Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Was 2014 Really the Warmest Year?

  • The media is widely reporting 2014 as the warmest year on record, yet the underlying data don't support that conclusion.
  • The data actually lead to a different finding, of 2014 tied with 2010 and 2005 within the margin of error, reflecting little warming since 2005.
When I opened today's Washington Post and turned to the Opinion section, I found two op-eds that began almost identically: Eugene Robinson's column stated, "We now know that 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history," while Catherine Rampell announced, "Last year, government scientists tell us, was the hottest year on record." The President even repeated this in his State of the Union address. However, that is not really what the figures in question indicate.

I suppose it's understandable that the Post's editors and those of many other media reporting the same finding might rely on the expertise of the government agencies involved, rather than digging deeper. The Post's columnists apparently based their comments on information provided to the media by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The NASA press release, entitled, "NASA, NOAA Find 2014 Warmest Year in Modern Record," included links enabling one to scrutinize the raw data upon which this conclusion was based. I've reproduced the relevant portion below in picture form as of noon today, since this data is subject to periodic revisions.



NASA's dataset displays the differences between measured temperatures and the 14.0°C average from 1951-80. On this basis it confirms that the average recorded temperature in 2014 was 0.02°C higher than the average for the previous warmest year, 2010, which was in turn 0.01°C higher than 2005's. Unfortunately, neither that page nor the press release includes any information about the uncertainty inherent in these figures, which turns out to be larger than the increase from 2010-14.

All physical measurements, including those from the weather stations providing data to NASA, are plus-or-minus some error. Averaging them doesn't entirely negate that. Within the accuracy of these temperatures, it's not possible to distinguish among 2005, 2010 and 2014; they represent a statistical tie. That fact was explained more clearly than I have done in a report on January 14, 2015, from the team of scientists at Berkeley Earth. Hardly climate skeptics, this is the same group that made headlines a couple of years ago with a comprehensive study of existing climate data.


Why does this distinction matter? After all, measured temperatures have warmed nearly 2° Fahrenheit since the early 20th century, as shown in the graph above. Whether last year or 2010 was warmer might seem like more of an academic point than a practical one. However, the refrain of "record temperature" reports gives a false sense that the warming is accelerating. Instead, as the Berkeley Earth report found, "the Earth's average temperature for the last decade has changed very little." That's a very different impression than the one created by the stories I saw, with implications for how we respond to the risks of climate change.
 

Friday, January 16, 2015

How the Oil Price Slump Helps Renewable Energy

Intuition suggests that the current sharp correction in oil prices must be bad for the deployment of renewable and other alternative energy technologies. As the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column noted Wednesday, EV makers like Tesla face a wall of cheap gasoline. Meanwhile, ethanol producers are squeezed between falling oil and rising corn prices. Yet although individual projects and companies may struggle in a low-oil-price environment, the sector as a whole should benefit from the economic stimulus cheap oil provides.

The biggest threat to the kind of large-scale investment in low-carbon energy foreseen by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others is not cheaper oil, but a global recession and/or financial crisis that would also threaten the emerging consensus on a new UN climate deal. We have already seen renewable energy subsidies cut or revoked in Europe as the EU has sought to address unsustainable deficits and shaky member countries on its periphery.

Earlier this week the World Bank reduced its forecast of economic growth in 2015 by 0.4% as the so-called BRICs slow and the Eurozone flirts with recession and deflation. The Bank's view apparently factors in the stimulus from global oil prices, without which things would look worse. The US Energy Information Administration's latest short-term forecast cut the expected average price of Brent crude oil for this year to $58 per barrel. That's a drop of $41 compared to the average for 2014, which was already $10/bbl below 2013. Across the 93 million bbl/day of global demand the IEA expects this year, that works out to a $1.4 trillion savings for the countries that are net importers of oil--including the US. This equates to just under 2% of global GDP.

Although the strengthening US dollar mitigates part of those savings for some importers, it's still a massive stimulus--on the order of what was delivered by governments during the financial crisis of 2008-9. Even after taking account of the reduced recycling of "petrodollars" from oil producing nations, which have historically invested billions of dollars a year outside their borders, the pressure on governments to reduce expenditures on programs including renewable energy should be lower than it would be without this unexpected bonus.    

