TIME Environment

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Three Stories to Help You Understand the Debate

Truth About Oil
The Apr. 9, 2012, cover of TIME PHOTOGRAPH BY KENJI AOKI FOR TIME

The House has approved a pipeline proposal; the Senate is expected to vote on the subject next week

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become the single most important environmental issue in the U.S.—even though its environmental impact may not even be that great. The pipeline would move some 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and then down to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would make it easier for Canadian producers to sell their landlocked crude to the rest of the world—which is exactly what environmentalists fear. Oil sands crude is dirtier and has a bigger carbon footprint than conventional oil.

Landowners in Nebraska worry that a spill could contaminate the state’s vital aquifer, while environmentalists fear that the pipeline will speed the development of the oil sands and help add huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But other experts argue that oil sands crude will come to the U.S. by another route—most likely through rail—or be sold elsewhere in the world if Keystone isn’t built, meaning the planet won’t be any better off.

Since it’s an international project, the President has to sign off on the Keystone pipeline before it can be built—and much to the consternation of the oil industry, President Obama has delayed his decision for years, claiming that he needs more time to study the pipeline. But with Republicans now firmly in charge of both houses of Congress—and many conservative Democrats in favor of the project—Obama may need to make a decision soon.

With a decision potentially on the horizon — the House passed legislation on Friday and the Senate is expected to vote on the topic next week — refresh your understanding of the debate with these three articles from the TIME archives:

Mar. 12, 2012: Cold Warrior

A profile of activist and author Bill McKibben explains why the pipeline extension drew environmentalists’ attention, and how they helped influence President Obama’s decision to reject a 2012 version of the application to build the pipeline:

Though Canada is already mining and selling oil-sands crude, McKibben saw the proposed Keystone XL pipeline–set to deliver up to 830,000 barrels a day to the U.S.–as a crucial accelerator. More practically, because the cross-border pipeline required State Department approval, he saw an opportunity to confront Obama, who dropped an early climate-change agenda in the face of stiff resistance. In late August, McKibben, along with major environmental groups, helped organize days of protest around the White House. Over 12,000 people showed up, and hundreds were arrested. In November, Obama said he would delay a decision until 2013. But Republicans tacked a provision onto a payroll-tax-cut bill mandating that the White House decide on the pipeline within 60 days. In response, Obama decided in January to reject Keystone XL altogether.

Apr. 9, 2012: The Truth About Oil

A broader look at new sources of oil explains why the crude that would travel through the pipeline is different from other oil:

Oil has never exactly been clean, but the new sources coming online tend to be more polluting and more dangerous than conventional crude. Producing oil from the sands in northern Alberta can be destructive to the local environment, requiring massive open-pit mines that strip forests and take years to recover from. The tailings from those mines are toxic. While some of the newer production methods eschew the open-pit mines and instead process the sands underground or in situ, which is much cleaner, they still require additional energy to turn oil sands into usable crude. As a result, a barrel of oil-sand crude usually has a 10% to 15% larger carbon footprint than conventional crude over its lifetime, from the well to the wheels of a car. Given the massive size of the oil-sand reserve–nearly 200 billion recoverable barrels–that’s potentially a lot of carbon. It’s not surprising that environmentalists have loudly opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would send 800,000 barrels of oil-sand crude a day to the U.S. “There’s enough carbon there to create a totally different planet,” says James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and activist.

Jan. 31, 2014: Report Raises No Major Climate Objections to Keystone Pipeline, But the Choice Is Obama’s

After the President’s initial rejection of the pipeline proposal due to insufficient information, the State Department spent the next few years putting together an assessment of its potential environmental impact. The finding, released early this year, was disappointing to environmentalists: that whether or not the pipeline was built, about the same amount of oil would be produced.

A lot has changed since Keystone was first proposed back in 2005. U.S. domestic oil production has soared, last year hitting the highest level in two decades—a fact that has weakened the case for the international pipeline. At the same, the rapid—and not always safe—growth of oil being shipped by rail in lieu of pipelines has shown just how creative the oil industry can be when it comes to moving their product. Given the overwhelming demand for oil, it’s quite possible that the State Department is right that whether or not the pipeline is built, it will have little impact on the carbon footprint of the oil sands—though that hasn’t stopped the Canadian government from lobbying hard for the project.

Read more of TIME’s science coverage in the TIME Vault

TIME space

Since You Wondered, Here’s Why Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Isn’t White

NASA says it's likely "a sunburn, not a blush"

The giant cyclonic storm that swallowed Alaska last week has nothing on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The GRS is a cyclone, too, but one so immense it could gulp down the Earth in one shot and still have room for Mars. It’s been swirling for centuries, at the very least, and while it’s smaller than it used to be, nobody thinks it’s going away.

