The proposed Keystone XL pipeline will carry oil from tar sands in Canada across the entire midwestern United States to Port Arthur, Texas. It could eventually transport 900,000 barrels of oil a day and without government funding of any kind has the potential to create 20,000 jobs starting early in 2012. The greens want President Obama to kill it of course; the political blindness and the wishful thinking that so frequently vitiates green policy proposals is fully on display.
Oil sands outcrop in Trinidad & Tobago (Wikimedia)
Let’s summarize the different sides of the argument: The greens say the government has not done its homework in investigating the environmental impact of the pipeline: “We have seen no evidence of a detailed alternative route study, a thorough environmental justice study nor an expert pipeline safety study”, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Washington Post. The pipeline would cross several major rivers, including the Yellowstone and Missouri, and bisect the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies millions of midwestern Americans with water. It will follow the migration route of the whooping crane, an undoubtedly majestic and endangered bird. A spill along the pipeline would also expose communities to dirty drinking water and other hazards, as well as have a severe impact on various flora and fauna. (A similar pipeline recently ruptured in Michigan, spewing 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. That cleanup is still ongoing.) Lastly, the increased amount of oil being refined in Port Arthur will add to the pollution problems already facing that city.
Others counter these arguments: the pipeline construction will create thousands of jobs; supply the US with lots of cheap oil from a neighboring, stable, friendly country; allow the US to reduce its dependence on unstable and environmentally careless oil-producing countries like Nigeria or unfriendly and careless countries Venezuela; and open the possibility of refining and exporting the tar sands oil from Texas, which would create more jobs.
In the beautiful world of the greens, this is an open and shut case, and they expect President Obama to kill the project entirely. The tar sands are dirtier than any other type of oil, they say. If we can’t stop this, what can we stop?
But as we have so often seen when it comes to dogmatic green proclamations, the science is not nearly as ‘settled’ or as unambiguous as the greens claim — not on the dirtiness of the tar sands and not even on the dangers of spills. The amount of greenhouse gasses emitted from tar sands extraction is highly contested; here I will only point to a study by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers: “Oil sands crude is six per cent more GHG intensive than the U.S. crude supply average on a wells-to-wheels basis.” Only 6 percent. Yes, that study comes from the oil industry; the green studies and the oil company studies are both suspect and need outside review. But the green track record on the abuse of scientific evidence and the distortion of scientific studies is far from spotless. An argument can’t be dismissed merely because an oil company makes it, and it can’t be accepted merely because greens back it.
The greatest weaknesses of the green approach to the oil sands issue aren’t about dueling studies and the credibility of the scientific arguments put forward by the various parties. It is the green blindness to the real world that often makes their policy positions irrelevant even when their substantive views have merit.
Here’s what the greens ignore: the oil is coming out of the ground whether or not the US allows a pipeline to be built. The Canadians want to produce it, and if we don’t buy it, the Chinese will. The pipeline that would take the dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to Canada’s Pacific coast would pass through pristine Rocky Mountain wilderness, across land belonging to some of Canada’s last native tribes, to the beautiful British Columbian coast, home of the amazingly rare “Spirit Bear” and one of the world’s few temperate rain forests, loaded on supertankers and shipped through treacherous coastal waters, very near where the Queen of the North lies on the ocean floor, rusting and leaking diesel fuel, a testament to the perils of sea navigation in these waters. But don’t take my word for it: read it in National Geographic.
A Kermode Bear, also known as a “Spirit Bear” (Wikimedia)
The greens lobbying President Obama to block the pipeline are asking him to forgo thousands of jobs (in an election year in which jobs will could well be the major issue!) and billions of dollars in economic advantages — not to save the planet or reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, but to confer an economic and political advantage on China. If President Obama takes the green advice, the US will get almost all of the disadvantages that come from using the oil ourselves, and lose out many of the benefits.There’s another factor that has to be weighed. Getting secure oil sources for the United States isn’t just a matter of convenience; reducing US exposure to foreign blackmail, and reducing our need to consider military interventions and other actions to protect our energy supply helps make war less likely — and allows us, all things being equal, to get along with somewhat smaller armed forces than would otherwise be required.
More, forcing China to look to less stable places than Canada for its oil transfers some of the costs of global energy security to the Chinese, and also helps tie them into the development of a rule driven global system. If the US oil supply comes largely from friendly neighbors, while China (and other US competitors) must rely on unstable, far flung sources, we are going to have more flexibility in our foreign policy and China will have so many fish to fry and cats to herd that it will be less likely to think about mounting a global challenge to the US.
Even greens should be able to see that decreasing the chances of great power conflict is a good thing; there’s a lot of pollution in a war and shocking as this may be to some of you younger readers, I’m told that generals sometimes fight battles without first filing all the paperwork and going through the six month approval process to get the site approved by the EPA.
With all this in mind, it is little surprise that groups like the editorial board of the Washington Post want to throw the greens under the bus on this one. “Tar sands crude is not appealing; it is low-grade, it is hard to extract, it is difficult to refine and it produces a lot of carbon emissions. But if it is to be burned anyway, there’s little reason for America to reject it, as long as Keystone XL can transport it across the plains safely.”Greens are asking President Obama to take a job killing stance during a time of high unemployment that won’t help the planet. Greens are part of this president’s base; he would like to make them happy. But they keep asking for the impossible — and calling him a coward and a weakling when he doesn’t deliver. This is the kind of behavior that gets a lobby group pushed to the fringe; nobody wants them in the room when the serious business goes down. GPO, as British gentry used to write in their address books beside the names of questionable guests: invite them to ‘garden parties only’ but don’t let them indoors.
The environment is a real issue; greens are not wrong to be concerned about the consequences of humanity’s thirst for energy on our planet. But the basic strategy of the green movement — to become a single-minded, single-issue lobby group that screams bloody murder whenever anybody anywhere reaches for any kind of energy source — is a comprehensively misguided approach.
For the sake of the planet, the greens must wise up.