Just as the arrival of $100 oil in the last decade didn't produce an overnight transformation to renewable energy, $50 oil seems unlikely to harm the sector much, particularly in light of the cost reductions that wind, solar PV and other technologies have demonstrated in the last several years. If developers use this opportunity to shrink their costs further and become economically competitive with low or no subsidies, they will be well-positioned when oil prices inevitably recover, whether a few months or a few years in the future.

Monday, January 05, 2015

2014 in Review: Shale Energy's First Price Cycle

2014 was an extraordinary year in energy, vividly illustrating both sides of the Chinese proverb about interesting times. Oil market volatility was the big story for much of the year, with the dominance of geopolitical risks finally yielding to surging supplies. Of the two energy revolutions underway, shale wields the bigger stick for now, while the growth of renewables gathers momentum. All of this has implications for 2015 and beyond.
The US remained the epicenter of the shale revolution this year, with development elsewhere still subject to uncertainties about economic production potential, infrastructure, and the rules of the road. A comparison of oil-equivalent additions to US energy supplies from oil, gas and non-hydro renewables for the first nine months of the year highlights both the significance of shale and the differences in relative scale that impede a rapid shift to renewables.
Picture
 
US shale drilling added over a million barrels per day of "light tight oil" (LTO) production, compared to 2013, based on US Energy Information Administration data for the first nine months of the year. That brings cumulative gains since 2011 to nearly 3 million bbl/day. This hasn't just upended the global oil market; it has also revolutionized the way oil moves across North America. Over a million bbl/day now moves by rail, a figure recently projected to peak at 1.5 million by 2016. Nor is that entirely the result of delays to pipeline projects like Keystone XL. One proposed pipeline for Bakken LTO was reportedly canceled due to a lack of interest from shippers. Rail is expensive but provides producers and refiners with greater flexibility in both volume and destinations than fixed pipelines.

The collapse of oil prices has prompted many producers to reassess drilling plans, although it has been a boon for refiners and consumers.  Refining margins look relatively healthy, at least based on the proxy of "crack spreads", the difference between the wholesale prices of gasoline and diesel and the oil from which they are made. Some refiners also anticipate that low prices will spur demand growth, as described in a fascinating Wall St. Journal interview with Tom O'Malley, who has turned a succession of castoff refineries into profitable businesses. 

We may already be seeing the demand response to lower prices. November US volumes were at a 7-year high, according to API. This is unlikely to be replicated quickly elsewhere, however, for the same reasons that global oil demand was slow to moderate when prices rose over the last several years: In many countries the influence of oil prices on consumer behavior is overwhelmed by fuel taxes or subsidies. With prices now falling, some developing countries are capitalizing on the opportunity to unwind billions of dollars in consumption subsidies, offsetting market drops. That could have important implications for future oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile US consumers have watched retail gasoline prices fall by $1.39 per gallon since July and by over a dollar compared to a year ago. If sustained, the effective stimulus could exceed $100 billion annually, ignoring the effect of lower prices for jet fuel, diesel and other products. It's not surprising that half of respondents in last month's Wall St. Journal/NBC poll indicated this was important for their families.

While oil has been making headlines, shale gas without much fanfare added the equivalent of another half-million bbl/day to US production. That explains why despite enormous drawdowns of gas during last winter's "Polar Vortex", gas inventories began this winter much closer to normal levels than was widely expected in the  spring. Gas has lost a little ground in electricity generation to coal in the last two years, but few reading the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan regulation would expect that trend to continue.

Shale gas remains controversial in some areas due to perceived environmental and community impacts. New York state is apparently making its temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") permanent, preferring to rely on shale gas supplies from neighboring Pennsylvania. Yet while shale drilling in North Dakota has led to an increase in gas flaring--burning off gas that can't economically reach a market--the latest findings from the University of Texas and Environmental Defense Fund measured methane leakage from gas wells at an average of 0.43%. That shrinks gas's emissions footprint and enhances its potential role in climate change mitigation.

Turning to renewables, wind energy now provides a little over 4% of US electricity. However, its growth has slowed due to uncertainty about continued federal subsidies. The wind production tax credit, or PTC, had previously been extended through 2013 in a way that allowed projects brought online later to benefit from the extension. It was just extended again through the end of 2014, along with a broad package of other expiring tax benefits. This late revival might be a gift to a few projects already under construction, but it seems unlikely to spur additional projects without further legislative action in the new Congress.

