Keystone Pipeline: Triumph or Hollow Symbol?
November 14, 2011
The Alberta Tar sands represent the greatest environmental insult on the planet. Stopping the Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil across the United States, has been a high profile issue, culminating in President Obama’s remanding of the decision last week, for further evaluation by the State Department.
It may be that this action is an important turning point in awakening direct action against the machinery of climate change. Or, it may be that, absent a real market signal in the form of a price on carbon, this gesture will remain a victory only in the media and the spin war, while the atmosphere continues to slide into imbalance and chaos.
Naomi Klein(video above):
“We believe that this delay will kill the pipeline,” says the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein at a Nov. 10 event sponsored by The Nation magazine in New York City. “If it doesn’t, if this pipeline re-emerges after the election, people have signed pledges saying they will put their bodies on the line to stop it.”
The activists have the wrong target.
True, the petroleum that comes from Alberta’s “tar sands” isn’t very clean; it produces more carbon emissions than light sweet crude. And, true, pipelines can leak, as recent ruptures in Michigan and under the Yellowstone River demonstrate.
But rejecting the pipeline won’t reduce global carbon emissions or the risk of environmentally destructive spills.
Canada’s government — and rising world petroleum prices — guarantee that the country will extract the oil from its tar sands, and that Asia will take it if America doesn’t. That means using pipelines to transport Canada’s heavy crude hundreds of miles to the West Coast and then shipping it abroad, burning fossil fuels and risking ocean spills along the way. China already has a large stake in Canadian oil production. Plans are already in the works to build the necessary pipelines.
What will curtailing oilsands accomplish for the environment? Nothing. This is a big planet full of oil, and if the United States does not buy its oil from Canada, it will buy its oil from somebody else.
So long as demand runs high, oil will be imported and burned. And it’s not like pumping the oil from the Gulf of Mexico, or transporting oil from the Middle East in tankers, is exactly environmentally risk-free.
Getting off oil means changing the way Americans use oil. That change requires a change in incentives: A permanently higher oil price that will encourage Americans to live closer to work, to build their cities denser, to prefer more fuel-efficient vehicles, to convert their bus and truck fleets to natural gas, and so on.
Price incentives work. The oil shocks of the 1970s cut American oil use dramatically. As late as 1995, Americans were still using less oil than they did in 1978 – even as they drove many more miles.
High prices persuaded homeowners to switch to gas heat. High prices and well-timed deregulation shifted U.S. freight transportation from truck to rail. High prices jolted U.S. utilities to stop burning heavy oil to power electrical generators.
But after 1996, low prices ended this conservation era. Oil use surged for the next decade.
Yet markets continue to work. Higher prices since 2006 have again changed behaviour. Americans are driving fewer miles. They are retiring more cars than they buy. They are opting again for smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. They are buying smaller homes, with a new emphasis on central city living. The recession has of course intensified all these trends.
They won’t become ingrained, however, until and unless Americans accept that oil prices will remain high indefinitely. Which, in turn, means until and unless the United States adopts some system of standby energy taxes or carbon taxes.
Putting a price on carbon, however, is a concept the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress indefinitely postponed all the way back in 2009. Such a step would have imposed costs on voters, and in bad economic times, the politicians flinched.
And hey, flinching from adding costs in bad times is a pardonable reflex – if you are a politician. What is unpardonable is the willingness of environmentalists to accede to the political imperatives of their Democratic chums, and to join with the Obama administration in pretending that the United States can move off oil at zero cost. You see, it’s only “big oil” that craves cheap gasoline – the actual voters are the victims of the machinations of sinister corporations selling products that people want at prices that people can afford.
There are serious carbon tax proposals that would mitigate the costs upon non-affluent voters by rebating the proceeds in one or another kind of tax cut. But if you want to use less oil, then you must ensure that oil costs more. Ad hoc gestures like the Keystone cancellation change nothing – except to sustain the status quo, with its dependence on oil drilled and carried from across the ocean.