Author Q&A: John H. Cushman Jr. Discusses His Comprehensive New Book on Keystone XL
Many people view the Keystone XL decision as one that will forever define President Barack Obama's legacy, but how much do you know about the Bush Administration's impact on the proposal?
One of the first things you'll learn in John H. Cushman Jr.'s new book, Keystone & Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change, is that the pipeline has its origins in energy policy decisions President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney began making almost from the moment they took office. Keystone was on Bush's mind when he withdrew the country from the Kyoto agreement just two months after his 2001 inauguration, saying that he wouldn't settle for a pact with binding limits on how much carbon dioxide the U.S. could emit.
Inside Climate News and Cushman, who spent nearly three decades as a reporter for the New York Times' Washington bureau, released the book this week amid a group of senators' attempt to sneak pipeline approval into a new energy bill.
The book chronicles Keystone from all angles, providing a comprehensive look into the proposal that has captivated oil magnates and environmentalists, alike, for years. The author answered a few questions about how his book came together and what he thinks of the ever-changing news surrounding the Keystone proposal.
EcoWatch: You couldn’t have picked a better week to release this book. What was your reaction when you heard about a group of senators’ legislative plan for the pipeline?
Cushman: I definitely recognized that the book would seem all the more timely if it came out during a Senate floor debate on the pipeline. At the same time, knowing the ways of the Senate, I knew the timing of this debate, like its outcome, was anything but certain.
EW: The book is a great way to chronicle the history of KXL. Is that mainly what you set out to do or is there a larger message or theme you hoped to get across to readers?
C: My model for how to approach this subject drew from a classic book of political science, Thinking in Time, which I read in college about 40 years ago. It was about how presidents ought to study the history of a problem when making important decisions. [Editor's note: Cushman writes about this approach in a recent Inside Climate News article] So that’s what I decided to do. My theme emerges from this examination: Times have changed fast between the year 2000 and today, and the decision ought to be made with those changes in mind.
EW: The Bush aspect of the early portion of the book was very interesting. Just how much did the Bush Administration’s negligence exacerbate the climate issue? And to what extent do you believe this is lost on the general public, even the folks who are fighting against Keystone XL?
C: I would say that if we, as a nation, had taken firm action earlier against carbon dioxide emissions, it would have turned out to be cheaper and easier for the whole world to take on the problem of climate change. Further delay will only make things even more expensive and more difficult. All responsible leaders recognize that this is so.
EW: What are your thoughts on how Obama has handled this pipeline overall? Does your opinion now differ from what you thought prior to working on this book?
C: My main observation is that Obama has carefully protected his room for maneuver. Before working on this book I did not follow the Keystone question carefully; however I have long noticed that Obama is careful to keep his options open, in general, as he makes policy decisions.
EW: While the environmental groups we write about/talk to are glad that Obama has delayed a decision, some think the indecision shows a lack of dedication to really fighting climate change. What do you make of the delays?
C: It’s a complicated question, but I would have to say that on balance the delays have given the opposition time to build their movement, and have made it somewhat less likely that the pipeline will be built. Two or three years ago, it seemed to be on its way to approval. Even today, the pipeline advocates are strong and they may yet prevail.
EW: What was the most interesting thing you learned during the creation process for this book?
C: I learned not to assign a false precision to the numbers in one study or another. Economic and oil-market modeling is not a precise science. So much depends on one’s assumptions! So what is important is to understand the direction of a signal, not its amplitude. If you compare it to models of climate change you will see that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and others always assign a confidence level to their conclusions. That’s good science. You rarely hear people say how confident they are in their declarations about what the effects on jobs, gas prices, national security, pollution, warming, etc. of building this pipeline will or won’t be. And this book shows how the past assumptions, such as those about oil supply and demand at the start of the story, turned out to be very wrong.
EW: You’ve done more research on this than just about anybody—what do you think will ultimately happen with KXL when all is said and done?
C: I don’t know. I try not to make predictions. As a nation, we don’t have a great track record on climate change, and I do worry that we might follow a business-as-usual path, in general, long past the time that we can avoid the more dangerous and costly risks of climate disruption. Every wrong decision leads us down that road; they all matter.
I sometimes hear people say that rather than fighting one pipeline or one project, or writing one regulation or subsidizing one technology, we should put a tax on carbon and let the marketplace decide. Most reputable economists say that this is the most efficient policy for confronting climate change. That may be. But I also believe that if anyone wants to do what’s best for the climate, they should ask, what decision would markets and policy-makers and individuals choose here or there, on this or that, if there were in fact a reasonable tax on carbon emissions, a tax big enough to internalize the damages that will come from carbon dioxide emissions? And then, even if there is no carbon tax, we should act as if there were one.
Because ultimately that tax is going to be paid—if not by us, then by someone in the future.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
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