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Carl Pope: Beyond Keystone

Energy

President Obama’s veto last week of a Republican bill passed—precisely so that he would veto it—mandating the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline does, indeed, as former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out, serve as “a perfect symbol of Washington’s dysfunction.” Obama made it clear that this veto, at least, was over the process, not the substance, and the Republicans had set the process up so that no self-respecting President could do other than veto.

President Obama in an exclusive interview last week with WDAY 6 Anchor Kerstin Kealy explaining his Keystone XL veto.

In their last PR foray before the veto, tar sands proponents offered up an IHS-CERA study which asserted that, facts to the contrary, approving Keystone would increase the reliable supplies of oil for domestic consumers. The study asserted “the overwhelming majority” of oil flowing to refineries in the Gulf Coast would be refined and consumed in the U.S., even after XL is built—which is true, but irrelevant. If I pour a glass of water (Keystone XL) into an already full bucket (Midwest and Gulf Coal oil markets) most of the water stays in the bucket—but the bucket does not hold any more water—the increment just slops on the floor, or in this case gets exported.

The President focused on a more relevant point in his comments in Fargo last week, saying that “I've already said I'm happy to look at increasing pipeline production for U.S. oil. But Keystone is for Canadian oil. Sending it down to the Gulf it bypasses the U.S., it estimated to create 250, maybe, 300 permanent jobs. We should be focusing on American infrastructure for American jobs for American producers … "

Keystone is an enormously important environmental symbol. But it is also a commercial struggle. Alberta tar sands oil and North Dakota light shale oil flows into the same markets, have access to the same refineries, and rely on the same pipelines and railroads to get them to the same customers. So it was never terribly plausible that Keystone would be good for the U.S.—it was designed to make Canadian oil more competitive in global markets, which, on balance, is not good for American producers or, since the Canadians want to escape from American markets, American consumers.

The logic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was, in some minds, that we would collaborate, rather than competing with Canada and Mexico, and would allow Canada, for example, to put U.S. territory, waterways and airsheds at environmental risk to provide the cheapest route for Canada’s oil to global markets. But the Canadians walked away from their Kyoto commitment to the curb to global warming emissions precisely because doing so would put them at a competitive disadvantage with U.S. oil and gas producers—so the kumbaya theory of NAFTA was always pretty threadbare. Obama now seems to recognize this. Canada needs Keystone. The U.S. does not.

Now the lack of permit for Keystone is the least of Prime Minister Harper’s problems. He bet Canada’s future on finding ever increasing markets for the world’s most expensive—$90/barrel+ break-even for new projects—crude. With global prices down at $60, returns from tar sands projects are a fraction of what they were a year ago. Even before global prices reached the bottom, three major projects had been cancelled. Shell just pulled out of its Pierra River Project last week. Investment is collapsing. Most companies will survive—but they survive by cutting payrolls and supply chains, the two factors Harper was counting on to keep the Canadian economy afloat through his reelection bid this year. But unemployment rolls are soaring, and the Canadian dollar has lost 20 percent of its value. Harper is now running barely even with his leading opponent, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, who acerbically attacks Harper’s bet on oil. "It's not fiscally responsible," said Trudeau in January, "to pin all your hopes on oil prices remaining high, and when they fall, being forced to make it up as they go along."

Harper must call an election by November. One of the major issues in that election is certain to be Canada’s next economic strategy—because the petro-exporter bubble just burst. Which is why Bloomberg’s suggestion—that Canada embraces its former climate leadership, and bet its economic future on low carbon energy and high knowledge manufacturing—is almost certain to have at least one taker among Canada’s three major parties? But it would be much better news for the climate if all three Canadian parties, led by Harper’s Conservatives decided that Canada doesn’t have the cheap oil resource base to become the next Saudi Arabia—and might not want to even if it could.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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