon substitutes, then rejecting the pipeline contributes marginally to that goal. If we do not take steps in that direction, then Nocera's argument about our supposed "deeply ingrained human habits" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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