Sometime before the end of the year, President Obama should approve the Keystone XL project to extend the pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to refineries along the Gulf coast of the United States. This move will draw condemnation from environmental activists, the New York Times, and the protesters – many of whom will come from Middlebury – who plan to encircle the White House this upcoming weekend. Such a pipeline, they say, would lead to an inevitable defeat in the battle against global warming, beckoning in an apocalypse of scorched earth and risings seas. NASA climate scientist James Hansen says that the Keystone XL pipeline will be “game over” for climate change.
That’s more than a little overblown.
Would the planet and the atmosphere be better off without the additional emissions of carbon dioxide currently locked in the sands of Northern Canada? Absolutely – but that’s just not realistic; Canada has a huge pool of black gold within their national boundaries, and like anyone holding onto a valuable resource, they’re going to sell it. For better or for worse, the world economy is interconnected, and it runs on oil. If the activists and protesters succeed, and Obama does not approve the extension of the pipeline, Canada will simply load the oil into supertankers and send it across the Pacific, where China will happily take it off their hands. If anything, this will only heighten the risk of a catastrophic accident, for a spill would now be dispersed throughout the ocean, killing marine life and giving countless photogenic baby seals a new coat of oil. Meanwhile, the United States will continue consuming oil at ever-higher levels – we’ll just have to buy it from Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela, or our new friends in Libya. Rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline will not lower America’s demand for oil by a single barrel. It will just restructure the world oil market to require more trips by tanker ships through fragile aquatic ecosystems. Proponents of “buying local” should understand the appeal of getting our oil from Canada instead of the Middle East.
Many of the complaints about the crude oil that we’d be importing from Canada through the new pipeline stem from the production process, where – according to analysis by the National Energy Technology Lab – the process of extracting usable oil from the tar sands produces three times more carbon dioxide equivalents than traditional Canadian crude. This sounds bad, but when the entire life cycle – including production, transport, refinement, and use – is taken into account, the relative increased emissions decline significantly. Most of the carbon emitted by oil consumption doesn’t result from production; it comes from the vehicle. The car I currently drive gets about 24 miles per gallon, which means that the total emissions of CO2e per gallon amount to about 11.2 kg. With the oil that the Keystone pipeline carries, this will rise 16 percent. But as oil becomes more costly to extract, cars will use less of it. This year, President Obama – the same President that environmental activists seem intent on labeling a “sellout” – announced new fuel efficiency standards that will push average fleet efficiency to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, leading to drops in emissions that more than cancel out the increase due to using “dirtier” oil. Under the new standards, a new car in just over a decade would produce a far lower 7.95 kg of CO2e per gallon, even with the dirtiest of fuel.
The activists condemning President Obama for considering the project ignore some of the most basic realities of economics. The benefits to the climate will only accrue if nobody uses the oil; that is simply not going to happen. Our global addiction to oil will not end because of a devoted group of protesters arrested behind the White House; it will end when rising prices make other options economically feasible. Last time that gas prices jumped the $4.25 mark, there was a sudden surge in interest in alternative fuel and hybrid cars. As oil supplies diminish, prices will eventually soar even higher, making clean alternatives commercially viable and economically necessary. We’ve built a lifestyle and an economy that requires quick transportation and access to electricity, and I have unshakeable faith that the American people will innovate and find substitutes that allow us to maintain that lifestyle.
In the meantime, instead of condemning a President who will do far more for the environmental movement than some Republican intent on shuttering the “job-killing” EPA, environmentalists should be building a case for cap-and-trade and for subsidies that lower the price of clean energy substitutes, raise the price of carbon emissions, and hasten the transition away from oil.