Solar power has also made great strides, with costs falling rapidly and US additions in 2014 expected to reach 6,500 MW, likely outpacing wind additions. This is happening despite the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China over imported solar modules. Utilities are already experiencing solar's impact on their traditional business model. Yet as important as wind and solar power are likely to be in the future energy mix, their impact in 2014, at least in the US, was still dwarfed by the growth of shale resources. Drilling is already slowing down, however, so renewables could take the lead in 2015 as shale is expected to post smaller gains.

Looking ahead, the global focus on greenhouse gas emissions will increase in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December.  It remains to be seen whether enough progress was made in the recently completed talks in Lima, Peru, to resolve the significant remaining obstacles to a new global climate agreement. And while oil supply gains trumped geopolitics in 2014, a list of risk hot-spots from the Council on Foreign Relations includes several scenarios with major implications for oil and/or natural gas prices. Meanwhile we can expect the new Congress to take up Keystone XL, oil exports, EPA regulations, and other energy-related issues. I'd bet on another lively year.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Is OPEC Washed Up?

  • OPEC's unwillingness or inability to reduce output to defend high oil prices raises doubts about the cartel's effectiveness and future.
  • Absent cuts by OPEC, it is not yet clear whether the burden of rebalancing oil markets will fall on shale production or larger, more traditional oil projects.
As oil prices continued their slide following OPEC's meeting on Thanksgiving Day, speculation has grown concerning whether the cartel might have run its course. Is OPEC now at the mercy of forces beyond its control? Will its apparent strategy, as widely supposed, mainly affect US shale oil producers, or could more conventional, but still relatively high-cost oil projects elsewhere bear the brunt--or OPEC itself?

A quick review of OPEC's history of reining in production to prop up oil prices reflects a mixed record. At least three distinct episodes come to mind:

  • Following the oil crises of the 1970s the cartel was unable to keep prices above $30 per barrel ($70 in today's money) in the face of surging output from the North Sea and North Slope, and a 10% decline in global oil demand from 1979-83. By summer 1986 oil had fallen to just over $10, despite Saudi Arabia's having cut production by up to 6.7 million bbl/day from 1981-85, along with the loss of another couple million bbl/day  of supply due to the Iran/Iraq War. Aside from a spike prior to the Gulf War, oil was rarely much above $20 for the next two decades.
  • OPEC's response to the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s was more successful. When the growth of such "Asian Tigers" as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand stalled amid contagious currency crises, oil inventories swelled and prices collapsed from the mid-$20s to low teens and less. In March 1999 OPEC agreed to reduce output by around 2 million bbl/day, including voluntary cuts by Mexico, Norway and Russia. Although historical data raises doubts that the latter countries ever followed through on these commitments, this move stabilized prices and restored them to pre-crisis levels by year-end.
  • After oil prices went into free fall during the financial crisis of 2008, OPEC's members agreed in late 2008 to cut over 4 million bbl/day. They apparently achieved around 75% of that figure. Together with the measures taken by central banks and governments to restore confidence, that was enough to boost oil prices from the low $40s to mid-$70s by late 2009, still well short of the $145 peak in June 2008.
If today's situation were simply the result of slowing economic growth in Europe and Asia, a temporary cut similar to that of 1999 might have received wider support in Vienna. However, the analogy to the 1980s must have resonated strongly, especially with OPEC's longtime-but-not-this-time "swing producer", Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom bore most of the pain then, for little gain. It appears able to weather the current storm, at least financially.

The roughly 4 million bbl/day of "light tight oil" production (LTO) added from US shale deposits since 2008 has certainly depressed oil prices. It's hard to tell by exactly how much, because the growth of shale coincided with high geopolitical risk in oil markets and a volatile global economy. Superficially, it resembles the supply surge of the 1980s. LTO is also generally understood to be high-cost production. Estimates of full-cycle costs vary widely, from the $60s to $90s per barrel.

These factors support the narrative that OPEC, and the Saudis in particular, might be trying to "sweat" shale producers. It's even bolstered by forecasts from the US Energy Information Administration, predating the price drop, suggesting LTO production could plateau within a couple of years and decline not long thereafter.

