TIME Environment

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

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

Experts Are Skeptical Over the U.S.-China Emissions Deal

People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing
Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing on Oct. 11, 2014

Meeting targets agreed on at the APEC summit requires Washington and Beijing to draw up and rigorously enforce unprecedented policies

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a breakthrough deal on Wednesday, aimed at reducing both nations’ colossal carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

During a press conference in Beijing, President Obama lauded the pact as a “historic breakthrough.” Likewise, in an editorial published in the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and China were “determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge.”

But now comes the hard part.

Under the deal, the U.S. must slash carbon emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and China must start reigning in its release of greenhouse gases nationwide. Based on the initiative, China needs to hit peak CO2 emissions by 2030.

In addition, China, which has long relied on coal to fuel its unprecedented economic growth, also promised to rapidly increase the country’s reliance on nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption. By 2030, Beijing is aiming to have 20% of the country’s energy needs supplied by zero-emission sources.

But to hit these targets, experts argue that both nations must now draw up and enforce unprecedented policies.

As Sam Roggeveen, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, pointed out in a blog post published on Wednesday, the U.S. will have to “double the pace of its carbon pollution reduction to meet the new target.” Domestic politics could easily put a brake on that.

In China, Roggeveen writes, “an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity” must be deployed by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today. Otherwise the goal can’t be met.

Even if the central government had an all-consuming drive to achieve this, economists say it must provide the proper economic incentives to local bureaucrats who are pivotal to executing policies on the ground.

“The feasibility of doing [this] depends on the local bureaucrats, so if the local bureaucrats resist then nothing can be done,” Xu Chenggang, professor who is a specialist in China’s economic development at the University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “[It doesn’t] matter how strong the leader is, to get things done really depends on incentives.”

Xu explains that China’s three decades of robust economic expansion were only possible because local officials were able to profit from the country’s rapid transformation into an industrial powerhouse. However, questions remain over whether there will be as much money to go around during a transition to a greener economy.

“In turns out it’s very, very difficult to find a scheme which is going to give local bureaucrats sufficient incentives to take care of their environment,” says Xu.

And even then, activists say the world’s two largest emitters of CO2 have yet to commit to the types of policies needed to reverse the effects of climate change.

“There is a clear expectation of more ambition from these two economies whose emissions trajectories define the global response to climate change,” says Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. “Today’s announcements should only be the floor and not the ceiling of enhanced actions.”

Still, others are hopeful that the historic announcement today will at the very least inject some momentum into the push to lower greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

“This is an important development, not so much because of the details,” explains Jim Falk, a visiting fellow at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo. “It states a desire by US and Chinese leaders to add serious momentum to a global agenda to cap and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

— With reporting by Per Liljas and Helen Regan

 

TIME Environment

Midterm Elections Pass Four New Anti-Fracking Bans

Denton, Texas, passed high-profile ban on hydraulic fracturing

A record number of proposed bans to the controversial oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking were included on local ballots countrywide Tuesday. Out of eight proposed bans, four passed, in Ohio, Texas and California.

Perhaps the unlikeliest victory for anti-fracking activists was in Denton, Texas, a town north of Dallas situated in what one activist called the “cradle” of the U.S. oil and gas boom. The ban, which forbids the process of setting off large explosions underground in oil and gas drilling operations, passed with nearly 59% of the vote.

Denton is the first municipality in Texas to have passed a fracking ban–even despite heavy spending by the oil and gas industry to defeat the measure that the Denton Record Chronicle called it “the most expensive campaign in Denton’s history” by far.

“People in Denton rallied together and did some amazing organizing to pass a ban,” said Mark Schlosberg.

A legal challenge to the ban is all but assured, reports the Texas Tribune. Three of five similar bans passed in Colorado in recent years were overturned in local district court.

Fracking bans were also passed in Mendocino and San Benito counties in California, and in Athens, Ohio, while voters in Santa Barbara, California, and in the Ohio towns of Kent, Gates Mills and Youngstown rejected proposed fracking bans.

TIME Environment

4 Ways the New Top Environment Senator Disagrees With Science

Jim Inhofe
Sue Ogrocki—AP Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. gives a victory speech at the Republican watch party in Oklahoma City on Nov. 4, 2014.

