NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned that if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, it’s “game over” for the climate. That dire warning lit a fire under the feet of activists, who rightly argue that Canada shouldn’t be producing the dirty, carbon-intensive tar sands oil, and the U.S. shouldn’t enable the climate destruction by building a pipeline to get the oil out of North America. But stopping Keystone won’t stop global warming, and building it won’t make environmentalists throw in the towel. If this is a game, we are pawns as well as players, so we can never walk away.
Frankly, it’s hard to understand right-wing enthusiasm in the U.S. for a pipeline benefiting a Canadian company extracting Canadian oil intended for the world market. In spite of all the talk about jobs, it will employ only a few thousand workers temporarily, and not in the areas of the country where unemployed construction workers live. Moreover, building it requires the government to seize private property from unwilling landowners to benefit a private interest—usually the sort of thing that makes Republicans go ballistic.
I might add that the environmental damage being done to thousands of square miles of Canadian arboreal forests and lakes is staggering—but Republicans have long since made it clear that they do not consider despoiling nature a drawback when there is energy to be had and profit to be made. (If you are a Republican and you bristle at this, see if you can name a recent oil, gas, or coal mining project your party has opposed for environmental reasons. I can only name one, and that doesn’t get beyond “sort of.” See the Tennessee Conservative Union’s ad opposing mountaintop removal coal mining, now that a Chinese company wants to do it.)
Some would argue that the climate case against Keystone is overstated. Tar sands oil is “only” 14-24% more carbon intensive than conventional oil, if you ignore a nasty byproduct called petroleum coke that adds to the total carbon footprint. Yet surely if the reverse were true, and the carbon footprint of tar sands oil were less than that of conventional oil, it would be hailed as some kind of a planet-saving fuel. Incremental changes are what got us into this mess in the first place.
If Keystone represents evil, though, it has plenty of company, and there is blame enough to go around. Canadians are developing tar sands oil because the worldwide demand for petroleum is high and growing, there is money to be made meeting the demand, and there is no one who will make them stop. The harm done exceeds the profit to be made, but most of the harm is borne by people in other countries.
That makes the case against the pipeline mostly a moral one, and moral arguments don’t get much respect these days. Yet when the State Department or the Washington Post urges that if we don’t build the pipeline, the Canadians will just find other ways to get the oil to market, the proper response should be outrage. Their position is the moral equivalent of justifying buying stolen goods on the theory that if you don’t do it, the thieves will just find a fence somewhere else.
Admittedly, lots of people would buy stolen goods if there weren’t a law against it; for such people, morality is most successful when immorality gets you arrested. And there isn’t a law against tar sands oil; Canada is the only country with jurisdiction, and it prefers to look away.
Americans also have a little problem that we do, indeed, buy a lot of stolen goods. As the world’s biggest oil consumers, we have a credibility problem. On the other hand, if we don’t set the standards, who will? And if we don’t start here, then where?
Keystone or no Keystone, the fight against climate change will go on, because our lives and our children’s lives depend on it. It’s not a game we can stop playing—but we sure shouldn’t make it even harder for ourselves to win.