I see two problems with this scenario. First, shale producers have various options for reducing costs, including some that a more receptive Congress might be inclined to facilitate next year. Then there's the recent history of shale gas pricing. I recall industry conferences in the late 2000s in which speaker after speaker presented curves indicating that the true cost of many US shale gas plays was likely over $6 per million BTUs, and certainly above $5. If that had been accurate, shale gas output should have started to shrink shortly after the spot price of natural gas fell below $4 in 2011. Instead, it has grown by around 13%. This suggests that estimates from outside the shale sector have generally exaggerated production costs that at least one analyst suggests might be as low as $25/bbl on a short-term basis.

If you take a long view, as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf producers arguably must, it's questionable whether the bigger threat to OPEC comes from shale wells that cost a few million dollars each and decline rapidly, or from large-scale projects that can produce for 30 years. An example of the latter is Chevron's new Jack/St. Malo platform, which just began production in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. (Disclosure: My portfolio includes Chevron stock.) This $7.5 billion facility is expected to recover at least 500 million barrels over its long lifetime. Sub-$70 oil surely means fewer such developments will proceed in the next few years, including offshore opportunities arising from Mexico's sweeping oil reforms. That will have implications for production stretching decades into the future.

The impact of low oil prices could be even more significant for conventional non-OPEC oil production  in more mature regions. Oil investments are expected to fall by 14% next  year in Norway, threatening that country's energy-focused economy. Prospects in the UK North Sea look no better, with a leading expert warning of long-term damage to the regional oil industry. An announced 2% cut in tax rates on extraction profits hardly seems adequate to offset a 38% price decline since June. As things stand now, voters in Scotland dodged a bullet when they  rejected independence, the economics of which depended in part on a sustained recovery in North Sea oil revenues.

Whether shale producers or large investment projects are squeezed more by OPEC's decision to stand pat, it could take months or perhaps years for lower production to appear. As Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, we shouldn't discount OPEC's willingness to act on the basis of its initial reaction to a crisis. However, history also suggests that even if OPEC ultimately acts decisively to defend its desired price level, the outcome may diverge significantly from what they intend. Energy consumers have more choices every day, and that could be the biggest constraint on OPEC's market power going forward.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The IEA's Stressful Outlook

  • The latest long-term forecast from the International Energy Agency suggests that the benefits of today's low oil prices might be temporary, with more volatility ahead.
  • The report focuses on a number of risks, including the adequacy of investment in both new oil capacity and low-emission energy, and the scale of nuclear plant retirements.
For an organization established by energy-importing countries in the aftermath of an oil crisis, the recent launch of the International Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) took surprisingly little satisfaction in the current dip in oil prices, and none in the difficulties it is causing for OPEC.  Instead, the presentation  was peppered with terms  like "stress", "risk" and  "doubts",  and references to a "false sense of security" and a "stormy energy future." I see that as an indication of how much the global energy agenda has changed and broadened in the last decade or so.

For oil in particular, the IEA sees today's growth in North American production masking the consequences of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. In Iraq and other countries in the region, uncertainty is delaying investments that should be made now, if future supplies are to meet demand growth after US "tight oil" and other non-OPEC  expansion has plateaued. And that point could come sooner than expected if drillers reduce US shale investments by 10% next year, as IEA anticipates, or if the significant governance problems of Brazil's oil sector, which were only hinted at, are not resolved soon.

The launch covered several other areas, as well, none of which escaped suggested stresses of their own. Start with natural gas. IEA sees gas on its way eventually to become the "first fuel", consistent with the view of their "Golden Age of Gas" scenario of 2011. This would be driven in part by a large increase in LNG production from new sources such as East Africa, Russia and North America, along with growth from traditional LNG suppliers in North Africa and Australia. IEA expects increased competition from LNG with pipeline gas to improve energy security, especially in Europe, but not necessarily gas prices for end users. In fact, the high relative cost of LNG could impede the displacement of coal by gas in Asia. 

