Pipeline paradox

Posted: Jan 22, 2020

The results of three recent national polls caught my eye this week. One is focused on public opinion of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline and the others illuminate what Americans believe about climate change. At the same time, two federal reports which take a serious look at climate change and how we might manage our natural resources to adapt to it, have emerged.

The KXL, if constructed by TransCanada, would move up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude 875 miles from Alberta’s oil sands through three states (Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska) and then link up with the existing Keystone pipeline which transports oil to Gulf Coast refineries.

Last month the U.S. State Department released an updated Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for the proposed project (after it was denied a Presidential Permit in November 2011) which shows changes to the route and length of the pipeline. Comments on the DSEIS are due by April 22.

Despite many high-profile protests and acts of civil disobedience over the past couple of years, focused in part on the adverse effects that extracting and burning the fossil fuels the KXL would be transporting would have (tar sands fuel is nearly 20 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional fuel), there were some surprising and contradictory poll results this week.

A national survey, conducted from March 13 to 17 by the Pew Research Center asked 1,501 adults what they thought about the KXL. The near even split of Democrats, Independents and Republicans are 66 percent in favor of (only 23 percent opposed it and 11 percent didn’t know) building the pipeline.

The same survey asked, “Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?” Sixty-nine percent of those polled answered yes, and 42 percent agreed that it is “caused mostly by human activity” (23 percent said it is caused mostly by natural patterns in the earth’s environment). A Gallup survey done a week earlier looked at 1,022 adults’ views on global warming, but a little differently. The poll showed that 58 percent of Americans worry “a great deal or a fair amount” about it (up from 51 percent who expressed concern about climate change two years ago). A recent Yale and George Mason universities poll showed that a solid majority of Republicans now believe climate change is happening and support action on it.

Considering that most people agree the earth is warming and a majority actively worry about it, it’s quizzical that many Americans support the pipeline. Researchers believe Alberta’s tar sands contain from 360 to 510 billion tons of carbon; that’s equivalent to adding billions of cars to our highways, and is more than twice the total oil that’s been burned by humans throughout history.

Add to the equation two reports out recently which show that, on the federal level, this country is getting serious about addressing the realities of climate change. The first is the Colorado Plateau Rapid Ecoregional Assessment (REA) the first of many such analyses to be done by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which look at current conditions and how particular landscapes could be altered by climate change and other “agents.” This REA looks at the Colorado Plateau, which includes 32,387 square miles of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and includes all or some of 16 BLM field offices. Its riot of charts and models projects that drier, hotter weather could have profound impacts on the Colorado Plateau’s stream flows, vegetation and resident mammals, birds and fish.

This and other REAs give the BLM a holistic view of entire areas of the West that it hasn’t had up to this point. While the REAs don’t make management decisions, they provide science-based information for land managers and stakeholders to use when revising Resource Management Plans and Environmental Impact Statements. Changing the way natural resources in these areas are managed won’t halt climate change but it can mitigate its effects by, for instance, protecting biodiversity by preserving water sources for imperiled wildlife and keeping sizeable tracts of roadless land intact (to give wildlife the time and space to adapt to climate change).

The need to protect fish, wildlife and plants from the impacts of climate change is at the heart of the second federal report, The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. “Climate change is already here,” says the report. “It is clear from current trends and future projections that we are now committed to a certain amount of changes and impacts, making climate adaptation planning a critical part of responding to this complex challenge.” The seven-pronged strategy was crafted by federal, state and tribal agencies to “guide responsible actions” (such as climate-smart conservation policies) by natural resource managers and other decision-makers at all levels of government over the next five to 10 years.

Apparently, there’s no time like the present. “The problem is serious and urgent,” says the report. “The nation must prepare for and adapt to a changing climate.” Approving a KXL permit would be absurdly illogical—if the Obama administration were to allow the construction it would with one hand exacerbate the problem it’s insisting we mitigate, and adapt to, on the other. 

~Heather Hansen

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