Steyer: I'm in oil sands fight for the long haul

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer yesterday embraced the white-hot spotlight of climate politics, a niche he expects to occupy well into the 2014 midterm elections -- and even after President Obama rules on Keystone XL.

Speaking with E&E Daily during a daylong KXL forum in Washington, D.C., that he co-hosted with the White House-aligned Center for American Progress Action Fund, Steyer said his science-heavy strategy to push Obama on the famous oil sands crude pipeline is unlikely to be replicated for other major energy issues of interest to him. But while he is unlikely to enlist academics for a wonky look at, say, hydraulic fracturing, Steyer said he is prepared to extend his anti-oil-sands work beyond KXL.

"In the absence of comprehensive policies" on carbon emissions, Steyer said, echoing the words of a panelist at yesterday's KXL conference, "we're in a position where we absolutely have to play specific project by specific project."

Fighting individual pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the $5.4 billion KXL and proposed coal export terminals rallying green resistance on the West Coast, may not be environmentalists' preferred method, but "we're forced to do that," Steyer said.

His anti-KXL crusade yesterday found Steyer beside former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) in a concerted attempt to answer Obama's summertime promise that carbon emissions would be "absolutely critical" to the ruling on the pipeline's bid for a permit to cross the Canadian border.


The conference was held at Georgetown University, Steyer told his audience, "because it is here that the president drew his own personal line in the sand" in that June speech -- a surprise invocation of the 1,179-mile KXL even to the pipeline's most senior liberal critics in Congress (E&E Daily, June 26).

But the design of yesterday's forum, laden with PowerPoint presentations by Canadian researchers, also represented a "prebuttal" to Obama's State Department. Analysts there concluded in March that the extra greenhouse gases generated by KXL's 730,000-plus daily barrels of oil sands crude would not prove significant because the ongoing boom in rail transport and alternative pipeline proposals would ensure that western Canadian heavy fuel would come out of the ground in much the same amounts regardless of whether the pipeline gets approved.

In the nine months since that environmental impact statement from State, climate activists have hammered away at its central judgment that rail can fill the gap but remain unsure how closely the Obama administration is listening. "The bottom line is rail will provide only a fraction of the capacity that is needed" to meet oil sands industry production targets, Steyer said yesterday.

An entire panel of the conference focused on whether a verifiable carbon offset system could make up for KXL's added emissions, a thinly veiled answer to Obama's remark in July that Canada "could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release" from oil sands production (EnergyWire, July 29).

Some panelists yesterday acknowledged politically troublesome truths about the sacrifices required to limit future rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, a widely embraced target of anti-KXL activists and many scientists. Pipeline supporters circulated a report during the conference that quoted one of Steyer's guests, University of Toronto geography professor Danny Harvey, as recommending that Americans downsize their televisions to help avert catastrophic climate change.

Harvey said yesterday that there is "no point in fighting over the oil in the Arctic" because there would not be room for burning it in a climate-conscious world aiming for the "near-elimination" of man-made greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

For the most part, however, panelists stayed on message and against KXL.

"If we're going to be putting steel in the ground for 30, 40 years ... we need to be thinking about what our emissions should look like" at that time, Clare Demerse, federal policy director at the Canadian environmental think tank Pembina Institute, told the conference.

A White House rejection of the pipeline, Demerse added, would caution the conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that "we need to be taking climate change a lot more seriously."

The Canadian embassy and the oil-sands-rich province of Alberta sent representatives to the conference, but invitations were declined by Ottawa envoy Gary Doer and Russ Girling, CEO of KXL sponsor TransCanada Corp., conference organizers said yesterday.

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