Category Archive: Climate Change

The Liberal, Environmentalist Argument for the Keystone Pipeline

Don Howard

Like it or not, the global economy still depends on a large, steady supply of oil, natural gas, and refined petroleum products. That must change if we are to solve the problem of carbon dioxide and methane emissions and associated, global climate change. But the nations of the world have yet to evince either the political will or the technical capability to shift us to a totally green energy economy in the near future. All plausible scenarios still leave us dependent upon fossil fuels for decades to come. That being so, demand for fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas, will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Which brings us to the question of the Keystone pipeline.

Start with some facts. First, the Keystone pipeline already exists and is moving hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day from the oil sands area of Alberta and the Bakken region in North Dakota to refineries, storage facilities, and shipping terminals in Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Second, the pipeline carries both heavy shale oil and light crude, along with “dilbit,” which is shale oil diluted by lighter materials that are typical by-products of natural gas production. What generates all the excitement and controversy today is only the completion of phase IV of the pipeline, which would functionally replace the segment of the phase I line from Hardesty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, and make possible also the addition to the pipeline of US-produced crude at a station in Baker, Montana, in the Bakken formation. So, the pipeline is built, and oil has been flowing for over four years. The question now is only whether to replace one segment with another, shorter, higher-capacity line.

There are perfectly reasonable questions about environmental risk in some especially environmentally sensitive areas through which the phase IV pipeline would pass, such as the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, and about impacts on some Native American and First Nations lands. These questions must be addressed in ways satisfactory to all relevant parties.

But many of the pipeline’s opponents object to its construction not only because of such local concerns. They object also on broader environmentalist grounds that boil down to opposition to a fossil fuels energy economy in the first place. That objection, however, misses the point that should be the focus of debate. More or less everyone agrees that a green energy economy is the long-term goal. But oil will be needed for decades to come. Oil will be extracted, shipped, refined, and marketed. The question is not whether we should do that. We have to do that. The question is how to do it in the most environmentally and socially responsible way. Which brings us back to the question of the Keystone pipeline.

There are two main technologies for overland shipping of large volumes of oil: pipelines and rail. So the only real question that should be up for debate concerns which is the safer, more environmentally and socially responsible way to move large volumes of oil from producing fields to refineries and on to markets. And the answer to that question is, indisputably, pipeline transport.

At present, the Bakken region is producing oil at a prodigious rate, about one million barrels per day, far outpacing our capacity to ship it with existing pipelines. The result is that Bakken oil is moving by rail. But US carriers lack the tanker car and engine capacity, as well as bandwidth on the rails, to move the oil. That means that hundreds of thousands of older and poorly designed tank cars (DOT 111 model) have been pressed into service, while engines and track have been diverted from delivering other essential goods, such as grain from the Great Plains, to delivering oil. The economic cost to farmers, food companies, and consumers is huge. We are all paying a hidden tax at the supermarket for our lack of critical oil transport infrastructure. (Federman 2014.)

But that economic cost is minor compared with the huge environmental risks and social impacts of transporting oil by rail in antiquated rolling stock over rail lines pushed well beyond designed capacity. Nor are the risks and impacts merely theoretical.

The single largest, transportation related oil spill on land in the US and Canada over the past ten years was not the Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan in July 2010 or the Lake Buffalo spill in Alberta in April of 2011. No it was this:


Lac-Mégantic, Quebec oil train disaster. July 6, 2013.

July 6, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. A 74-car trainload of Bakken crude exploded in the center of town. Nearly 5,000 metric tons of oil were spilled, at least forty-two people were killed, and thirty buildings were destroyed. This is the price we pay for not being able to ship that oil by pipeline.

And there is more. On November 30, 2013, a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of Bakken crude derailed and exploded outside of Aliceville, Alabama. On December 30, 2013, an oil train collided with another train outside of Casselton, North Dakota, spilling more than 400,000 gallons of oil.

Then on April 30 of this year, an oil train derailed and exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, spilling perhaps as much as 30,000 gallons of oil, some of it into the James River:

Lyncburg, Virginia oil train wreck. April 30, 2014.

Lyncburg, Virginia oil train wreck. April 30, 2014.

Fortunately no one was killed, and the damage was much less extensive than in the Lac-Mégantic derailment.

These are only the most serious of numerous recent oil train accidents. According to one estimate, in 2013 alone, oil train accidents led to the spilling of more than 1.15 million gallons of oil just in the United States. The spillage from pipeline accidents pales in comparison.

