It would be a mistake for President Barack Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline because the new infrastructure itself will not negatively affect the environment. At the same time, Canada’s government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper could do more to sway opinion in Keystone XL’s favour by making environmental stewardship a priority.
Currently the Keystone XL pipeline project sits on Barack Obama’s desk, awaiting the presidential approval needed to begin its construction. If passed, the infrastructure will expand existing pipeline capacity, allowing for increased access to the Midwestern and Gulf Coast refining markets for Canadian and American oil producers. However massive environmental protests, many of which are occurring on Obama’s doorstep, could make the president think twice about green-lighting the pipeline. To do so would be a mistake. The opposition’s arguments against the proposed pipeline are merely symbolic, and do not take the facts into account.
Arguments against Keystone XL attack supply rather than demand
There is no doubt climate change is a critical issue facing both North America and the world, and there is no doubt humanity must curb its addiction to fossil fuels. But like the dismal failure that was America’s ‘War on Drugs,’ the opponents to Keystone XL are attacking the supply of oil rather than the demand for oil. The simple fact is that as long as there is demand for oil, oil will be supplied. Therefore, if the pipeline is blocked, crude oil will still reach the Midwestern and Gulf Coast refineries in the same capacity, it will simply do so by train instead of pipeline. It is estimated that it would take a daily amount of 15 trains, each with 100 tanker cars, to supply the oil demanded if the pipeline was not to pass. Indeed, from 2010 to 2011, crude oil transported by trains in America doubled, and from 2011 to 2012 it tripled. Furthermore, to move crude by train burns more fossil fuels than were the oil to flow through a pipeline. It is for this reason that the Department of State report on the issue concluded the pipeline itself would have no impact on climate change.
The argument that oil refined from Alberta’s bitumen is dirtier than other forms of oil is false. An editorial from the prominent scientific journal Nature stated that oil produced from Canada’s oil-sands is not as dirty from a climate perspective as many believe. In fact, the editorial argues oil produced in California is actually dirtier. Californian oil production would of course be increased to meet demand should the oil-sands be underdeveloped.
How to effectively attack demand
If the environmentalists who protest against Keystone XL are truly against climate change, they should be pushing for a government imposed carbon tax rather than attempting to halt a single infrastructure project. A carbon tax is the only way to effectively decrease demand for oil. A tax on carbon emissions would increase the cost of fossil fuels for businesses and individuals, meaning people would switch to other forms of energy, and demand for oil would decrease. The government of British Columbia introduced a carbon tax in 2008. The results: per capita emissions have fallen faster than the rest of Canada, and the tax has proven to be revenue neutral. The province of Alberta has since also introduced a carbon tax. It is therefore the most effective government policy available in the battle against climate change. Why the protestors who are vehemently against Keystone XL are not pushing for a carbon tax is beyond me.
An image problem: Canada’s environmental policy
I suspect that the underlying reason why environmentalists are vehemently opposed to Keystone XL is the fact that Canada’s conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has abandoned Canada’s image as an environmental steward. In December of 2011 Environment Minister Peter Kent announced Canada was formally withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol. Although both Martin and Chretien (Harper’s liberal predecessors) did little to nothing to implement the protocol, the formal withdrawal was severely damaging to Canada’s environmental image – Canada is in fact the only country to formally withdraw. The withdrawal fits within a broader policy of the Harper government wherein Canada resists international cooperation on climate change. In November of 2012, at the United Nations climate summit in Qatar, Kent argued the developing world must do more to combat the climate issue. While this argument may be true, resisting cooperation as a reaction does not work towards the goal of mitigating climate change. By not cooperating, the Harper government only damages Canada’s image. The fact that Canada has won the embarrassing ‘fossil of the year’ award multiple times proves the country has an image problem.
I agree with Martha Hall Findlay’s criticism of the Harper government on this issue. Hall Finlday is a candidate for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. She argues Harper’s reckless disregard for international environmental cooperation has damaged Canada’s image, which has in turn jeopardized infrastructure projects such as Keystone XL, and thus risks the Canadian economic recovery. In order to pass much needed projects such as the proposed pipeline, the country must do more to repair its tattered environmental image. Only by doing this can Canada sway the opinions of environmentalists in favour of Keystone XL, even if those same opinions miss the facts.
One way to repair Canada’s image is for Harper’s conservative government to follow the conservative government of Alberta’s example. It should take a leadership role in combating climate change by instituting a federal carbon tax.
‘About the Project,’ Keystone XL Pipeline- Trans Canada, 2012. http://keystone-xl.com/about/the-project/
‘Change for Good,’ Nature, 29 January 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/change-for-good-1.12312
Curry, Bill and Shawn McCarthy. ‘Canada formally abandons Kyoto Protocol on climate change,’ The Globe and Mail, 12 December 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canada-formally-abandons-kyoto-protocol-on-climate-change/article4180809/
McCarthy, Shawn. ‘Canada won’t budge on environment, Peter Kent insists,’ The Globe and Mail, 30 November 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canada-wont-budge-on-environment-peter-kent-insists/article5872465/
McParland, Kelly. “The stars align behind Alberta’s carbon tax.” The National Post, 5 February 2013. http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/02/05/kelly-mcparland-the-stars-align-behind-alberta-carbon-tax/
Tencer, Daniel. Martha Hall Findlay: Economy Threatened by Harper’s Anti-Environmental Stance,’ The Huffington Post, 28 February 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/28/martha-hall-findlay-economy-keystone-environment_n_2783425.html?utm_hp_ref=tw
Zakaria, Fareed. Global Public Square, CNN. 10 March 2013.