One of the foremost political issues – the most foremost political issue of our time – in North America, I would argue, is how to proceed with the development of pipelines. Specifically, the Keystone XL pipeline which TransCanada Inc. proposes to build for $7 billion to transport heavy oil sands crude from a terminal in Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast, the major heavy crude refining centres in North America. This is all public information which has been repeated countless times in the media, and why so many? Because it is a difficult issue to resolve. There are dozens of firms operating in the oil sands and several would like to sharply increase their production in the next decade. The issue is how to move all this oil to where there is capacity to refine it so it can then be transported abroad to energy-hungry markets. Keystone XL is the easiest, simplest, cheapest, most obvious way to do this.
Lining up against the pipeline are several prominent American intellectuals, celebrities and at least one billionaire. But I’m not here to take sides in the media’s fake polarization of the issue between the Hollywood High-horse cavalry and a bunch of profiteer oil companies hungry for new revenue and new markets, which is the simplistic way to frame it. I have just realized, thanks to an excellent New Yorker article, what a big deal this actually is and thus, want to assess the probabilities and consequences in either scenario.
As a betting man, I’m thinking the President denies this pipeline. The smart money was on him approving it, a year and a half ago, until the republicans took back Congress and have made Obama’s failure their full time agenda. Climate change legislation will not get nowhere, immigration reform is stalled, Obamacare, the signature health care reform legislation that the President would like to consider his biggest accomplishment, being attacked by all sides. This is an issue whose approval is the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Department, an executive office under Mr. Obama’s purview headed up by former presidential candidate John Kerry, who would really like to be remembered as the 300 million dollar French speaking man who sold his $2.25 million worth of Suncor stock before becoming America’s top diplomat and denying them and all their competitors this crucial access to refining capacity in order to “save the world from climate change”. Wow. A fox news anchor would probably have a heart attack on air reading that. All kidding aside, the President knows this is the one issue, the only issue around on which he can take decisive action for his legacy to be environmentalist trailblazer and not reluctant coward trying to please everybody. You would think Stephen Harper, Alison Redford, and the oil patch’s lobbyists in Washington would realize that they are essentially saying the same things to Obama in nice sweet tones as the Republicans are screaming at him with expletives and thus not really endearing themselves to him, but they are literally defending their own constituencies bread and butter with passion more than being American right-wing lapdogs. Harper and Redford were both elected by voters in constituencies of Calgary’s rich South-west suburbs, inhabited no doubt as well by many of the top executives of the dozens of Calgary-based oil and gas firms to whom Keystone would be a boon.
Being pro-pipeline is a lot more complicated than being disgusted by the hypocrisy of private-jet owning environmentalist celebs. It’s great to be for “reducing our dependency on fossil fuels” until you realize a) what this means for the average person and b) what this means for the broader economy. I’m not talking about the convenience of one individual driving to Wal-Mart or hopping on a plane. I’m talking about every farm, every mine, every oil rig across the land, every machine humming to get all that stuff we need out of the ground. I’m talking about every manufacturer, every factory, every shipyard and scrap yard. How are any of these goods going to be brought to market in the volume they are now, without petroleum? Then there is the North American automobile fleet, with something like 1.6 cars per habitant. This is the largest source of emissions globally. Yet no North American politician, of any stripe, can prevent himself from proclaiming with sheer joy the speed at which North American auto plants are humming right now, churning out a record number of autos and making record profits. Many of these politicians will, in the same breath, earnestly state the importance of “getting serious about climate change” Does a whole continent not realize, improved fuel efficiency standards notwithstanding, the amount of energy required not just to power those vehicles on an ongoing basis but to build them and bring them to market? How about all the fuel and lubricants required to run all the crap found in the aisles of our national treasures, Canadian Tire and Rona or their US equivalents. All the solvents, compounds, and dyes in our clothes, cosmetics, household products and electronics. Where is all this energy going to come from, without petroleum. Beets? Corn? Pixie Dust?
