Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Keystone XL pipeline debate

The Keystone XL pipeline debate seems to me to be much ado about nothing (or at least very little).

On the one hand, the major environmental issue is that extracting oil from the Arctic tar sands has severe adverse environmental consequences because of the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere. Not building the pipeline will not stop development of the tar sands. The pipeline question is really one of the safest, most environmentally responsible means of transporting what the oil. US citizens can protest, but banning the extraction is really a Canadian issue.

At the right price, the oil is worth extracting. Wells for extracting oil from tar sands usually have a productive life of 30-40 years, during which oil producers expect oil's price to fluctuate considerably. If US consumers dramatically reduced their oil consumption (e.g., reduce miles drive per year to 5,000 per person and only buy vehicles that have an estimated miles per gallon in excess of 40), global demand for petroleum products might drop substantially. Then oil companies would have far less of an incentive (perhaps no incentive!) to develop costly sources of oil, such as the Artic tar sands. Changes in US lifestyles might ripple around the world, given both the US's influence on many other cultures and the profitability of selling gas efficient vehicles in multiple markets.

On the other hand, the major economic issue related to the Keystone XL pipeline appears to be creation of a few thousand short-term jobs, mostly for construction workers (Glen Kessler, "Will Keystone XL pipeline create 42,000 ‘new’ jobs?" Washington Post, January 6, 2015). This project is too small to be a lasting catalyst for economic revival. The project's effects are likely to be similar to those of the Alaskan pipeline, which provided a similar, short-term economic boost to the Alaskan economy but did not have significant long-term consequences for the state (NB: I'm discussing the pipeline and not the exploitation of Arctic oil fields!).

Consequently, I found Ryan Lizza's suggestion in The New Yorker that the Keystone XL pipeline represented an opportunity for Obama to make a deal with the Republican controlled Congress Intriguing. Lizza suggested that a deal might allow the Republicans to claim an economic victory in terms of job creation and Obama to claim an environmental victory by trading the pipeline for Congress approving a much more significant environmental issue such as EPA guidelines for carbon emissions. His article is worth reading ("The Keystone XL Test: Can Obama Make a Deal?" The New Yorker, January 9, 2015) and an idea Obama and our Senators and Representatives in DC should support.

1 comment:

George Clifford said...

A reader sent this comment:
As you might expect I take issue with your opening statement that the Keystone XL debate is much ado about nothing. I find it very troubling that the debate seems to boil down to short term economic considerations only. To me, building the Keystone XL more importantly represents a moral/spiritual crisis that humans must address. The destruction of the boreal forest of Alberta is one of the worst human-caused ecological disasters ever. Can we turn our backs on that? Can we turn our backs on deforestation in the tropics? Can we turn our backs on blowing off the tops of mountains in West Virginia? Can we turn our backs on pollution of the atmosphere with GHGs and acidification of the oceans? Blocking Keystone XL may not stop tar sands oil from coming out of the ground, but we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sands, and we must try everything we can do to stop the destruction of the planet and find more sustainable ways to live on it.

The reader is right to highlight the challenges we face. However, that begs the question of whether stopping the Keystone XL pipeline will make a significant difference.