Dear President Obama: Tar Sands & Keystone XL are more Dangerous than an Iranian Atomic Bomb

(By Juan Cole)

Dear President Obama:

You have said repeatedly that if negotiations with Iran do not limit its nuclear enrichment activities solely to peaceful uses, i.e. production of fuel for energy plants, that you would be willing to go to war with that country to ensure that it does not develop an atomic bomb. Some prominent American politicians, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, do not want to wait for negotiations and would like to launch that war today.

But atomic weapons are possessed by Israel, Britain, France, China, Russia, Pakistan, India and the United States, and only two have ever been detonated in anger. Atomic bombs are defensive weapons, not offensive ones, because deploying them aggressively would usually exact too heavy a toll for the aggressor to bear in consequence.

You said at Prague in 2009, “today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But while you seem to put a great deal of emphasis on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and the danger it might be weaponized, and while you say you want nuclear disarmament in general, you seem to take a longer view on a much, much more extreme threat to the earth than a few thousand atomic bombs. While you have been the best president on the issue of climate change, and EPA regulations on coal plants in your administration are going a long way toward closing them down, you keep talking about an “all of the above” energy policy that lauds hydraulic fracking and increased hydrocarbon production. If you produce more of the stuff, it will be burned into the atmosphere. And, even just extracting it out is very bad for the earth.

The greater threat than atomic bombs is carbon emissions and the likelihood that tar sands extraction of petroleum will greatly increase them. This coming on line of massive new amounts of extremely dirty tar sands petroleum would be much abetted by the Keystone XL pipeline.

Extraction of petroleum from tar sands should be illegal for all kinds of reasons. Most importantly, it is a very, very dirty fuel. We are already putting 278 atomic bombs worth of energy into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions every minute .

Let us stop and think about that. If one country detonated even one atomic bomb against another country, that would practically be the apocalypse nowadays. Or, if the countries of the world just did 278 tests of nuclear weapons a year there would be an enormous outcry. But we let Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal carry out the equivalent of that many explosions every 60 seconds.

We only have 15 years to very substantially reduce the 32 billion metric tons of CO2 we put into the atmosphere every year. My guess is that you think we have more like 45 years, to about 2050. Climate scientists like Jim Hansen have revised that timeline. We have until 2030 to limit global warming to less than 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Getting hotter than than may well destabilize the climate, making it chaotic. We are in crisis and need a Manhattan project. The magnitude of the threat became even clearer in 2013, as The Smithsonian Magazine, which you publish recently pointed out.

If you’d be willing to spend a likely $3 trillion and a great deal of American blood on a war with Iran to stop it from having one nuke, why not spend at least that much money to make sure that the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons are not set off every single day?

The US went up from 5 billion metric tons a year in CO2 emissions to 6 after the mid-1990s. Recently, because of the closure of coal plants in favor of wind energy in the Midwest and because of a switch to natural gas at other plants, we have fallen back down to 5 billion metric tons of C02 a year. But that is like a man who needs to lose 60 pounds to avoid a massive, fatal heart attack, straining and managing in the end to take off 10 pounds. It isn’t nearly good enough. (And in 2013 our emissions increased again, by two percent). Worse, the natural gas that replaced some of the coal was often produced by hydraulic fracture– breaking open rocks deep in the earth– and the process produces large amounts of methane emissions. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it doesn’t do you any good to cut down on C02 and increase methane submissions.

The Keystone XL pipeline would facilitate the tar sands extraction industry, which is destroying the Canadian environment. Building it will be the equivalent of putting an extra 40 million automobiles on the road. Your State Department concluded that the pipeline won’t significantly increase global warming. That is only true if you look at the issue very narrowly. If you consider what it will mean for increased tar sands extraction, it will in fact very significantly contribute to global warming. Your own Environmental Protection Agency is wondering what those people at State are smoking.

Tar sands extraction, it turns out, puts 2 to 3 times as many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) emissions into the atmosphere, water and soil as had earlier been estimated by industry studies That chemical will affect both Canadian and American citizens.

Your Center for Disease Control warns that PAHs are dangerous to human beings. They have caused tumors from being inhaled or from skin contact in laboratory animals and have caused cancer in human beings. Mice ingesting large amounts of PAHs had difficulty conceiving, so they damage reproductive health. They also have caused birth defects in animals. Animal studies also show that PAHs compromise immune response. So they make you sick and then make you less able to fight off sickness.

But a chemical that causes cancer or birth defects is actually benign compared to the carbon emissions themselves, which will kill many more people through drought, flood, and other calamities, even over just the next century (it gets way worse after that). In the next 80 years we will lose New orleans and Miami to rising seas, and see substantial loss of coasts. Forest fires and crop failures threaten the southwest, which won’t have enough water.

We can’t afford “all of the above” as an approach to our energy security, Mr. President. Spain got more energy from wind than any other source in 2013 and we have more wind than Spain does. China put in more solar power in 2013 that we have in our entire history as a country. We get half of one percent of our energy from the sun even though we are drenched in it and the cost of PV panels have plummeted.

You are no doubt already doing most of what you can, as one of the few sane politicians we have, who recognizes the dangers. But your rhetoric of “all of the above,” while it may protect you from the carbon wingnuts, is not helpful to the country or the world. It isn’t the kind of rhetoric you use about atomic bombs, which are practically speaking much less dangerous. Would you encourage the countries of the world to have an “all of the above” approach to weapons procurement, including nukes?

