When people ask my position on the Keystone XL pipeline, I tend to waffle, saying I don’t know enough about it yet. That is partly true, yet now I’m faced with a dilemma. Two of my heroes have taken opposite sides on the issue.
Climate activist and author Bill McKibben argues if President Obama were to say no to the project, it would be a turning point. “He could finally say to the Chinese, ‘We’ve done something significant. Your turn.’”
Fareed Zakaria calls this naïve. In his most recent column in Time, Zakaria writes: Is there a shred of evidence from the past 25 years that China would respond to this kind of unilateral concession by limiting its growth? How did Beijing respond to the Kyoto accords, under which European countries curbed their carbon emissions? By building a coal-fired power plant every week since then.”
Therein lies the crux of this debate. Are we willing to tick off our neighbor to the north by refusing access for a pipeline to transport oil from Alberta tar sands to our refineries in Texas? If it were to help us quench our insatiable thirst for oil without buying from Mexico, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, well, maybe. But we have reason to believe, particularly as prices rise, that this fuel would be shipped to Asia doing nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
So what options does TransCanada have if we say no to the Keystone? They’ve already considered laying pipe from Alberta to British Columbia, from where the oil would be shipped to Asia. However, they face pushback from their own First Nations because pipe or rail would have to cross their land, the boreal forest and home of the elusive spirit bear.
It is said that tar sands oil is highly corrosive and would make spills likely. So could it be more safely transported by rail to Texas? The report estimates that it would take daily runs of 15 trains of 100 cars each, which would produce higher emissions from diesel locomotives. I wonder if the State Department investigated the safety record of TransCanada? Or the rail lines?
McKibben and the environmentalists have also noted that extracting oil from tar sands is energy-intensive and damaging to the environment. But Canada has said that 99 percent of its Alberta oil reserves are in tar sands. So how likely is it they would leave it in the ground? Not so much, I think.
The original pipeline route would have gone through the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills and crossed the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies most of the central U.S. with clean water. An alternate route would avoid the Sand Hills but, curiously, nothing much has been said about the aquifer. This worries me a lot.
Zakaria writes that the Canadians “have come to regard U.S. energy policy as politicized, hostile and mercurial.” Besides, whatever the oil’s final destination, “it will be burned and the CO2 will be released into the atmosphere just the same.”
On his CNN program GPS Sunday, Zakaria interviewed Michael Brune, a representative of the Sierra Club, which fiercely opposes the pipeline.
“We’re about to see four degrees of warming,” Brune said. “Clean energy is ready to take up a much larger portion of our energy needs ... but it will be delayed, suppressed, if we put more money in the pipeline.”
Wind energy is beating out coal in the Midwest, Brune said. There’s new capacity online, more than coal or gas. We don’t need the dirtiest tar sands fuel source.
“It’s the history of capitalism. When demand is insatiable, supply will feed it,” countered Zakaria, who favors a carbon tax to moderate demand. “Ideally we would use the proceeds to fund research on alternative energy.”
“But we can’t continue development of fossil fuels,” Brune said. “We have to do something different. Clean energy is ready to take up a much larger portion of our energy needs.”
I haven’t always agreed with Sierra Club, but Brune is at least a reasonable spokesman. In contrast, Sierra Club sends inflammatory e-mails calling the project “climate killing” and the State Department’s report “reckless beyond belief” and “outrageous malpractice.” When I read these, I hit delete.
Zakaria and McKibben have long been my heroes, but this time they both make salient points. For me, the downside of the project is the risk to the Ogallala aquifer or the spirit bear and its habitat. Still, more carbon in the atmosphere likely will sink us all.