Build That Pipeline!

Environmental groups are approaching the Keystone project much as the U.S. government fights the war on drugs. They are attacking supply rather than demand.

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One way to think about the keystone project–the 2,000-mile (3,220 km) pipeline that would bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico–is to ask what would happen if it is never built. The U.S. Department of State released an extremely thorough report that tries to answer this question. It concludes, basically, that the oil derived from Canadian tar sands will be developed at about the same pace whether or not there is a pipeline to the U.S. In other words, stopping Keystone might make us feel good, but it wouldn’t really do anything about climate change.

Given the need for oil in the U.S., Canadian producers would still get Alberta’s oil to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. There are other pipeline possibilities, but the most likely method of transfer is by train. The report estimates that it would take daily runs of 15 trains with about 100 tank cars each to carry the amount planned by TransCanada. That would be a large increase in traffic from what now goes north to south, but it would hardly be an insurmountable problem. Rail traffic in this corridor is already exploding: the number of carloads of crude oil doubled from 2010 to 2011, then tripled from 2011 to 2012. And remember, moving oil by train produces much higher emissions of CO[subscript 2] (from diesel locomotives) than flowing it through a pipeline.

Canada could also transport the oil by train or pipeline west to British Columbia and then on to Asia, where demand is booming. Right now that seems a distant and costly prospect, but having visited Alberta recently, I can attest that Canadian businesspeople and officials are planning seriously for Asian markets–especially since they have come to regard U.S. energy policy as politicized, hostile and mercurial. Whoever uses the oil, the CO[subscript 2] will be released into the atmosphere just the same.

Also, if we don’t use oil from Alberta, we will need to get it somewhere to fuel our transportation needs–from Venezuela, Mexico, Saudi Arabia or California. Some of these oils are heavy crude, and processing, refining and burning them is believed to be even more harmful to the environment than using fuels from refracted Canadian oil sands. Switching from oil sands to, say, Venezuelan crude (the most likely alternative) would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by a minimal amount or not at all. To the extent that this would make us use more coal for electricity generation, it would be a big step backward for the environment. For many of these reasons, the scientific journal Nature, long a leader on climate change, argued in an editorial that President Obama should approve Keystone. A decision is expected this spring.

Environmental groups are approaching this project much as the U.S. government fights the war on drugs. They are attacking supply rather than demand. In this case, environmentalists have chosen one particular source of energy–Alberta’s tar sands–and are trying to shut it down. But as long as there is demand for oil, there will be supply. A far more effective solution would be to try to moderate demand by putting in place a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. Ideally we would use the proceeds to fund research on alternative energy. Washington spends $73 billion on research for defense, $31 billion on health care and just $3 billion on energy. Massive increases in research would make a difference. Targeting one Canadian oil field–or one pipeline company–will not.

Some in the environmental movement seem to recognize that the facts don’t really support singling out Keystone, so they have turned to more intangible reasons to oppose it. Climate activist Bill McKibben argues that if Obama were to say no to Keystone, it would be a turning point: “He could finally say to the Chinese, ‘We’ve done something significant. Your turn.'” Of all the arguments for blocking Keystone, this is surely the most naive. Is there a shred of evidence from the past 25 years that China would respond to this kind of unilateral concession by limiting its growth? How did Beijing respond to the Kyoto accords, under which European countries curbed their carbon emissions? By building a coal-fired power plant every week since then!

Opponents of Keystone say that the specifics are less important in this case and that it is the symbolism that matters. And it does. If we block this project–whose source is no worse than many others, rebuffing our closest trading partner and ally and spurning easily accessible energy in favor of Venezuelan or Saudi crude–it would be a symbol, and a depressing one at that. It would be a symbol of how emotion has taken the place of analysis and ideology now trumps science on both sides of the environmental debate.

This article is published in this week’s magazine.