Two additional factors increase the risk from rail transport. The first concerns specifically the Bakken crude that constitutes the bulk of what is now being shipped by rail. It is that some are convinced that Bakken crude is an uncommonly volatile mix of oil and lighter, hence more explosive and combustible components like butane and propane. Some are calling for pre-processing to remove those components before shipping. But this would be less of a problem with pipeline shipment. (Dawson and Gold 2014.)

The other factor increasing the risk from rail transport is that rail lines tend to pass right through the hearts of densely populated urban areas, whereas oil pipelines are deliberately constructed so as to avoid urban areas to the greatest extent possible. For example, Norfolk-Southern alone ships between 13 and 24 million gallons of North Dakota oil through the center of my home town, South Bend, Indiana, every week. That rail line passes two blocks away from my son’s high school. (Widener 2014.) And, yes, there is also the threat of terrorist attacks, a really worrisome prospect in city centers.

The point is simply this. We have to move oil from oil fields to refineries and distribution centers. Pipelines break, but our recent experience has shown that it is far more risky to move the oil by rail, which is the only alternative. And those risks extend not just to environmental consequences but to human suffering and economic loss.

Of course pipelines also fail, and when they do, the consequences can be quite serious. But it is instructive to examine some of the recent pipeline spills, such as the mentioned accidents in Alberta and Michigan. In most such cases, the problems go back to aging pipeline infrastructure combined with poor maintenance and monitoring. But the lesson from those episodes is not to abandon pipelines for rail transport. It is to replace aging pipelines with new ones, which is exactly what Enbridge did after the Michigan spill. (Enbridge 2014.)

The recent decline in oil prices could change the equation, squeezing the profit margin on crude from Alberta tar sands and the Bakken formation. The break-even point for Bakken crude is now estimated to be around $73/barrel. And some of the tar sands producers, especially those smaller firms extracting harder-to-produce oil, are already in trouble. But oil would have to fall well below $70/barrel and stay there for some time before any significant effect on production will be seen, and, as oil prices fall, energy from renewable sources like wind and solar will become less competitive, thus probably increasing demand for fossil fuels. Moreover, other producer nations, like Saudia Arabia, are far more heavily affected by oil price declines, so if there are to be production cutbacks, those are far more likely to occur with other sources of oil. It is, thus, hard to imagine economic circumstances that would lead to a halt or a significant decline in production from the sources served by the Keystone pipeline. (Randall 2014.)

So let’s summarize the argument. Oil will be an essential part of the global energy economy for decades to come. It will be extracted and shipped. Overland shipment is possible only by pipeline or rail. Rail transport of oil is far more risky from both an environmental and social point of view. If, therefore, you are an environmentalist who also cares about human well being, you will support the Keystone pipeline. It – and other such pipeline projects – are the only environmentally and socially responsible choice.


Chester Dawson and Arthur Gold. “Accuracy of Bakken Volatility Tests Face More Challenges.” Wall Street Journal. November 12, 2014.

Enbridge. “Line 6B Phase 2 Replacement Project.” 2014.

Adam Federman. “‘The infrastructure isn’t there’: Why Shipping Bakken Crude Oil by Rail Is a Disaster in the Making.” Salon. June 29, 2014.

Tom Randall. “Break-Even Points for U.S. Shale Oil.” Bloomberg. October 17, 2014.

Adam Widener. “15 Finds Out: Through Your Backyard.” October 30, 2014.

The Scientist qua Scientist Has a Duty to Advocate and Act

Don Howard

The new AAAS web site on climate change, “What We Know,” asserts: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know.” Am I the only one dismayed by this strong disavowal of any responsibility on the part of climate scientists beyond informing the public? Of course I understand the complicated politics of climate change and the complicated political environment in which an organization like AAAS operates. Still, I think that this is an evasion of responsibility.

Contrast the AAAS stance with the so-called “Franck Report,” a remarkable document drawn up by refugee German physicist James Franck and colleagues at the University of Chicago’s “Metallurgical Laboratory” (part of the Manhattan Project) in the spring of 1945 in a vain effort to dissuade the US government from using the atomic bomb in a surprise attack on a civilian target. They started from the premise that the scientist qua scientist has a responsibility to advise and advocate, not just inform, arguing that their technical expertise entailed an obligation to act:

“The scientists on this project do not presume to speak authoritatively on problems of national and international policy. However, we found ourselves, by the force of events, during the last five years, in the position of a small group of citizens cognizant of a grave danger for the safety of this country as well as for the future of all the other nations, of which the rest of mankind is unaware. We therefore feel it is our duty to urge that the political problems, arising from the mastering of nuclear power, be recognized in all their gravity, and that appropriate steps be taken for their study and the preparation of necessary decisions.”

James Franck. Director of the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and primary author of the "Frank Report."

