News Alert for Robert Samuelson: China’s Moving Off Coal and Oil a Lot Faster Than We Are

Even as the Tar Sands Action protests at the White House are continuing, the big dogs of the Washington Post — apparently feeling that since the Sulzbergers of the New York Times have taken an anti-Athabascan-Tar-Sands position, they must do the exact opposite — sends forth one of their useful idiots, Robert Samuelson, to try and make the Keystone XL protesters go away:

If Obama rejects the pipeline, he would — perversely — increase greenhouse gas emissions. Canada has made clear that it will proceed with oil sands development regardless of the American decision. If the United States doesn’t want the oil, China and other Asian countries do. Pipelines would be built to the West Coast. Transporting the oil by tanker to Asia would almost certainly create more emissions than moving it by pipeline to closer U.S. markets.

I have two words for that: “Bull” and “Shit”.

First off, it’s very, very expensive to extract oil from tar sands, especially the increasingly-costly Athabascan Tar Sands, so much so that exploiting the Athabascan sands is only economically worthwhile if the oil is pumped through a pipeline (which is itself only possible if the molasses-consistency “oil” is first diluted with lighter oils or even water), and only if oil goes and stays above $4 a gallon at the pump throughout the US, the Keystone XL pipeline’s target market. This is not exactly a safe assumption as $4-a-gallon gas curtails economic production sufficiently to cause a slackening of demand for oil; remember how the price of gas flirted with $4 a gallon in July of 2008, only to start dropping precipitously once the 2008 crash kicked into high gear? In short, taking away the pipeline takes away the developers’ ability to make a profit off of this boondoggle.

Second off, China is, if anything, trying to get the hell off of both coal and oil as fast as it can, because it’s been made crystal-clear what’s going to happen if it keeps kicking out carbon emissions at high rates. China is also determined to use more of its own oil rather than relying on imports; its known reserves of oil and natural gas have increased markedly in recent years.

China’s top leadership has known about the dangers connected with industrial expansion for quite some time; their problem was that since 1993, there has been no single governmental body directing and implementing energy policy in China, which means that there was little to hold back the lower-level leaders, the mayors and provincial leaders who were too enamored of the money rolling in to notice that they were laying waste to their own land. But when the runaway melt of the Himalayan glaciers that sustain the rivers which sustain nearly half the world’s population (and subsequent desertification of farmland once watered by the great rivers fed by these glaciers) became too obvious to ignore, even the mayors started to get with the program.

The Chinese are trying to buy time by buying up farmland anywhere else they can — Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, perhaps even in North America, though it will pale compared to their urban real-estate buys, especially as key farm states like Iowa have made foreign land ownership illegal). But the Chinese leadership knows that the real long-term solution is to stop throwing so much crap into the air, earth and water in the first place.

That’s why China’s gone from virtually zero wind power plants a decade ago to overtaking the US as the nation with the biggest amount of installed wind capacity with 41.8 GW at the beginning of 2011, and plans to reach a 90GW target by 2015. Up until recently it’s not shown as much interest in domestic solar usage, with only one gigawatt of solar installations nationwide, but that’s changing as well: China has set a target of ten gigawatts’ worth of up-and-running solar installations by 2015, three gigawatts of which will be solar rooftop installations. (By the way, the US currently has around 2.7 GW worth of solar PV panels installed. Total, not just rooftops. Yup, China’s going to blow by us in solar PV installs soon, too.) The longer-term goal is to have 50 gigawatts of solar power and 150 gigawatts of wind power installed by 2020.

And wind and solar together are still dwarfed by hydropower, which in 2009 in China accounted for 615.64 billion kWh, making up 16.6% of all electricity generated — and that’s not counting the power to come from the controversial (to say the least!) Three Gorges Dam, which came online earlier this year and which should produce 22.5 GW all by itself once all parts of it are running. Coal is still definitely king, but it’s no longer an absolute monarch, and its relative role in China’s energy mix is shrinking by the week if not the hour.

In the meantime, the growth in China’s energy use will be slowing and stabilizing once every person in China has the same or similar amenities as the typical American, and as efficiency gains are realized from using more efficient products and from closing or upgrading the old “iron rice bowl” factories and utilities created under Mao.

The upshot: Trying to scare Americans into backing the Tar Sands boondoggle with “the Chinese will buy it if we don’t” is right up there with “Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks” in terms of mendacious nonsense, and Robert Samuelson (not to mention his WaPo bosses) should be ashamed of trying to peddle such garbage to us.

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