Meet Jim Inhofe

Sen. Jim Inhofe is widely expected to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee now that Republicans have won control of the Senate, putting one of Washington’s most strident climate change deniers in charge of environmental policy.

In his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, the Oklahoma Republican argued that climate change science has been manufactured by liberals to scare the American public, push through anti-business regulations and sell newspapers, and that humans should do nothing to regulate greenhouse gases.

Problem is, Inhofe’s opinions are deeply at odds with the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, both in the U.S. and abroad. Here’s just a few ways how.

Human activity

Inhofe: The Senator says hundreds of scientists dispute the idea that global warming is the result of human activity.

Science: 97% of international scientists working in fields related to the environmental sciences agree that current global warming trends are the result of human activity. No U.S. or international scientific institutions of any caliber dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

Consequences

Inhofe: He says global warming, if it’s happening at all, could be beneficial for humanity. “Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists,” he said in a 2003 speech. “In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”

Science: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found unequivocally that climate change will have a catastrophically negative effect on humans. In its fifth report, released Sunday, the panel compiled and analyzed hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change from all over the world and found that the consequences of inaction will lead, and already are leading, to flooding, diminished crop yields, destructive weather, and mass extinction.

Cycles

Inhofe: If global temperatures appear to be warming, that’s just because “[w]e go through these 30-year cycles,” he said on Mike Huckabee’s radio show in 2013.

Science: Dozens of peer-reviewed international studies, including the 2012 State of the Climate peer-reviewed report by the American Meteorological Society (AMS)—which was compiled by 384 scientists from 52 countries—underscored that current warming trends are happening much more rapidly than any natural warming process, and that it is unquestionably the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, released by humans burning fossil fuels.

History

Inhofe: Scientists can’t explain why, eight years ago, “we went into a leveling-out period” in which the earth did not continue to warm.

Science: No such “leveling out” occurred. While individual temperatures spike and plummet every year, climate change science asks a longer-term question: Is the earth warmer than it was fifty years ago? The answer is, again, unequivocally yes. Sea ice has reached a record low, the Arctic has continued to warm, sea temperatures have continued to increase, ocean heat has reached near record-levels and sea levels have reached an all-time high.

TIME Environment

Scientists Get a Little More Creative to Study Penguins Up-Close

Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula, Paulet Island, Adelie
Wolfgang Kaehler—LightRocket/Getty Images Penguins jump into the water on Paulet Island in Antarctica.

They made four-wheel rovers look like baby emperor penguins

Scientists may have discovered a way to study animals without disturbing their natural behavior, according to a new study, and it involves dressing up.

Observing animals without disturbing their state of being has long been an issue, the researchers wrote in Nature Methods. So, in an effort to fix that, an international team of scientists made four-wheel rovers look like baby emperor penguins and drove them over to colonies of the animals to gauge their reactions and collect data.

The scientists implanted microchips in about 34 king penguins to monitor the animals’ heart rates when they were approached by the rovers, according to CNET. Turns out, they were slightly less stressed (and notably for shorter periods of time) when approached by the rovers than when near humans. The animals were so comfortable around the robotic penguin that adult ones sang to it and the babies huddled around it as if it were their own.

TIME Environment

U.N.: Phase Out Fossil Fuels By 2100 Or Face ‘Irreversible’ Climate Impact

Aerial view of a power station
Jason Hawkes—Getty Images

"Science has spoken," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said

Greenhouse gas emissions may have to cease by the end of the century to keep global temperatures from reaching levels many scientists consider dangerous, the United Nations’ latest climate assessment suggests.

“Science has spoken,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Copenhagen at Sunday’s launch of the fourth and final report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), CBS News reports. “There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

The IPCC assessment, which incorporated the findings of three other reports over the past 13 months, reaffirms with 95% certainty that global climate change is both real and a mostly man-made problem — a conclusion it shared in an earlier report. The entire project, which reviewed approximately 30,000 studies about climate, also suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue without intervention, there could be “irreversible” impacts, such as rising sea levels, more frequent heat waves and even a change in the human population’s male-female ratio.

To halt climate change, countries around the world will have to wean themselves off fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases when burned, in favor of more sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources, the IPCC report concluded. Last month, leaders of 28 European nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to at least 40 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2030.

“We have the means to limit climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC. “All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.”