The presentation also highlighted the significant challenges IEA expects in the electricity sector in the period to 2040, a longer interval for which this year's WEO provides the first glimpse. A net expansion of global power generation by around 75% is more challenging than even that figure suggests, because it must incorporate the replacement of more than a third of today's generating capacity. As a result, only oil-fired generation will experience a net decline.  IEA forecasts up to half of new capacity through 2040 coming from renewables, on a scale posing significant risks for power system reliability, especially in Europe.

Nuclear power, a major source of baseload low-carbon electricity, is an area of special focus in this year's report, along with Africa. The expected growth of nuclear energy over the next several decades occurs mainly in the developing world, while 38% of today's nuclear capacity--nearly 200 reactors--will be retired by 2040. Many of those retirements will occur in Europe, and the Chief Economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol, expressed concern about the policies and budgets supporting such decommissioning on an unprecedented scale.

By 2040 the balance of nuclear power capacity would have shifted from around 80% in OECD countries and 20% in today's developing countries, to roughly 50/50. While the report also draws attention to the growing policy problem of nuclear waste disposal, it identifies nuclear as "one of a limited number of options available at scale to reduce CO2 emissions."

The largest source of stress in the report appears to be the disconnect between the narrowing window for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that climate models indicate would limit global warming to 2°C, and the higher emissions inherent in the IEA's central "New Policies" scenario. Meeting the 2° target would require increasing average annual investments in low-carbon energy, including energy efficiency, by a factor of four compared to 2013. At last month's G20 summit in Australia we heard that "red warning lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy."  Could even the IEA's middle view of energy investments proceed if much of the world slid back into recession?

The presentation wasn't all gloomy, of course. Dr. Birol pointed out the competitive advantage that low energy costs confer on the US, and both he and IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoevan highlighted the recent China/US emissions deal as a very positive development. (My own analysis concluded that it would still allow China's emissions to grow dramatically before peaking.) They also conceded that lower oil prices would provide oil-importing countries with some timely "breathing space."  And for the first time I heard that three out of four cars sold in the world are now covered by fuel economy regulations, suggesting increases in energy efficiency to come.

It also struck me that some of the negatives in the presentation might tend to cancel each other out. If the global oil industry, especially in the Middle East, fails to invest sufficiently in the next few years to ensure that supplies continue to grow in the 2020s, then the resulting higher oil prices could accelerate the transition to natural gas and renewables, while providing greater incentives for energy efficiency. That combination might reduce emissions sooner than IEA's main forecast indicates.

Last year the IEA's World Energy Outlook failed to anticipate the drop in oil prices; how many other forecasters likewise missed it? It featured some of the same big themes repeated this year, including the ongoing shift of the energy world's center of gravity toward Asia and the scale of the global emissions challenge. On a more basic level, however, a comparison of the two documents suggests that the agency is still trying to understand the transformation of global energy markets by the parallel shale and renewable energy revolutions. They aren't alone in that, either.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Energy and the New Congress: Beyond Keystone

  • The Keystone XL pipeline is likely to get another opportunity for approval once the new Congress is sworn in next January.
  • However, it will not be the most important part of a new Congressional energy agenda, and it might not even be the most urgent.
Voters in the US mid-term election earlier this month might be forgiven for assuming that its result assures quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL), notwithstanding the drama over a Keystone bill in the "lame duck "session last week. The pipeline has been under review by the Executive Branch for six years, yet despite its symbolic importance to both sides of the debate, and an apparent majority in both houses of the newly elected Congress favoring its construction, its future remains uncertain. Nor is KXL necessarily the most urgent or important energy issue that the new Congress is expected to take up.

It's worth recalling that the Senators who just lost their seats  were elected in the aftermath of the oil-price shock of 2007-8, amid great concern about increasing US dependence on imported oil and natural gas. They took office in 2009 with a President whose main energy policies focused on addressing global warming, with energy security inescapably linked to climate change. Largely as a result of the shale revolution, the new class of Senators will begin their jobs in an entirely different energy environment. That will have a bearing on both the priorities and approach of the new Congressional leadership.

The energy agenda for the two years of the 114th Congress will most likely include not just the status of KXL, but also restrictions on US crude oil exports, reform or repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the extension of renewable energy tax credits for solar power (expiring at the end of 2016) and wind power (already expired),  regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act of 1990, expanded oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters, and a stalled piece of energy efficiency legislation that might be the least controversial energy bill, on its merits, that either chamber has considered in years. Support for nuclear power and the disposition of nuclear waste could get another look, too.

