December 20, 2011

Keystone

The Keystone pipeline controversy offers a good example of the irrationality into which American public discourse has devolved. In brief, the proposed pipeline would bring oil processed from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the US, ultimately as far south a Texas. Despite a completed environmental impact study, the environmental lobby has persuaded the Obama administration to block the project, chiefly (though not exclusively) on the grounds that tar sand development is proving to be an environmental catastrophe in Canada.

No one, not even the oil industry, disputes that the damage being done to northern Alberta is monumental. There is no hiding the destruction that surface mining tar sands is creating. If this were the 1960’s, and the world had plenty of oil reserves, we might be able to stop this tragedy. This is not the 1960’s however. There are no cheap and available oil reserves to tap. Even Saudi Arabia is in decline. If the demand for oil had not exceeded the supply, they wouldn’t be processing oil out of tar sands in the first place. It is na├»ve to imagine that, in an ongoing liquid fuels crisis with oil at $100 a barrel, and gasoline fluctuating between $3 and $4 a gallon in the US, than everyone in the world is going to put the interests of Canadian wildlife before their own. The Canadian government has been very clear about their intentions. They will develop and sell the oil, if not to the US with a pipeline going south, then to the Chinese with a pipeline going west. Thus, unless the American environmental lobby is advocating and immediate US occupation of Alberta to end the development, their efforts will not save a single fish or caribou. They can have their moral satisfaction with higher fuel prices, and the heightened economic ripple effects such prices must inevitably produce, while the dirty evil tar sand extract propels trucks in China. Personally, I’m a realist. I don’t think that fish or caribou really want to die, but neither do I think they particularly feel better about dying if they are killed for non-Americans. These nasty resources are going to be tapped. The worse the global economy gets, the more desperate people will become and the more environmental concerns will recede from their attention. One should not be proud of this, but to imagine it will be otherwise is simply to deny human nature. People may love nature in the abstract, but not many will be happy to freeze or starve for the sake of preserving it.

On the other side of the debate, the oil industry and their political allies have trumped up the story that the tar sands offer a solution to American dependence on middle eastern oil. Based on the scale of Keystone, this would appear to be simply a lie. The total capacity of the pipeline, upgraded to its final phase, would be 1.1 million barrels per day. US oil demand stands at about 18.7 billion barrels per day. Keystone then, could meet about 6% of US oil demand. We currently import over half of our consumption (some sources estimate much more), so it doesn’t look like 6% from the Alberta tar sands is going to let us kiss our OPEC friends goodbye. Fools on the left, liars on the right. Take heart though – this is only the beginning.

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