More than a year ago I wrote a column for The Campus arguing that we should build the Keystone XL pipeline, and that it had none of the links to climate change that the protests appeared to be based on:
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 … 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.
Not to mention the fact that a pipeline is a far safer method for moving oil than the other alternatives.
If anything, [rejecting the pipeline] 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.
With another round of protests, the pipeline is back in the news. The issue is no less of a distraction now, the kind of sideshow that poisons the well of compromise towards actual solutions. I’m impressed by the level of support that these activists – people like Bill McKibben who I know and deeply respect – have been able to gain. But it’s time to find a new cause. The way to reduce our oil consumption is not by restricting the ways that oil companies can bring their product to the market. They will find a way, and a buyer. The way to reduce oil consumption is by lowering demand through more efficient cars, increased mass transit, and alternatives to the internal combustion engine like hydrogen fuel cells. Let’s increase funding and research for that instead and make sources of oil like Tar Sands irrelevant.
Phil Nocera, in a column in today’s New York Times, agrees:
As Adam Brandt, an energy expert at Stanford University, pointed out to me recently, so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. “With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away,” he said. “Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?” The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate.
At the end of the day, approving or not approving the northern leg of the pipeline would have a negligible effect on the scale of the global oil market. It’s been rerouted in Nebraska to reduce the environmental impact of a spill. President Obama should hold his nose and sign off on the proposal, or even leverage support for it to gain industry and opposition lawmaker support for more important environmental measures like production tax credits for wind and solar.