Pipelines and Tar Sands: Cure the Disease Not the Symptoms

Not everyone has the time or inclination to read through a 4,000+ word article, but I felt like the complexity of the issues involved in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline warranted that. In this article I will summarize the key points of the arguments I made in the original, while highlighting where my views diverge from those of the protestors. If you want to see a more in-depth discussion of these issues, please refer to the original article: How I Would Decide the Keystone XL Pipeline Issue

Treating the Symptom Rather than the Disease

The first issue is to clarify what the pipeline argument is really about. This isn’t really about a pipeline. As one reader pointed out, this is about trying to force Canada to stop developing what is viewed by many as a dirty resource, and that we should “treat the disease.” The addiction metaphor is somewhat overused, but I believe there is a very relevant example that captures my view on the pipeline. If a person is addicted to a drug, you can treat the addiction, or you can try to eliminate the suppliers of the drug. In the U.S., we have conducted a very long war on drugs that has made the drug trade even more lucrative. Desperate people commit crimes to buy drugs they can’t afford, and drug traffickers commit violent crimes to ensure that those profits keep flowing. And we still have a drug problem.

The point is that as we cut off one supplier, another springs up. We have not cured the disease. However, if demand for drugs fell, the suppliers would go out of business. (It occurs to me that this example will not exactly endear me to oil producers). This is analogous to our dependence on oil. I think protestors who feel that stopping this pipeline will strike a blow for our oil dependence grossly underestimate the lengths that we will go to in order to acquire oil. Thus, I don’t believe stopping the pipeline addresses the root problem, and threatens to worsen some problems that protestors have largely ignored.

Ogallala Aquifier – Red Herring

As noted in the previous essay, I always viewed the issue of the potential for the pipeline to leak and contaminate the Ogallala aquifer as a red herring. Pipelines already crisscross the Ogallala, and farmers dump thousands of tons of herbicides, pesticide, and fertilizers on top of the aquifer every year.

Carbon Bomb is in Asia Pacific

I view the climate change argument of some protestors to be largely misleading. While it is true that development of the tar sands will only further increase global carbon dioxide emissions, I think the characterization of the pipeline as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” is wrong. It conveys a false impression that snuffing out this fuse will then snuff out that carbon bomb. In fact, as I showed in the previous essay, the real carbon bomb is in Asia Pacific. Relative to the growing coal and oil consumption in the Asia Pacific region, the oil sands development is relatively minor. Thus, my argument here isn’t “Well, since they are burning a lot, we might as well burn a little” — it is rather to correct a misconception about growing global carbon emissions.

Some have mischaracterized my argument as “Since someone is going to burn the oil from the oil sands, it might as well be the U.S.” That’s not it either. It is “As long as we continue to demand oil, we are going to source our oil from somewhere. We should make sure it is from a stable supplier.” I have been crystal clear that I think we should do everything we can to address the demand side of the equation. Further, demand in the U.S. is declining (admittedly in part due to the economy). But only the most naive among us believes that modern society will be oil-free any time soon. We strive to use less, but if oil supplies fell off a cliff in the next few years, society would collapse. Imagine society with no oil, and you can clearly see that. Imagine society with too little oil too soon, and perhaps the potential implications aren’t fully appreciated.

My View on the Pipeline in a Nutshell

To conclude, it took me a while to even decide how I felt about the pipeline. As one poster noted following my initial essay, I am really laying out arguments against the protests rather than arguments that we need this pipeline. After thinking this over, that’s a fairly accurate assessment. My position isn’t “We really need this pipeline” but rather “What difference does it make?” Protestors thinks it makes a big difference whether it gets built, but I do not. I see a private company wanting to invest billions of dollars to build a pipeline, which will create jobs in a tough economic climate. I don’t think we will consume any more or any less oil because of the pipeline, and I think the arguments against the pipeline are exaggerated.

Cutting off a pipeline does nothing to address our demand for oil, and without addressing that we will simply source the oil from elsewhere (or it will still be transported from the oil sands in a less efficient manner). We will almost certainly source the oil from further afield (hence, more carbon emissions getting it to us) and it may come from places where oil extraction results in even greater environmental devastation, oppressed populations, and enriched dictators. Oil from unstable regions of the world will put our economies at much greater risk than if we source from a reliable supplier. If on the other hand we address the demand side, development of the oil sands will slow, and we may have a pipeline that is never needed for anything other than an insurance policy (or to displace other unstable suppliers). However, it will have resulted in a multibillion dollar investment in the U.S. by a private company that created jobs that were sorely needed.

This is my opinion based on how I think things will actually play out if the pipeline is or isn’t built. I think the oil will get to market regardless. I could be wrong. There are people that I respect a great deal who disagree. I simply make my best estimate and render an opinion. Then we discuss and debate and perhaps opinions are modified. I would hope those who hold a different opinion will also give some consideration to the possibility that stopping the pipeline will in no way diminish our appetite for oil, and that we will simply continue to source it from unstable regions of the world. Then perhaps we can focus more efforts on the demand side of the equation.