No offense, but you’re more or less a lame duck with regard to legislation. You don’t seem that interested in foreign policy and admit that your two major current projects — negotiations with Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli talks– only have a 50% chance of success. You have really only one area left in which to enter the history books for your second term achievements. And that is the environment and climate change. If you approve Keystone XL and become an enabler of tar sands, you will not only lose that opportunity, you will be remembered as a second Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned.


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11 Responses

  1. Here’s James Hansen’s TED talk on global warming:

    link to

    Very sobering stuff but, as Juan says above, there is a solution: No to “all of the above”, yes to solar thermal & photovoltaic and to wind. Most importantly, no to fracking, tar sands, Keystone XL and coal.

    Coal is hugely damaging. Here in Australia, our federal government last week approved the dumping of dredge spoils in a Great Barrier Reef marine park area; but it’s okay because look! we’re only going to dump on the bits that are “sand, silt and clay and [do] not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds” according to Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chairman Dr Russell Reichelt.

    link to

    Sediment from dredge spoil travels up to eighty kilometres, certainly coral and seagrass areas will be in harm’s way from the ongoing dredging operation, but it’s okay, because the dredging is for Abbot (not the prime minister) Point port and the port is for local jobs for Queenslanders!

    And coal.

    Take a look at the port’s current throughput; all coal:

    link to

    The “proposed” expansion for which the dredge spoil dumping has been approved will increase those numbers by a mere 70 mtpa! Isn’t that nice? In plain English, and in mass of the resulting CO2 -how the pollution’s measured- 257 000 000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

    Fly in, dig it up, ship it out, fly out, buy second jetski for kids, crank up the aircon and holiday twice a year in Bali, driving to the airport in the obscenely large vehicle of course- public transport’s for poor people, who are ignored along with the planet as mere uncounted externalities of The Australian Dream(tm).

    You know what? I reckon that UK expat who hoofed it out of Singapore last week will fit right in here in Perth- I’ve lived here all my life and my cycle shorts and I don’t, apparently?

    link to

    Good article, thanks Juan.

  2. We can’t expect corrupt government to solve this problem.

    People have the power to change this dynamic RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

    Anyone who believes that Mr. Cole is correct about the 15 years left to solve this problem (as I do) needs to get out of their car and start riding a bicycle. If you’re too damn lazy to ride a regular bike then get an electric bike.

    Just get out of your damn motor vehicles. This addiction or belief that each one of is special and has special needs, is the PROBLEM.

    I need a car to get to work. NO YOU DON’T.

    I need a car to take care of my family. NO YOU DON’T.

    I need a car because…..Why? Because down deep we’re all lazy and want to do the least work possible. And, because we figure it’s governments job or the other guys problem we’ll watch Big Oil ruin the planet.

    I’m totally disabled and on SSI. If I can get rid of my car and manage to do what I need to do by bicycle, what’s your excuse?

    I’d really like to see a healthy planet for future generations. If you really think a motor vehicle is a God-given right YOU’RE the problem.

    Of course, this diatribe isn’t directed at any of Mr. Cole’s intelligent readership.

    Imagine the economic power of millions of people saying screw Big Oil, I”M GETTING OUT OF MY CAR.

    Anything worth doing is hard. Isn’t this planet worth saving?

    Be the change you want to see!

  3. If only we could read the Dear President Obama letters from his campaign donors with a vested interest in Keystone XL.

  4. You’re right, I think the liklihood of environmental and human destruction from an atomic Iran is not great. Yes, atomic is always defensive, many countries have them, but only used twice. Thanks for the thorough explaination of that and the details of tar sands.

    Unique thinking, the telling comparsion between Iran and Keystone XL. Lindsey Graham? What a dope, dismissing the horrifying ecological danger at home, while contemplating a stranger danger war with Iran.

    It will be a struggle in Canada against what PM Stephen Harper has in place. As far as the USA, a struggle against “oil now” citizens and corporations, probably the government, too. Unless Obama sets his mind to solutions and gives a fight against the carbon greedy.

  5. Keystone XL should be denied simply because it is the dirtiest oil on the planet. Some producers in the U.S. have already applied for export permits as they have excess supply. If they have excess supply, then they have no need of more Canadian oil. Canada itself has no need of an increase in tar sands production.
    If the U.S. and Iran can get their heads together, the whole world would breathe easier, and I believe Iran could ramp up oil production with far less pollution than tar sands.
    If Mr. Harper tries to put oil tankers right in the middle of the pristine B.C. coast; there will be blood in the streets!!

  6. In case anybody missed it, especially Obama groupies, and in case it’s not obvious, there’s this observation by the former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu:

    “Fmr Energy Secretary: Obama’s Keystone XL Decision Political, Not Scientific” link to

    The fix is in? “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” link to

  7. Obama has no more elections left to run for. He is strictly working for the highest possible private sector payoffs and paybacks after he leaves office. Based on his goals and record to date, I think he will okay the Keystone XL Pipeline Northern Half.

  8. I am confused, how an imaginary “Iranian atomic bomb” and the very real danger of keystone XL connect. Are all the tens of thousands of none “Iranian atomic bomb” harmless then?
    Is Iranian exercise of independence and sovereignty on par to the danger of the polluted and poisoned North America?

  9. Obama should also consider that he and his family will be present when “all of the above” hits the fan. 20-30 years from now, with all hell breaking loose, he and his family will be witness to, and will answer for, his most profound legacy.

    On the other hand, s__t canning Keystone might be memorialized as “one tiny step for a lame duck, and one giant step for mankind”.

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