By Matson Boyd
The long awaited State Department review of the Keystone pipeline plan has finally come out. It argues, essentially, that approval or denial of Keystone will have little impact on the climate, not because Keystone isn’t destructive (it is), but because the oil companies will just find a different way to export the tar sands oil out of Canada if Keystone is blocked. This echoes the long held position of liberal bloggers like Jonathan Chait, Barkley Rosser, and Matthew Yglesias, who consider environmental activists misguided in their opposition to Keystone. Unfortunately, the logic of the bloggers and the State Department eerily echoes the global coordination problem of climate change; “why stop Keystone if they’ll just build another way out?” is the local version of “why should the United States try to stop climate change if its a global problem?” In the face of this coordination problem one can either become hopeless or one can make a start, and work together with environmental activists around the world to finish the job.
There are two main alternatives for oil companies to get more oil out, both of which face mounting opposition. The first way out is more oil trains to ports and refineries throughout North America, which is stirring up protests from Maineto Washington State, and is not cost effective enough to support tar sands expansion. The second route is the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, planned to run 731 miles from Alberta across the British Columbia Rockies to the Pacific Coast. This plan has earned the near total opposition of B.C. First Nations, who’ve vowed to stop the pipeline and will likely succeed. And expansion of the tar sands itself is now facing stiffening opposition from Alberta First Nations, now in Canada’s headlines because of Neil Young’s support for their cause. Among the Canadian public, the tar sands project does not have unambiguous support, and the project’s expansion is far from assured, resting entirely on the support of one political party, The Conservative Party, who now form a majority government despite only winning 39.6% of the vote.
The State Department is now downplaying an alternative scenario it explored in which no other pipeline would be built and oil prices were slightly lower. It found in that scenario that the expansion of the tar sands attributable to Keystone would be the equivalent of adding 5.7 million passenger vehicles to the road. Why is the State Department downplaying this? Have they not fully taken into account the possibility that activists might win? To prevent the acceleration of climate change, it’s necessary for people to take action, and to take a leap of faith that others will join them. In other words, we need solidarity — which the State Department’s report assumes away.
Keystone is now in the President’s hands, and if Obama signs onto Keystone then it puts him in an odd position: if either Canada or the U.S. ever adopts a sensible carbon policy then Keystone becomes instantly obsolete, because the tar sands oil is far more polluting than regular crude oil. And the ethical problem remains: how can we support doing the wrong thing under the justification that we don’t expect others to do right?