I know, I’m just stuck in the past. I drank the oil companies’ propaganda. Then the environmentalist will tell you about electric cars and Germany and Denmark until you realize that Germany and Denmark still run principally on coal despite their show-off windmills and “clean-burning natural gas” is only so when its easy to access – Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland highlights how the emissions intensity of the gas being extracted now from Shale plays all over the US makes it as bad as – coal. So guess what. I’ve looked into this, and you can’t get blood from a stone. We can innovate, we can tweak, we can get more efficient, we can shave off bits of pollution here and improve biodiversity there – I don’t want to turn my nose up at the great work scientists all over the world are doing – but if the goal is truly avoiding the great catch phrase of our time “catastrophic climate change” – Keystone XL is about furthest thing from the panacea you can get. I’m with internet bloggers like James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer – even former Canadian bank economist Jeff Rubin is kind of in this category now -that any long-term hope in the future lies in the past, in the era before petroleum. I do not see how these changes will arrive by choice – I am almost certain they will arrive by force
Of course I’m up to 1000 words now, and North America’s political class needs to sell things in one sentence or less. Simply put, Obama understands the dangers of climate change – like most people – and knows that politically he has no skin in this and has nothing to gain by being the latest hapless politician to “kick the can down the road”. It would send the message that the US is serious – we need to somehow, someway get off fossil fuels and carbon emissions. It would be making a “moral” choice over an “economic” choice; the last time a president did that, there was a civil war and it cost him his life. But abolishing slavery was necessary to civilize the nation, and of course, the States with a vested interest in slavery fought the change tooth and nail and received an economic handicap from which they never really fully recovered. The North was of course in a better position to withstand the abolition of slavery since it was already largely functioning without it.
Similarly, whether we choose to get off fossil fuels or are eventually forced to get off them by their scarcity, the societies which will adapt the best are those who are already functioning without it, i.e, Third world nations. Canada, meanwhile, will suffer; up to one third of our economy may already be dependent on the oil sands. Vehicle ownership is less popular for generation x and y but almost universal for boomers. Millions of Canadians would simply not know what to say if you told them they could not drive to work, not because they are dumb, but because no other options exist.
As a Canadian I feel sort of morally obligated to defend Keystone. We as an oil-producing nation that certainly pays for our energy in the form of taxes and regulations; Iran and Saudi Arabia give gas to their citizens for pennies. At the same time I think powering down is the only real option and while I salute and support efforts to improve public transit, get us off of red meat, stop shale gas drilling, combat GMOs and Monsanto and overthrow corrupt and oppressive governments worldwide, I know we are just chipping away at a behemoth. The 2013 citizen of earth knows he can have and wants fast internet, fast smartphones, real-time news, hummers, mcmansions, Costco and wal-mart. I don’t want to uphold my personal choices like some virtuous ideal to be upheld but they exclude many of these things entirely or as much as possible and I think personal choices and personal responsibility are much powerful drivers of change than celebrities coalescing around the symbolic manifestation of a problem. When there are shale plays and mountaintop removal going on all over the USA it seems a little hypocritical that they are turning their nose up at the 17% more carbon-emitting petroleum source that currently supplies 1/20th of their energy needs; however, what they may really be doing is dragging our asses into the future since no Canadian politician can really touch the oil sands with a ten foot pole since we are making tons of cash off them, like way too much to consider shutting them down, every single year. Hmmmm.
One thing that is clear is that the UN just released its latest report that should bring into line the last few deniers of climate change. Come 2015 the Conservatives’ unapologetic belligerence about our 3rd-highest per capita energy consumption population on earth may not play out as well as it has in the past. And then there is a very good chance of a keystone denial waking up the nation before then. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers may be right about environmental improvements and progress made on oil sands development but it in the end their defence of their industry and the government’s obfuscation are no substitutes for leading by example and “getting serious”, so to speak. If we pushed harder on transit, efficiency, building standards and R&D then we could probably get away with the oil sands and be exporting that shit like crazy. As it stands, we have a bad reputation for strip mining bitumen (which is what we’re doing no matter what you dress it up with) and for that to continue we are going to have to dialogue and we are going to have to create. The government muzzling scientists and accepting “mandatory motoring” as our nation’s inevitable destiny aren’t going to cut it.
So for or against the pipeline? It’s out of our hands. And either way, there is no reason to continue with the status quo.