It seems inevitable, at least in recent decades, that when we discuss important issues in America we start off by focusing our attention, anger and mutual distrust on side issues.
So it is with the Keystone Pipeline, a projected line intended to take oil from Canada down to Houston. Because the oil is thicker than normal, the refineries down Houston way are the natural destination for it.
Environmentalists are not happy. They insist that the pipeline not be built. They are making this a litmus test for President Obama and anyone else who ever wants the affection of environmentalists through the end of time–or the next time a Republican gets elected president, whichever comes first.
Anybody sane enough to understand what’s good or bad for the environment, but not sufficiently up-to-date to grasp the hidden politics of all this would take about five minutes to come up with a common sense answer.
“Well, of course you should build a pipeline,” they would say. “It’s cheaper. Sending it by rail, or worse–by truck–would not be economical. And don’t you care about the environment? A pipeline has one-third the number of spills and accidents as rail transport, and don’t even get started on trucking. And sending it by pipe would emit less CO2–those trains are powered by fossil fuels and the cars weigh as much as the oil that goes in them. Get real!”
But of course the Keystone Pipeline is not the real issue and never was.
The real issue is whether the oil buried in the tar sands of Alberta should be used at all.
And the debate that nobody really wants to have is on the pros and cons of this issue. Both sides are afraid that losing that debate would be disastrous. I also think that both sides understand too well that winning the debate would be almost Pyrrhic in nature. (The winning side would face the same peril, but about different subjects. If the environmentalists win, if the economy breaks, they own it. If those in favor of using the oil win, if the environment breaks, they own it. Far better to discuss the merits and demerits of a pipeline.)
Those who are most concerned about climate change have a real interest in limiting our consumption of fossil fuel. Discoveries of large deposits of fossil fuels over the past two decades have exploded the myth of Peak Oil, removing one of the lines of attack they have used in arguing for a sheaf of environmentally sound policies regarding fuel use.
The tar sand deposits in Alberta are
one-third two-thirds (oops) the size of Saudi oil reserves, and putting them on the market would effectively remove all constraints (except price) from unlimited fuel consumption. When added to underwater oil deposits found off the coast of Brazil, unconventional oil and gas deposits almost everywhere and huge coal mines being dug in Mongolia, we are entering a new era of increased availability of fossil fuels.
Many are exuberant about the possibility, focusing on the economic development and increased employment this will lead to. Others are concerned that this will greatly increase human contributions of greenhouse gases, leading to a worse outcome for global temperature averages.
As economic times are tough all over these days, the people focused on the economic advantages of exploiting these resources are getting all the easy wins in the debate over the pipeline. But because the pipeline is not the real issue, these wins are tactical, not strategic, and leave their environmentalist opponents angrier and hungrier.
Let’s have a brief look at the real issue. Environmentalists argue (or would argue, if they had the courage to match their convictions) that the oil in Alberta should be left undeveloped.
I think there is a case to be made for that argument, although I’m not sure that case would convince. Sadly, I don’t think they’ve even tried to make that case–those few who have mentioned it merely make the assertion and then use the assertion as if it were proof.
Update: I should add that what I’m proposing is to pay the Canadians to leave the oil in the ground, something I haven’t seen proposed by anyone. This could be either in the form of pre-paid royalties or compensation in the same manner as offered to those in the developing world for not cutting down trees.
There are good reasons to consider leaving it in the ground:
- National security interests: The time will come when fossil fuels are exceedingly expensive to bring to market. If you think gasoline is expensive now, just wait. As petroleum gets more expensive, its availability will become more strategic, not only for transportation but for special products derived from petroleum. Having a large supply in ready reserve in the back yard of a good friend is not obviously stupid.
- Economic interests: Petroleum is only going to get progressively harder to find and more expensive to bring to market. The economic value of the tar sands deposits may actually increase more while its in the ground. If it’s the ‘last man standing’–the last large reserve to be developed–it will command a scarcity premium. (Obviously, there is the risk that we will continue to find equally large reserves.)
- Environmental interests: In an era when natural gas is abundant and inexpensive, why not take advantage of it and wait on the tar sands? Natural gas emits half the CO2 as does petroleum for each joule obtained in energy. In this period of uncertainty about climate change, why take the risk when we can use a safer and cheaper fuel? Make large fleets of cars run on natural gas, export it where logical and take advantage of this resource.
Unfortunately, environmentalists seem to rely on purity of heart and the fervor left over from the 60s and 70s. I don’t know why they cannot admit that this is the real issue and use common-sense arguments. I only know that they don’t.
Fighting over a secondary issue because you don’t have the courage to take on the real issue has a long history in the United States. Not a glorious history, just a long one.
I cannot remember an occasion when such a strategy ever emerged victorious.