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July 10, 2013

Climate Denial Undercuts Pro-Oil Argument

Jack-Gerard-protest

By Samantha Strom, Sierra Club Editorial Intern

On Monday, I lined up with fifteen other activists outide a conference held at the offices of Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., to protest against construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a big proponent of KXL, was speaking inside.

We had spent the last day creating handmade signs, trying to think of how to convey an environmental message to someone who was so staunchly on the other side of the issue. It seemed like a sad truth that our only potential strategy was negative; there seemed to be no common ground to work with.

Given Public Citizen's stated mission to be a countervailing force to corporate power, we were all intrigued as to why Gerard agreed to speak there. API is the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and natural gas industry. In 2012, it spent more then $5 million lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, and its interests are widely divirgent from those of Public Citizen.

Despite these differences, the conference opened with a refreshing spirit of mutual respect and willingness to debate. Public Citizen thanked Gerard for being the first trade organization president to accept its offer to speak, and Gerard replied that he relished the opportunity to listen to alternative perspectives.

Gerard's speech staked out a position which caught me by surprise: a pro-oil argument that was actually convincing. He claimed that affordable, abundant energy had improved Americans' quality of life, and that it was key to raising millions of people out of poverty. I started to wonder where our disagreement lay, since we both seemed to share a common desire to help people.

But then Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, asked Gerard if he believed climate change was real and exacerbated by humans, and Gerard completely avoided answering question -- three times. This was starting to seem more familiar. Then Weissman put the whole conversation in perspective. He argued that if people cannot agree on the problem, then they cannot find a common solution.

That cast Gerard's argument in a different light. His position made perfect sense if there were no adverse environmental impacts of oil, in which case our biggest energy problem would be lack of access, and industry would be the solution. Unfortunately, there is a reason why climate change is called the inconvenient truth.

Take the Keystone XL pipeline. API claims that Keystone is necessary to create jobs, increase energy security, and provide affordable energy to Americans. But API is not looking at the whole picture. Of the many environmental and social flaws with KXL, arguably the biggest is its greenhouse gas emissions. Between the energy-intensive extraction process, the destruction of a Canadian boreal forest the size of Florida, and the use of the crude oil itself, the XL pipeline will release the equivalent of almost 200 million metric tons of carbon.

Even President Obama, who gets the final say on whether to reject or accept Keystone, has now framed the pipeline in terms of climate. In his July 25 speech outlining his Climate Action Plan, the president said he would not accept the pipeline if it significantly exacerbated GHG emissions. By ignoring the reality of climate change, API makes its arguments irrelevant.

This is a shame, because there are still plenty of intelligent debates to be had over different solutions to the climate crisis. I would love to be challenged by traditional conservative thinkers in discussing whether a cap-and-trade program is preferable to a carbon tax, or if economic incentives work better than command-and-control approaches. But it is useless to debate strategies to solve our energy crises if we have not agreed on what the crises are.

In the end, denying climate science and avoiding the issue will result in the deaths of thousands, if not millions of people. That is the problem. Acknowledge that, and together we can go find a solution.


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