All of this is pretty well known to planetary scientists. What they don’t know is the answer to a very simple question: Why is the Red Spot, well, red? “There are some other places on Jupiter that are reddish,” says Kevin Baines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), “although they’re more of a reddish-brown.” The spot’s color, however, is pretty much unique and thus pretty mysterious. In fact, Baines adds, “back in the 1970’s, when we were trying to sell the Galileo mission to Congress, it really resonated that we were going to try and answer that question.”

Now Baines and two JPL colleagues may have finally done it — not with data from Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, but from the Cassini probe, which took a few snapshots en route to Saturn. Those images, supplemented by laboratory experiments, suggest that the red color is just a thin dusting on the very top of swirling clouds that are otherwise white. “I call it the creme brulee model,” Baines says, “or the strawberry frosting model.”

Cassini was essential to solving the mystery because its instruments were sensitive to a broader range of light wavelengths than Galileo’s, and could thus show that the very center of the Red Spot is redder than the rest. The center is also at the highest altitude of what’s already an unusually high-altitude feature. “It reaches something like 50,000 feet higher than the surrounding clouds,” says Baines.

That exposes the swirling clouds to more intense ultraviolet light from the sun than most of Jupiter’s clouds. And when the JPL scientists did lab experiments to test the effects of ultraviolet rays on chemicals such as ammonia, acetylene and various hydrocarbons, which are abundant in Jupiter’s atmosphere, they got the same red colors seen on the giant planet itself. (They did eventually, anyway. At first, they did their tests with ammonium hydrosulfide, another chemical abundant on Jupiter, and recreated what Baines calls the “Great Green Spot. We were faked out,” he says.)

This isn’t the only evidence that the Spot’s red is created from above rather than coming from reddish gases upwelling from below, which is the leading alternate theory: There actually are some other tiny spots of red dotted around Jupiter, and they also coincide with clouds of unusually high altitude.

The Red Spot, in short, as a JPL press release cutely puts it, represents “a sunburn, not a blush,” on the face of the Solar System’s largest planet.

TIME space

Comet Drill Data Could Be Lost

ESA Attempts To Land Probe On Comet
The surface of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as seen from the Philae lander. European Space Agency

The robot Philae may not have the battery power needed to transmit data

The European Space Agency’s Philae robot may not have sufficient power to send data from its groundbreaking comet drill back to earth.

“We are not sure there is enough energy so that we can transmit,” said lander manager Stephan Ulamec at a press conference in Darmstadt, Germany, Agence-France Presse reports.

The unmanned robot landed on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comment, becoming the first ever human landing on a comet. The probe successfully transmitted images but may not have the battery power to send results from a drill. The probe’s solar powered battery is in the shade of a cliff, giving it just 1.5 hours of sunlight a day, which isn’t enough to replenish the battery.

[AFP]

TIME space

Comet Lander Philae’s Battery Might Die Soon

ESA Attempts To Land Probe On Comet
The surface of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as seen from the Philae lander. European Space Agency

The probe isn't getting enough light to recharge its pack

After becoming the first spacecraft to successfully land on a comet, European robot probe Philae may be in danger of running out of battery power.

The unmanned probe is successfully transmitting images but is about a kilometer away from its intended location on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after some landing trouble saw it settle in the shadow of a cliff.

As a result, the probe is only receiving 1.5 hours of sunlight for every 12-hour rotation of the comet, which is not nearly enough to replenish its battery once the primary 60-hour charge is over.

“We have estimations right now that go between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon,” the European Space Agency’s Paolo Ferri told the BBC, referencing how long Philae is expected to remain operational in its current state. “The more activities we do with the lander, the more power we will consume, and the less time we will have,” he said.

Given the difficulty of moving the probe into sunlight in the time available, scientists are now focused on gathering as much data as they can from the comet’s surface.

TIME animals

Scientists Discover Why Mosquitos Love Human Blood

mosquitoes blood sucking
Getty Images

You get mosquito bites because of your smell

Scientists have discovered the reason that mosquitos switched from feeding on animals to humans: the smell of a chemical vapor on human skin.

The chemical, called sulcatone, has a unique scent that mosquitos learned to associate with food, The Independent reports.

“It was a really good evolutionary move,” said Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University in New York, who led the study published in the journal Nature, “We provide the ideal lifestyle for mosquitoes. We always have water around for them to breed in, we are hairless and we live in large groups.”

