I will preface this article with my standard disclaimer on the Keystone XL Pipeline project: I have no vested interest in the pipeline either way. My interest is in fostering honest debate and discussion on energy policy, and because there has been so much distortion and outright lies related to the pipeline project, I have addressed the topic from time to time.
To reiterate, I don’t think it ultimately makes much difference one way or the other whether the pipeline is built. Not to the environment and not to energy security. I think the likelihood that this oil will simply be transported to market via other means (rail, other pipelines, and/or tanker) is vastly underestimated by Keystone XL opponents. I think the U.S. and the world will use about the same amount of oil with or without it. Refineries on the Gulf Coast will continue to run heavy Venezuelan crude if it isn’t built, which is what would be backed out in favor of heavy Canadian crude if it is built. That Venezuelan crude will continue to be transported via ship, and those have been known to spill oil. I think the risks of the pipeline have been vastly overstated by people who are generally unaware of the extent of the North American oil and gas pipeline system — and consequently how low the incident frequency actually is.
That summarizes what I believe are some of the misconceptions and misleading arguments from those who are arguing against the pipeline. But don’t mistake that as me lobbying for the pipeline. I don’t think I have ever said “We need this pipeline.” I will never be at a pro-pipeline rally. For most people who care one way or another, Keystone XL is just symbolic. The impact of building it — or not — is overstated by both sides. For those who are more interested in substance and who are concerned about the growing carbon dioxide inventory in the atmosphere — it’s going to come down to whether actions around Keystone XL can be leveraged into something much, much greater.
I do understand the core of the opponents’ arguments. Behind all of the misleading and false claims, it really boils down to one thing. They believe that the pipeline will ultimately exacerbate climate change. But we can do the math that shows that the possible climate change impact as a result of the pipeline would be so small that it wouldn’t be measurable. If we make the very aggressive assumption that the pipeline enabled burning the entire Canadian oil sands reserves (unrealistically aggressive given all the other potential routes to market for that oil) it would take at least 75 years and (according to the climate models) raise the global temperature by about 1/20th of a degree.
The math is pretty straightforward, and there are typically 2 responses to it. One is that every little bit helps. True, but these things don’t happen in isolation. Resources devoted to one problem might be more effective if directed at another. I have likened it to a triage situation. If you have a patient with a hangnail and a serious head wound, “every little bit” might result in the patient dying unless you focus your resources on the most critical problem. You throw everything you can at the head wound, and then you can worry about the hangnail.
The second response is that the pipeline is symbolic of a battle against climate change, and it is getting activists fired up for the cause — which will be beneficial in the long run. That’s a very fuzzy argument, and there isn’t an effective way I can think of to evaluate whether that’s true. If you could somehow connect the dots and show that stopping Keystone XL will lead to reduced coal consumption in Asia Pacific, then the argument probably is true. And for many people who have done the math and ignored the hyperbole, that’s ultimately the factor that swings someone one way or another. Ultimately this is one of those arguments that just boils down to “I feel like my efforts will make a difference.” And because this argument is fuzzy, it is also where it often gets emotional. Those fighting against it don’t want to believe that they are wasting their time, so they sometimes lash out at those who would try to distill this issue down to facts. It has happened to me plenty of times. An opponent makes an argument, I show the facts disproving that argument, and the response is anger, insults, and sometimes lies (like the guy who falsely asserted in response that I own stock in TransCanada, the backer of the pipeline).
Of course the issue has also helped with fundraising at environmental organizations, so they do have a vested interest in exaggerating the arguments against the pipeline. They can’t exactly claim objectivity on the matter. There are lots of people making six figure salaries on both sides of this debate, eager to keep those paychecks coming in. That’s why I always find it ironic when they cast aspersions at those arguing for the pipeline, and who might benefit. If you are arguing against the pipeline, but might benefit from that opposition, apparently that still gives you the right to cast aspersions.
One thing that I find unacceptable on either side is lies that are told in support or in opposition of the pipeline. If President Obama opposes the pipeline — which he clearly does — he should stop simply kicking the can down the road and take a stand. That may be what a politician does, but it isn’t what a leader should do. A leader should take a stand.
Instead, when President Obama vetoed a bill last week that would have sped up the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline, he repeated several false claims which were in direct contradiction to the U.S. State Department assessment of the project. The Washington Post — not exactly a bastion of Republicans out to discredit the President — recently took him to task on these claims in Obama’s claim that Keystone XL oil ‘bypasses the U.S.’ earns Four Pinocchios. The dreaded “Four Pinocchios” is defined as “Whoppers.” A gentler way of saying lies. Worse than their “Three Pinocchios” rating which means “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” And when the Washington Post is calling out a Democratic President like this, he (and his allies) should recognize that this isn’t just political enemies out to get him.
So what was the big lie that President Obama told? He claimed that the pipeline is for Canadian oil that will bypass the U.S., providing no benefit to the U.S. He further suggested that we should focus on “American infrastructure for American jobs and American producers”, ignoring the fact that Keystone XL hits on all three while being paid for by a private company and not U.S. taxpayers.
He also once more downplayed the number of jobs that would be created, as if temporary construction jobs aren’t worth counting in the grand scheme. Per the U.S. State Department Assessment, the construction phase of the pipeline would support an estimated 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced). The nature of construction jobs is that they are temporary. After that job there is usually another job. To hand-wave away these jobs as “temporary” is a disservice to 1.3 million workers in the construction business in the U.S. Remember that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps created temporary jobs (and at government expense) for millions of people doing public works. Didn’t those jobs matter, even though they were temporary?
As the Washington Post points out, not only would U.S. producers utilize the expanded pipeline (and there are signed contracts in hand from U.S. producers in the Bakken to utilize the pipeline), but the oil transported to the Gulf Coast would mostly be refined on the Gulf Coast. This supports U.S. refining jobs. We would likely grow finished product exports under this scenario, but under the alternative scenario countries that import diesel and gasoline will instead buy them from Indian or Saudi Arabian refiners — in many cases countries with lower environmental standards.
The Post further noted that the President has obviously still not read the assessment from the State Department (“Clearly, the report remains unread”), and chastises him for making claims that have no factual basis:
“If he disagrees with the State Department’s findings, he should begin to make the case why it is wrong, rather than assert the opposite, without any factual basis. Moreover, by telling North Dakota listeners that the pipeline has no benefit for Americans, he is again being misleading, given that producers in the region have signed contracts to transport some of their production through the pipeline.”
I don’t understand why it is so difficult for the President to simply state the reasons for his opposition to the pipeline, instead of regurgitating false and easily refuted claims. As I have said in the past, he could make a statement that would represent actual courageous leadership, even if I think it’s misguided. That statement would be something along the lines of “I am making a stand with my environmentalist supporters who voted me into office and who reject a continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. I believe this pipeline expansion will exacerbate climate change, and that the U.S. needs to lead the world by example. I am therefore rejecting the application to expand the pipeline.”
Was that so hard? I like straight talk. All this beating around the bush drives me crazy. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. You may be wrong, but at least nobody can accuse you of failing to lead on this issue — which is the case at present. If the President wants to block the pipeline, he should come out and say so instead of trying to run out the clock on the project. There are a lot of people spending time, money, and energy on both sides of this project — all because the President has failed to lead on this issue.