Meteorologists already reported last month that 2014 could be the hottest year on record. If climate change continues, billions of dollars in seaside property could be destroyed, while some states could see crop yields drop by as much as 70%. Climate change could also likely cause a rise in various infectious diseases, world hunger, respiratory problems and heat-related illnesses, such as cardiac arrest and heat stroke.

The report’s findings contrast with the American public perception of climate change. Only 54 percent of people in the U.S. this summer reported that they believe current climate change is caused by human activity. In September, however, thousands of people took to the streets of New York City to put pressure on world leaders during the People’s Climate March, one of the largest environmental events ever.

In a statement about the latest report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Those who choose to ignore or dispute the science so clearly laid out in this report do so at a great risk for all of us and for our kids and grandkids.”

[CBS]

TIME Disaster

Residents of Pahoa, Hawaii, Are Preparing to Flee a Frightening Lava Flow

The lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano is seen advancing across a pasture near the village of Pahoa, Hawaii
Reuters The lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano is seen advancing across a pasture between the Pahoa cemetery and Apa'a Street in this U.S. Geological Survey image taken near the village of Pahoa, Hawaii on Oct. 25, 2014.

Those living in the direct path of the molten mass have already begun to leave

Lava inched closer to homes in Pahoa, Hawaii, on Monday evening, spurring the evacuation of residents living in the direct path of the molten mass gushing from the Big Island’s most active volcano.

Authorities and Pahoa residents have been nervously watching the lava coming from the nearby volcano Kilauea for months, since a fresh flow started moving northeast toward the tiny town of 900 earlier this summer.

One official told TIME that locals were taking the necessary precautions in case widespread evacuations are ordered. Over the weekend, residents living in close proximity to the lava flow packed their possessions into trailers in preparation.

As of Monday evening, the lava flow was within 70 yards of the nearest home, according to a statement released by the County Civil Defense Agency.

“Residents in the flow path were placed on an evacuation advisory and notified of possible need for evacuation beginning last night,” read the report.

Local officials continued to fret over the possibility that the lava may eventually cut into nearby Highway 130. The road serves as the major transportation thoroughfare in and out of the town and is used by approximately 8,000 to 10,000 commuters a day. As a precaution, county authorities have opened two auxiliary roads in the area.

Earlier in the day, reports of small-scale looting in the remote community began to surface. “Crime is starting to pick up because a lot of people abandoned their houses. Two of my brother-in-laws’ houses got ripped off,” Matt Purvis, an owner of a local bakery, told CNN.

Late last week, Hawaii’s Governor Neil Abercrombie penned an official request for a presidential disaster declaration, which would provide the state with federal assistance to bolster local emergency services.

TIME Disaster

BP Oil Spill Left Rhode Island-Sized ‘Bathtub Ring’ on Seafloor

BP announced that it is ending its "active cleanup" on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 19, 2014 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil.
Sean Gardner—Getty Images BP announced that it is ending its "active cleanup" on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 19, 2014 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil.

The rig blew on April 20, 2010, and spewed 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf

New research shows that the BP oil spill left an oily “bathtub ring” on the sea floor that’s about the size of Rhode Island. The study by UC Santa Barbara’s David Valentine, the chief scientist on the federal damage assessment research ships, estimates that about 10 million gallons of oil coagulated on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico around the damaged Deepwater Horizons oil rig. Valentine said the spill left other splotches containing even more oil. The rig blew on April 20, 2010, and spewed 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf through the summer. Scientists are still trying to figure where…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME photography

See Breathtaking Aerial Views of Fall Foliage

Autumn is here, and photographers everywhere are capturing the changing colors of the season. Poland-based photographer Kacper Kowalski captured the most unique views of all, opting to shoot his country’s fall foliage by paraglider (and sometimes gyroplane), creating these magnificent images of the landscape.

“I fly alone as the pilot and photographer,” Kowalski told TIME. “I use a regular reportage camera in my hand. [In this] way I can have control over the image, I can decide by myself where, how and when I will fly to take the image.”

The pictures are part of a larger body of work by Kowalski where he has captured both rural and urban parts of Poland over several years. “I work and live in Gdynia in the northern part of Poland . . . very close to Gdansk at the Baltic sea. The landscape is very rich. And the nature. It is absolutley amazing. Because of the climate in this geographical location it is different each week.”

You can see more of Kowalski’s work and read more about his process here.

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