Researchers found that mosquitos that still feed on animals do not respond to the presence of sulcatone, but those that prefer humans are drawn to the scent.

TIME space

Comet Probe Landed Successfully, Scientists Say

After three bounces, the lander came to rest at an angle.

The European Space Agency’s Philae lander successfully landed on a comet and is sending signals backs after an early mishap, scientists said at a news conference in Germany Thursday.

The lander, dropped from the Rosetta spacecraft on Wednesday after a 4-billion mile, 10-year journey, became the first craft to make a soft landing on a comet.

But the lander initially failed to fire anchoring harpoons into the surface of the comet, which has very weak gravity, and it bounced three times before coming to an awkward stop in a still undetermined area of the comet, said Stephan Ulamec, the lander project manager.

Some instruments are up and running, but the scientists are wary of activating others because the lander is not anchored into the ground and risks rising up again, Ulamec said. Only two of the craft’s three feet are touching the ground.

Based on images relayed back, the scientists believe that the lander is partially in a shadow of a cliff, reducing the amount of solar energy that the lander can collect.

“We are in a shadow permanently, and that’s part of our problem,” said Jean-Pierre Bibring, the lead lander scientist.

TIME space

Live: Scientists Give Update on Philae Comet Landing

Scientists in Germany are giving an update on Rosetta’s Philae lander, which touched down on the surface of a comet on Wednesday.

TIME space

Why the First Comet Landing Matters

This mission may be our most informative one yet

Philae lander touched down Wednesday on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also known as 67p, after a 10 year journey that cost as much as $1.3 billion. You might be wondering why the European Space Agency spends so much time and resources on a frozen lump of ice millions of miles away. But this mission, which successfully landed the first ever probe onto our solar system’s most primitive material, will give us valuable information about the origins of our solar system and how it evolved.

TIME climate change

China Shows It’s Ready to Grow Up on Climate Change

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing. Feng Li—Getty Images

China lives up to its responsibilities on global warming

The U.S. diplomats wandering around the Copenhagen airport in the aftermath of the 2009 U.N. climate summit looked like the walking dead. With reason—those talks, billed as the most important climate negotiations ever, were pure torture for almost everyone involved, just barely saved from total collapse by the last-minute creation of the relatively weak Copenhagen Protocol. And while there was plenty of blame to go around, including for the U.S., much of it was directed at China, which consistently blocked negotiations throughout the summit and almost managed to torpedo the protocol. No wonder the American negotiators looked so exhausted—they’d just spent a fortnight grappling with a country that seemed firmly opposed to doing anything about global warming.

But China, it seems, has changed. The climate deal worked out between Washington and Beijing on Wednesday—you can see the details in this post by Emily Rauhala— won’t come close to saving the planet on its own. No, the deal isn’t binding, but few international agreements really are.

While together China and the U.S. account for 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, this marks the first time that the world’s two biggest carbon emitters sat down and agreed together to limits on future greenhouse gas emissions, however voluntary. And more importantly, it marks what seems to be a very different approach by Beijing on international climate diplomacy—and perhaps on diplomacy more generally.

As Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the fact that Beijing chose to work together with the U.S.—usually an antagonist on climate and other issues—may be more meaningful than the emission targets themselves:

China has typically gone out of its way to assert its independence in anything climate-related. That approach would usually have led it to announce major goals like these in a clearly unilateral context – even if they were developed in tandem with the United States. Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.

Environmentalists hope that the announcement from Beijing will inject a little momentum into flagging global climate negotiations, which begin shortly in Lima and are meant to culminate with a real global deal in Paris at the end of 2015. Perhaps. But while it might seem as if a problem like global warming can only be solved with a global deal that covers every country, the reality is that just a handful of countries account for nearly all greenhouse gas emissions—China and the U.S. first among them. What they do—alone or in concert—is what will ultimately matter.

There is no shortage of skeptics picking apart the U.S.-China deal—David Stout has a good roundup of them here. Any time governments make promises about action they won’t carry out for more than 15 years—long after today’s leaders are out of office—there’s reason to be skeptical. Climate diplomacy is like dieting: tomorrow is always a lot easier than today.

However, the very fact that China is publicly willing, in concert with the U.S., to dedicate itself to emissions targets that will be challenging is a sign that there is political will in Beijing to move on climate change, as well as political confidence that technological means will be there to do so without cramping the country’s all-important economic growth. It’s a sign, as Fred Kaplan writes in Slate, that China understands that “with great power comes at least some responsibility.”

That fact, more than the specifics of emissions cuts or timeframes, is what really made the China-U.S. climate deal historic.

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