Tax incentives for both renewable and conventional energy may also be swept up in efforts to reform the US corporate and individual tax systems, a high priority for some incoming committee chairmen. The least likely measures to be considered, however, are comprehensive energy legislation along the lines of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 or climate legislation similar to the Waxman-Markey bill of 2009 that subsequently died in the Senate.

It is also possible that the 113th Congress could clear some of its backlog of energy measures before handing off to the new Congress in January. The dynamics of the lame duck session will be different from the pre-election period, and the outgoing leadership could be motivated to strike deals on measures such as the restoration of the wind power tax credit (PTC) within a larger package of expiring tax measures called the "extenders bill."

Aside from KXL, perhaps the most pressing energy matter for the new Congress is to address is the question of US oil exports, which are restricted under 1970s-era laws and regulations. The urgency of debating oil exports is twofold: One company has already indicated its intention to export condensate, which is treated as crude oil under current regulations, without government approval. And with oil prices having fallen by 20-25% since summer, oil exports and related shipping regulations could provide a crucial relief valve as US producers of light tight oil (LTO) from shale deposits seek to reduce their costs and find higher-priced markets.  Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is slated to chair the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and this is one of her big issues.

However, the cooperation Sen. Murkowski will receive from the other party in getting export legislation to the Senate floor could depend on the result of December's runoff in Louisiana.  If Mary Landrieu, current chair of Energy & Natural Resources, falls to Representative Bill Cassidy (R-LA), her replacement as ranking member for the minority on that committee is expected to be Maria Cantwell (D-WA). Senator Cantwell appears to be more skeptical about oil exports, as well as on other issues the oil and gas industry might hope would advance next year. 

For that matter, while gaining approval of KXL and reining in the EPA are clearly part of the incoming Republican agenda for energy, other issues cut across party lines in ways that make their outcomes less easily predictable. For example, proponents of reforming or repealing the RFS may have as much difficulty getting traction in the 114th Congress as in the 113th. Geography, rather than party affiliation, seems like a better predictor of whether new Senators like Joni Ernst (R-IA) or Mike Rounds (R-SD) would support or oppose changing the rules for biofuels. That could apply to the wind tax credit, too.  Even an oil export bill might similarly split both parties.

That brings us back to Keystone XL. The election result put both chambers of Congress on the same page on this issue for the first time and has apparently increased support for KXL to the crucial 60-vote threshold. That would be sufficient to obtain "cloture" and prevent a filibuster, though not to overturn a presidential veto.

Before Senator Landrieu's bill came up short last week, the President's real position on KXL began to emerge from the opacity he maintained through two elections. Nor does the fallout from his recent actions on other issues bode well for striking a deal with the new Congress on Keystone, short of it being attached to some essential piece of legislation like the budget or defense authorizations. Other parts of the likely Congressional energy agenda could fall into the same gap, and I'm less optimistic than I was after November 4th about opportunities for cooperation on energy between the White House and a unified Congress. 


A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keystone XL Loses Another Round

The image that will stick with me from yesterday's failed attempt by Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to avoid a filibuster on her bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is that of her Senate colleague, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) standing next to a blown-up photo of choking smog, presumably in China. Inconveniently, the greenhouse gases at the heart of this debate are invisible and global in effect, rather than local like the pollution from unscrubbed coal plants half a world away. Senator Boxer's smog ploy epitomizes the confusion and misinformation surrounding this project.

That extends to the White House, where the President's recent arguments against the pipeline reflect beliefs, rather than facts, and stand in contrast to the findings of his own administration on the economic and environmental impact of the pipeline, or of oil exports, should some of Keystone's oil be sold into the global market from the Gulf Coast.

Yesterday's defeat is likely to be more final for Senator Landrieu than for the pipeline. She goes into next month's runoff election as a distinct underdog, based on recent polling. The pipeline, however, will likely get another opportunity in the new Congress early next year, when supporters are expected to have an easier time coming up with the 60 votes necessary to bring a bill to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. The project may even benefit from having avoided a Presidential veto now, since the fig-leaf of letting the review process run its course would have been more transparent this time than when the President rejected the pipeline in 2012.