“Stop it, you godforsaken misbegotten excuse for a force of nature, just freakin’ stop it!”
King of the Road points to a Robert Rapier article simply entitled “Why Environmentalists are Wrong on Keystone XL” wherein he cogently makes the familiar arguments, but I’m unimpressed. Rapier points out that
this debate isn’t really about a pipeline. This pipeline isn’t going to make or break the development of Canada’s oil sands, nor — as I will show here — is it going to make a measurable difference with respect to climate change.
This is of course unquestionably true. But it misses the point.
Look, the future of the world is going to be written by the people who live in it now. The choices we make are enormously consequential. And among the most consequential of these choices is how we deliver energy.
So we have an infinite set of scenarios to choose from. In some of them, the tar sands are exploited completely, while in others they are abandoned with haste. (The scenarios where they remain untouched are no longer accessible to us.)
Now among these scenarios, some are more plausible than others. And among the more likely scenarios, it is plain to see that those where the tar sands are minimally exploited are more likely to be those where humanity thrives into the future on a beautiful, healthy and peaceful planet; and those where the tar sands are maximally exploited are more likely to be grim, nasty, threadbare, rat-infested, mean and malicious worlds.
The separation is not perfect. Perhaps in some worlds, Alberta wins some sort of international lottery. All other fossil fuel sources are untapped, and we nevertheless live happily ever after. In other worlds, climate science really was delusional (as was chemical oceanography) and fossil fuels do only the amount of damage we originally bargained for, and no extra. And we live happily ever after. And in another world, a cheap carbon sequestration option comes up, we manufacture lots of carbon rich soil, restore the deserts, and live happily ever after. (I’m really rooting for that one.)
And in other worlds, we switch to solar, leading to some unexpected toxicity. Or we switch to wind, leading to some sort of economic collapse. Or we switch to geothermal, and get hit by an asteroid. Or we switch to fusion, and succumb to a fascism established by badly designed security robots. Who knows, many things could happen, and some of them are not under our control.
But what is under our control is what we need to control. One of the ways we choose our future is by deciding what energy sources we use and which we eschew. This matters at a planetary level, and ultimately a planetary consensus must make the decision; only a global agreement including not only all governments but really all people really has proper standing to make these decisions.
Such a consensus, plainly and sadly, is very far from existing at this time, and most people are more concerned with how hard it is to imagine such a thing than with how necessary it is to achieve it, unfortunately.
But, suppose it existed? Would it go for the diluted bitumen pipeline solution? It is hard to imagine any rational, forward looking policy that would do this.
The producers of this product know, or might reasonably be expected to know, that the fuel they produce is more degrading to the environment than other competing sources. Sufficiently so, that in beginning to wean ourselves from these fuels, their source should not be considered, even if its production costs (barring socialized costs) are competitive. This is because their externalities, their socialized costs, are unambiguously more severe than those of competitive sources.
Tar sands are on the wrong side of ANY line we might reasonably draw at this juncture. And that is why we oppose their exploitation.
So when Rapier goes on to say
“The truth is that the Keystone XL pipeline is symbolic. The environmental movement sees the pipeline as a continuation of a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle that is leading to a climate catastrophe. Pipeline supporters argue that the pipeline will create jobs and strengthen our relationship with Canada, our most important source of oil imports. The truth is that it isn’t that big of a deal either way.”
he is wandering somewhat off the track. Keystone is indeed a symbol, but it is not MERELY symbolic. It is REPRESENTATIVE of what we should not be doing. It is a CLEAR INSTANCE of the sort of thing we should stop doing, and a prominent one. It is so far over the line that it is utterly bizarre that it is even under consideration.
See that Keystone XL thing? Nobody should do that. The people who are building it know or ought to know that nobody should do that. They are hurrying to build it quickly so that it is in place before we realize that we should not have done that. Their urgency is deceptive and their motivations are malign. It is not mere negligence but willful negligence of the highest order. Accordingly, their actions are not due the respect that we would afford good faith investments.
Rapier goes on to a conclusion that is no more surprising than the rest of hist article, but by this time he has gone seriously astray.
“Some might argue “Well, at least they are trying to solve the problem.” But this particular issue would be like me going down to the beach as a hurricane is incoming and yelling for it to go away. I could organize protests against the hurricane (and get myself arrested in the process for my noble cause), and make emotional pleas that we can’t afford more hurricanes. But most people would recognize that I am wasting time and resources that could be better spent in more productive pursuits.
The reason many Keystone XL opponents have yet to come to this conclusion is that they are still convinced that yelling at the hurricane can make it change course. It can’t, but there are actually effective things that could be done to mitigate the impact of hurricanes.”
Here is where Rapier is wrong. Because if the pipeline is approved and built and the tar sands exploitation expands IT WILL STILL BE UNETHICAL AND ANTISOCIAL. And because those who built it in the first place knew or could reasonably have been expected to know that it would be unethical and antisocial, they are ethically, and possibly legally, culpable for damages, very much as the tobacco companies were.
But here’s the practical difference: there is little unit cost capital investment to recoup in producing a cigarette. But that pipeline, it will have to be filled for some years before it even breaks even. And even when and if you build it, there will still be an ethical and political case for shutting it down.
So here is my yell at the hurricane.
If you are thinking of getting a permit and building this thing, understand that there is no scenario in which it makes ethical sense to do that. Understand that it is your responsibility as a human being to take this into account. Understand that if you fail to do so, our responsibility to stop the operation does not go away.
Sooner or later a carbon restriction policy will be in place. And as we campaign for it, we will retain a special place in our hearts for a world in which there is no dilbit pipeline. The campaign to deauthorize this operation will not stop. As such, each additional investment you make in this infrastructure puts more money at risk. If you can’t account for the ethics of the situation, consider its politics.
Opposition to Keystone will not go away once the pipeline is built. We don’t want tar sands being dug up, we don’t want dilbit being piped, we don’t want tar being refined. We may not be able to give up oil cold turkey, but we do not need your crap. Even if you build your pipe, we will still fight to leave the tar in the ground where it belongs, and shut down the pipe.
This battle will not be over when the pipe is built. Your investment is at risk.
You cannot yell at a real hurricane. A real hurricane has no fear.
You can yell at market forces, because market forces are just aggregates of human behavior. Humans avoid unnecessary risks.
Investors considering tar sands plays, your money is at risk even after the pipeline is built, as well it should be. If the the literal climate gets worse, the climate for your investment deteriorates all the more.
Put your capital somewhere else!
I am not suggesting sabotage (ewww…) On the contrary , we really don’t want that pipe breaking! In fact that’s the whole point!
But the political battle should not and will not end if the pipe is built. Which in turn means that it is a bad bet to build it.