James Franck. Director of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and primary author of the “Franck Report.”

I have long thought that the Franck Report is a model for how the scientist’s citizen responsibility should be understood. At the time, the view among the signatories to the Franck Report stood in stark contrast to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s definition of the scientist’s responsibility being only to provide technical answers to technical questions. Oppenheimer wrote: “We didn’t think that being scientists especially qualified us as to how to answer this question of how the bombs should be used” (Jungk 1958, 186).


J. Robert Oppenheimer Director of the Manhattan Project

J. Robert Oppenheimer
Director of the Manhattan Project

The key argument advanced by Franck and colleagues was, again, that it was precisely their distinctive technical expertise that entailed a moral “duty . . . to urge that the political problems . . . be recognized in all their gravity.” Of course they also urged their colleagues to inform the public so as to enable broader citizen participation in the debate about atomic weapons, a sentiment that eventuated in the creation of the Federation of American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The key point, however, was the link between distinctive expertise and the obligation to act. Obvious institutional and professional pressures rightly enforce a boundary between science and advocacy in the scientist’s day-to-day work. Even the cause of political advocacy requires a solid empirical and logical foundation for that action. But that there might be extraordinary circumstances in which the boundary between science and advocacy must be crossed seems equally obvious. And one is hard pressed to find principled reasons for objecting to that conclusion. Surely there is no easy argument leading from scientific objectivity to a disavowal of any such obligations.

Much of the Franck report was written by Eugene Rabinowitch, who went on to become a major figure in the Pugwash movement, the leader of which, Joseph Rotblat, was awarded the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for his exemplary efforts in promoting international communication and understanding among nuclear scientists from around the world during the worst of the Cold War. The seemingly omnipresent Leo Szilard also played a significant role in drafting the report, and since 1974 the American Physical Society has given an annual Leo Szilard Lectureship Award to honor physicists who “promote the use of physics to benefit society.” Is it ironic that the 2007 winner was NASA atmospheric physicist James E. Hansen who has become controversial in the climate science community precisely because he decided to urge action on climate change?

That distinctive expertise entails an obligation to act is, in other settings, a principle to which we all assent. An EMT, even when off duty, is expected to help a heart attack victim precisely because he or she has knowledge, skills, and experience not common among the general public. Why should we not think about scientists and engineers as intellectual first responders?

Physicists, at least, seem to have assimilated within their professional culture a clear understanding that specialist expertise sometimes entails an obligation to take political action. That fact will, no doubt, surprise many who stereotype physics as the paradigm of a morally and politically disengaged discipline. There are many examples from other disciplines of scientists who have gone so far as to risk their careers to speak out in service to a higher good, including climate scientists like Michael Mann, who recently defended the scientist’s obligation to speak up in a blunt op-ed in the New York Times, “If You See Something, Say Something”). The question remains, why, nonetheless, the technical community has, for the most part, followed the lead of Oppenheimer, not Franck, when, in fact, our very identity as scientists does, sometimes, entail a moral obligation “to tell people what they should do” about the most compelling problems confronting our nation and our world.


Jungk, Robert (1958). Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

How to Talk about Science to the Public – 2. Speak Honestly about Uncertainty

Don Howard

We are all Humeans, all of us who are trained in science, at least. We know that empirical evidence confers at most high probability, never certainty, on a scientific claim, and this no matter how sophisticated the inductive logic that we preach. Enumerative induction doesn’t do it. That the sun rose every day in recorded history and before does not imply that it will, of necessity, rise tomorrow. Inference to the best explanation doesn’t do it, for such inferences depend on a changing explanandum (that which is to be explained) and upon both an obscure quality metric (what determines the “better than” metric) and a never complete reference class of competing explanations. Bayes’s theorem can’t do it either.

No. All of us who are trained in science know that every theory, principle, law, and observation is open to challenge and that many once thought secure now populate the museum of dead theories. Sophisticated philosophers of science have invented the intimidating name, “the pessimistic meta-induction” for the thesis that, just as all theories in the past have turned out to be false or significantly limited in scope, so, too, most likely, will our current best and future science.

No. We all know that science is a matter of tentative hypotheses and best guesses. Some principles that have proven their mettle over the long haul, such as the conservation of energy, rightly earn our confidence that they can be reliable guides in the future. But more than one scientist has been willing to sacrifice even the conservation of energy if that were the price to solve another intractable riddle, as when Niels Bohr twice proposed theories that assumed violations of energy conservation.

That science does not deal in certainty is a major part of what makes it such a precious cultural achievement. Science is not dogma. Science admits its failings and learns from its mistakes. That it does so is key to how it achieved the dramatic expansion of scientific understanding that we have witnessed at least since the Renaissance.

