Silliness quadrupled: The Center for American Progress on Keystone XL

Referencing a "new scientific paper," Emily Atkin at ThinkProgress argues that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline "could" result in "carbon" emissions "up to four times greater than the U.S. State Department estimated."

Put aside the use of the term "carbon," a central example of the political propaganda so beloved throughout the climate industry. Carbon dioxide is not "carbon"; the alternative phrase "greenhouse gases" would be both scientifically accurate and far less emotive and misleading.

And put aside the dreadful economic analysis underlying the conclusions derived in the "new scientific paper." The authors assume that construction of Keystone XL, by substituting cheaper pipeline transport in place of rail transport, somehow would reduce world crude oil prices. That is incorrect: It would increase the prices (net of transport costs) received by the Canadian producers; total world crude oil supply would remain essentially unchanged because the Canadian oil will be produced regardless of how it is transported. The purported reduction in prices derived by the authors is driven by their (incorrect) assumption that Keystone XL would yield an outward expansion of global oil supply attendant upon the Canadian production; but even in that analytic framework, oil investment, production and consumption are substitutable over time. Accordingly, it is straightforward to predict ancillary reductions in oil output elsewhere because of the assumed price decline: The Canadian oil would substitute for production elsewhere in both the short- and long runs. Therefore, even in their analytic framework, the magnitude of the assumed price decline and therefore the size of the assumed increases in consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are biased upward, a reality that the authors, and Atkin, simply do not understand.

Atkin instead simply parrots the conclusion that the "climate impact" of Keystone XL "could amount to anywhere from zero to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year," a range "four times wider than what the State Department forecasted — an emissions range of 1 million and 27 million tons of carbon dioxide per year."

Ignore the fact that the State Department finding for total greenhouse gas emissions attendant upon the construction and operation of Keystone XL is 147 to 159 million metric tons per year on a "lifecycle" basis, under the assumption that the Canadian oil would not replace other production in the world oil market. That essentially is the conceptual experiment — prices fall and consumption increases — conducted by the authors of the "new scientific paper" underlying Atkin's argument. (See the comments above on "dreadful economic analysis.") Atkin, and the authors of the "new scientific paper," obviously do not understand that the State Department's "emissions range of 1 million and 27 million tons" is an estimate of "incremental" effects, that is, the net increase in greenhouse gas emissions under the assumption that the Canadian oil replaces other production ("four reference crudes") elsewhere in the world. That assumption is the opposite of the one made in the "new scientific paper" upon which Atkin depends. In short: She is oblivious to the fact that her argument is inconsistent with that analysis!

And ignore the fact that an increase in greenhouse gas emissions is not a "climate impact": The latter is a function of the former, and depends on the choice among climate models and, more important, among assumptions about the nature, direction and magnitude of such poorly understood feedback effects as ocean evaporation and cloud dynamics — that is, the climate sensitivity of the atmosphere. Instead, let us focus on the blindingly obvious question that Atkin simply ignores: What would the "climate" impact of an annual emissions increase of 110 million tons of carbon dioxide be?

For that, let us use the climate model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, used by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Global greenhouse gas emissions are about 36 billion tons annually, of which 110 million tons would be an increase of three tenths of 1 percent. What would the predicted temperature impact of that be in the year 2100? Answer: Less than four ten-thousandths of a degree, under the highest (of four) IPCC assumptions about the radiative (temperature) effect of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. Forget the attendant impacts on storms and the like: That temperature effect would not be measurable, in that the standard deviation of the temperature record is about eleven one-hundredths of a degree. More generally: Can anyone actually view that temperature impact as anything other than laughable?

The larger reality is that both Atkin and the authors of the "new scientific paper" simply cannot abide the increases in national wealth and attendant improvement in the economic circumstances of billions of people engendered by technological advance and the application of human ingenuity to the harsh conditions of life. Those are the core benefits of the concentrated energy embodied in fossil fuels, a condition very different from the diffused (and therefore expensive) energy-characterizing wind and other such "renewables." For the political left, fossil fuels facilitate an abhorrent increase in the independence of individuals from centralized control, notwithstanding the reality that a general improvement in living standards is the driving condition yielding a collective willingness to invest in environmental improvement.

In any event: Is the Center for American Progress not embarrassed by the publication of such deeply unserious blather? Apparently not: It is the political agenda that matters, and any argument that furthers it is acceptable. The sad reality is that such propaganda actually is taken seriously as policy analysis by many inside the Beltway. Wow.

Zycher is the John G. Searle scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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