Saturday, November 07, 2015

Keystone XL decision will not save the earth or trash the economy

American President Barack Obama's official rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was to run from Alberta's oil sands down to the refineries of Texas, comes as no surprise. The decision has been some seven years in gestation but, despite the positive spin of Canadian ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pipeline builder TransCanada Corp, its ultimate arrival was never really in any doubt. Its timing was merely a matter of political expediency and, in Mr. Obama's judgement, the right time has finally presented itself just a month before December's Paris UN climate change summit.
But I must admit that the whole thing has left me a bit nonplussed.
I am, in most respects, an ardent environmentalist. I even believe that, in the interests of the fight against global warming, the incredibly dirty and carbon-intensive oil from the Albertan oil sands should stay in the ground. But it seems to me far from obvious that Keystone XL has much, if any, bearing on all this. Certainly, the greenhouse gas impact of the proposed pipeline pales into insignificance against Obama's much more important climate change initiatives of recent months, such as his tightening of power generation rules, improvements to fuel economy standards, and boosts to renewable energy production.
Despite the wording of the statement and the claims of some climate activist groups, President Obama's decision, and its timing, are all about symbolism and political optics rather than environmental concern and the moral high ground. Certainly, Canadian considerations did not enter into the equation: US domestic politics will always trump US-Canada relations when push comes to shove.
However, as Obama himself explained: "this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others". This reflects my own suspicion that, in the scheme of things, Keystone XL would not make that much difference either way.
The environmental party line on the subject is that the pipeline is unequivocally "a bad thing". But in the absence of a pipeline, more oil will be transported by rail (or, for that matter, other even less desirable pipelines), with all the concomitant environmental concerns that brings with it. And, in unexpected agreement with the US State Department and even the Fraser Institute, I really don't think that the oil sands will suddenly magically cease, or even reduce, production just because one pipeline among many is not built. It is rarely mentioned that there are already no less than seventy existing oil pipelines criss-crissing the Canada-US border. The Canadian oil sands' development already has its own intrinsic challenges - economic, environmental and political - which I sincerely hope will bring about its downfall, regardless of whether this pipeline is build or not.
In and of itself, then, the Keystone XL decision will not save the earth. Nor will it trash the economy. Having said that, I would hate to have been the politician who had to make a firm decision one way or the other.

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