OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL TEST: On August 26 the State Department released its final environmental impact assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, concluding that it would have “no significant impacts” on its natural surroundings, and downplaying the potential for increased greenhouse gas emissions. On the question of potential oil spills, the report predicted between “1.18 to 1.83 spills greater than 2,100 gallons per year” for the entire project, adding that “crude oil spills are not likely to have toxic effects on the general public.” In a statement, the Sierra Club called the report “an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people.”
The actual number of spills from Keystone XL, which would run from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, is likely to be much higher than the report claims. There have already been fourteen spills along the existing Keystone pipeline since it began operating in June 2010, and the first independent analysis of the pipeline project, released this past July by John Stansbury at the University of Nebraska, calculated that there was the potential for ninety-one spills over the next fifty years.
Contrary to administration claims, Stansbury also presented spill scenarios that would most certainly have toxic effects. A worst-case spill at the Platte River crossing, for example, would cause benzene—a human carcinogen—to travel unabated down the Missouri River for several hundred miles and affect the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people. A worst-case spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska would contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of drinking water.
With the environmental impact assessment virtually guaranteeing that the State Department will approve the Keystone XL project by the end of the year, environmental activists are placing their bets on President Obama to stop it. His administration “can’t get the climate science right,” said author and activist Bill McKibben, who has led days of peaceful protest outside the White House, “but maybe they can get the politics right.” GEORGE ZORNICK
LINKING CLIMATE AND CONFLICT: An article published in the August 25 issue of the respected science journal Nature has attracted global media attention for claiming—for the first time, according to its authors—a clear connection between the instability of modern societies and the global climate.
The authors used the shift between El Niño events—when ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are unusually high, causing a climate shift in dozens of countries—and periods of cooling known as La Niña as a proxy for a changing climate. By comparing data on the occurrence of El Niño events and the onset of civil disputes in more than eighty countries—mostly low-income countries in the regions of the moist tropics and arid subtropics—they concluded that warmer than average climate contributed to conflict in 21 percent of all civil conflicts since 1950 and raised the likelihood of new conflicts breaking out in tropical countries by 3 to 6 percent.