Why, then, do we have so much trouble speaking honestly to the public about uncertainty? Why, when debating on the campaign trail, do we give in to the temptation to describe anthropogenic climate change as “proven fact.”? Why, when on the witness stand, do we feel the need to assert that a Darwinian story about human origins is established “beyond all reasonable doubt”? We have lots of good reasons for believing in human-caused climate change and Darwinian evolution. Few scientific claims are as well established as these. But about both we might be wrong in some as yet unforeseen or unforeseeable way. Why lie? Why not speak honestly?

There are at least two reasons why, when speaking to the public, we so often seek refuge in the rhetoric of proof and truth. The first is that we wrongly think that the scientific laity cannot understand uncertainty and probability. This is one of the most worrisome ways in which we insult the intelligence of our audience.

That lots of us – scientists and non-scientists alike – make lots of inductive and probabilistic mistakes is obvious. Casinos, state lotteries, and race tracks are all the evidence one needs. They profit only thanks to those mistakes. Nor are any of us rational utility maximizers, soundly weighing expected gains and losses against the probabilities of various outcomes. The stock market provides the relevant evidence here.

But the fact that lots of people make inductive errors doesn’t imply that the educated public can’t deal with uncertainty. We all deal with uncertainty all the time, and, in the main, we do a good job with it. Do I take I-294 or the Skyway, the Dan Ryan, and the Kennedy to O’Hare? What are the odds of congestion on each at this time of day? How much of a time cushion do I have? What are the consequences of being early or late? How likely am I to miss my flight if there is a ten-minute delay, a twenty-minute delay, or an hour-long delay? Chance of rain? Do I take the umbrella or also my overcoat? Much of life is like this. We make mistakes, but we get by, don’t we?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

The second major reason why we retreat to the rhetoric of proof and truth is that we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the merchants of doubt.* The political exploitation of uncertainty to create the illusion of scientific dissensus and thereby stymie policy making on global warming, public health, energy, and other issues is now, itself, big business. There are lobbying firms, fictitious “think tanks,” corporate public relations offices, sham public interest groups, and members of congress who might as well be paid spokespersons. Much of the same kind of apparatus is encountered in the “debates” over evolution and intelligent design. Acknowledge uncertainty, and that becomes the wedge by means of which the illusion of scientific controversy can be created where there is, in fact, no controversy. What is to be done?

What is not to be done is misrepresenting the contingency of science. It is a mistake to confront the merchants of doubt with the pretense of certainty and proof. The right response is to trust the public to understand the weighing of evidence and the adjustment of policy to the strength of the evidence. The right response is, simply and clearly, to present the evidence. To be sure, climate modeling and population genetics involve sophisticated statistical tools that cannot be explained in detail in a few sentences. But with only a bit effort one can usually explain the general issue in an accessible manner.

A good example of making probabilities accessible is the recent reporting on the hunt for the Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Any reader of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal now knows the expressions “three-sigma” and “five-sigma.” A tutorial on calculating standard deviations was not needed to communicate the point that, when sorting through oceans of data, looking for truly exceptional events, one wants to be sure that what one is seeing is more than what would be expected from random fluctuations. People understand this. If the roulette ball lands on 36 twice in a row one is mildly surprised but doesn’t accuse the croupier of cheating. If it lands on 36 five times in a row, then it’s time to ask to see the manager.

No contentious policy questions turn on the results from CERN, so perhaps it is easier for us to speak about uncertainty in this context. But if we can educate the public about statistics in particle physics, surely we can do it as well when the topic is flu epidemics or vehicle safety or climate change. Here is the evidence for increased global temperatures over the last century. Here is what the models predict for increased sea levels. Here is our degree of confidence in these predictions. Now let’s talk about the costs and benefits of different courses of action. Be firm. Be clear. Don’t be afraid to call a lie a “lie” when others misrepresent the evidence or misdescribe the models. But trust the public to follow the logic of the science if we do a good enough job of explaining that logic.

There might be one final reason why we too often retreat to the rhetoric of proof and truth, a reason that I’ll just mention here, saving a fuller discussion for another occasion. It is that too many of us were, ourselves, badly trained in science. Too many textbooks too many courses, and far, far too many popular science writers still teach the science in ways that encourage the illusion of settled fact where there is none. Thomas Kuhn taught us that science teaching often looks more like indoctrination than we might be comfortable acknowledging. There are remedies for this, foremost among them a more thorough and sophisticated incorporation of history and philosophy of science into science pedagogy. But, again, that is a topic for another post.

*See the excellent book by this title: Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).