The Ivory Soapbox: Go Big or Go Home
This past weekend saw some 40,000 people gather in beautiful Washington D.C. to urge President Barack Obama not to sign off on the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a required measure for its construction to take place as it crosses international borders. The protest is laudable, and countries should certainly transition away from consumption of fossil fuels, but forbidding the construction of the pipeline is the wrong way to go about doing it.
Much of the discussion regarding why the president should not approve the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline centers around the environmental impact of extracting petroleum from tar sands, which is what the pipe would deliver to U.S. refineries. It has been noted—correctly—that such extraction is more energy-intensive than that of conventional oil, sometimes significantly so. However, what frequently fails to enter public discourse is the fact that this petroleum will be extracted and produced regardless of whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline is produced.
One might be inclined to believe that failure to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would facilitate the movement of tar sands petroleum on a huge scale, would stymie Canadian production. This is not the case. While American markets make up the vast majority of the market for Canadian petroleum, Canada does have facilities to export a small fraction of it elsewhere, namely to Asian countries via Vancouver. Rather than limit production, prohibiting the Keystone XL Pipeline would simply encourage its diversion to the Asian market. Further, since a pipeline crossing the Pacific Ocean is, at present, impractical, oil would be shipped, a method of transportation that is much less environmentally-friendly than is the Keystone XL Pipeline. A pipeline that would carry oil to Canada’s west coast is already in the works.
Current methods of moving Canadian oil across the border to America are themselves environmentally-unfriendly, involving as they do transport by either rail or truck. In order to keep pace with the rapidly-increasing production of tar sands petroleum in Canada, for which the existing infrastructure is already insufficient, countless more trucks and trains would have to be utilized. By contrast, the Keystone XL Pipeline would be much more sustainable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than are current methods—a stationary tube is generally less of a carbon dioxide producer than is a diesel-burning truck—to say nothing of its comparison to an oil-moving fleet twice as big as is the current one.
The point of contention, then, rests on whether or not potential oil spills from Keystone XL will have a worse net environmental effect than greenhouse gas emissions and smaller-scale spills of current transportation methods. This is difficult to quantify, but given the infrequency and small scale of spills in other Keystone pipelines versus the daily environmental impact of transportation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, it is unlikely that Keystone XL comes out worse. And in even better news, in 2012, TransCanada, the would-be owners, revised its plans to move the pipeline off of Sand Hills, Neb., where water from the Ogallala Aquifer is unusually close to the surface.
If the obvious environmental advantages are not enough to sway opponents to the Keystone XL Pipeline, then perhaps the political implications are. Of the countries Canada would be shipping its black gold to, many would be American allies, such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. However, the majority of Canadian oil would go to our adversaries: gas-guzzling China, which is responsible for most of Iran’s oil exports, and ever-cantankerous Russia. Further, increasing the flow of oil from Canada, one of America’s closest international friends, into the country will have the obvious effect of reducing the amount of oil that is imported from elsewhere. Realistically, Mexico and Venezuela will be the most harmed, but the latter is openly antagonistic, and Middle Eastern imports will also suffer.
Human-caused global warming is an incontrovertible fact, and we should do everything we can in our power to stop it, including diminishing reliance on fossil fuels. Despite good intentions, however, attempts to halt construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline are misguided. To be sure, if all nations could come together and agree to reduce use of fossil fuels, it would be a step in the right direction, but in a world of competing nations, refusing to allow the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline will serve only to increase global warming and empower America’s enemies.
Note: All factual statements are taken from the Congressionally-commissioned study “Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Key Issues,” put forth by the non-partisan Federation of American Scientists.