The Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the gulf of Mexico coast, is in the news again because of the recent protests outside the White House and the because of the recent appointment of Senator John Kerry to the position of Secretary of State has bolstered hopes in the climate concerned community (which frankly should be everyone by now) that the Obama administration will ultimately reject the pipeline proposal. Hopes that were bolstered by the Obama’s state of the union address.
But also because the journal Nature has thrown some tepid support behind the Keystone XL.
Nature’s main reasoning behind supporting the pipeline seems to be that the whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, the expansion of the tar sands will continue until there is a broader energy/climate policy in place.
the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that.
And that is what matters, isn’t it? The pipeline itself is meaningless, what matters, from a climate perspective, are all the additional GHG emissions that would be caused, directly and indirectly, by tar sand development.
I find it very hard to disagree with the position taken by the article in Nature. If the Obama administration decides not to approve the Keystone pipeline, there is still the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the pacific at Kitimat in British Columbia. If that falls through there is the plan to expand the Kinder Morgan pipeline to Vancouver. And if that fails there are plans to build a pipeline to the east coast, or a rail line to Alaska. And if all of that fails, there is enough money to be made in selling the oil buried in Northern Alberta that other proposals are guaranteed to pop up.
That being said there are those who argue that building more infrastructure to support an energy system that we know is unsustainable and causing real harm is taking us in exactly the wrong direction. A position that is summed up perfectly by Captain Picard:
As great as captain Picard is, no one lays out the case against the Keystone XL pipeline as well as Peter Gleick:
Every individual choice, every long-term development project, every purchase we make, every financial investment in infrastructure or technology may, in isolation, be relatively innocent and modest. But our choices are additive. Society’s decisions must no longer be divorced from the recognition of the threats of climate change.
Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces. Each little piece might tell us almost nothing about the full picture; every little piece is a tiny, almost unimportant part of that full picture. But every piece added builds up to an inevitable end. The Keystone XL Pipeline may be just a minor puzzle piece of a far larger picture, but that picture, when all the pieces are combined, is one of potential planetary disaster.
It is time to stop putting these pieces together and work on a different picture all together. That is the decision facing the President, and each of us. It is time we just said “no.”
Again it is hard to disagree. Building the pipeline is taking a step in exactly the wrong direction and we have already squandered decades with our inaction. We simply cannot afford any more steps in the wrong direction.
All of this puts me in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand I think building the pipeline is obviously the wrong thing to do, yet on the other I question the effectiveness of the anti-Keystone movement.
What is their end-game? If they block the Keystone XL pipeline then what? Will they also block the Enbridge gateway? And the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion? And the rail line to Alaska, and the pipeline to the east coast? And anything else that is proposed?
Essentially, the opponents of the Keystone XL and other pipelines have to keep on winning, forever, while those trying to build pipelines, or similar projects, only have to win once.
And if they do manage to win for ever, that would represent an enormous amount of effort. What is the best case scenario all that effort would accomplish? Perhaps after so many defeats the tar sand operators will slow down their operations, perhaps some will even shut down their operations. I don’t think this is likely, but this would represent a best case scenario.
And it would be an unquestionably a good outcome, but from a climate perspective, this best case scenario won’t be nearly enough to avert catastrophe. So is that really the most effective use of that enormous amount of effort?
This, I think, is the fundamental problem with supply side solutions.
The anti-keystone movement, or more generally the entire anti-tar-sands movement, is trying to reduce our GHG emissions by attacking the supply side of the equation. Essentially the strategy boils down to getting governments and corporations to turn their backs and walk away from huge sums of money (millions or billions in profits and tax revenue). This literally pits the economy against the environment (at least in the time scales most CEOs and politicians are used to thinking about), and in this fight the environment has a very poor chance of winning.
So what is the alternative?
What if instead fighting a never-ending battle against a specific project (like the Keystone XL pipeline) we could focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels. What if instead of asking governments and corporations to walk away from profits we made it so there simply was no demand (or at least reduced demand) for their products and thus no profits to be made in digging up and selling the bitumen buried under the forest in Northern Alberta. As soon as that happens,the never-ending parade of proposals to transport the bitumen to markets around the world will dry up. There just won’t be any profits in pipelines or in any tar sands operations.
There are many ways to go about achieving this goal, perhaps the two most obvious being some form carbon pricing (a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) and efficiency regulations. This would have a real effect on tar sands development as an MIT study points out that they are vulnerable to climate/energy policies aimed at reducing emissions.
Of course achieving such a goal would be enormously difficult, but perhaps no more difficult than the endless fight against pipeline after pipeline. And once effective climate policies are in place, they target not just a pipeline, not just the tar sands, but also coal (which has a larger climate impact than the tar sands by a wide margin) and other sources of GHG emissions. Most importantly if the United States enacts a climate policy it could begin to act like a real leader in international negotiations and push other countries to do the same.
That is an endgame worth spending an enormous amount of effort to accomplish; it is an endgame that has a chance of averting catastrophe. I don’t think the same can be said about the effort spent trying to block the keystone XL pipeline, even though I think that building the pipeline is obviously a step in the wrong direction.
In the end the Keystone XL pipeline is a symbol. Symbols are important in motivating people and movements, however, we should not lose perspective and place undue importance on any symbol because ultimately symbols will not get us where we need to go.
Image credit: Ray Bodden