Proselytizing on Pipeline Politics
Feb 1, 2014

Proselytizing on Pipeline Politics

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline has received a big bolster of support by a US State Department report finding that the pipeline won't create a significant increase in greenhouse gases, effectively ensuring that Barack Obama will OK the proposal. A huge amount of momentum in the environmental movement was tied up in this project and it should rightly be thought of as a significant loss in the fight. However, for a variety of reasons, pipelines are simply not the best elements of our society for the environmental movement to target and it is a mistake, I think, to have focused so much on this proposal.

Fighting against pipelines is not really about the pipelines in and of themselves. While the battles are sometimes fought about the specifics of the pipelines (what are the consequences of leaks on this or that watershed, for instance), a considerable portion of the opposition stems from a more general opposition to our societal tendencies to consume vast amount of oil and face climate change as a consequence. I am the same way; while I certainly advocate very stringent environmental standards with transparency and accountability for any specific oil related project, my real opposition comes from the larger issues of climate change. So to whatever extent this is true, there is a bit of a tension in the game plane of the environmental movement by making these local arguments about disagreements with pipelines in specific areas contrasted with the broader goals of reducing oil dependency as a civilization.

Pipelines are just a means to an end. When it comes to oil consumption, there is a widespread demand for oil, various localized sources of oil, and the need to connect them in some way. That can be done by pipelines or tankers or trains or carrier pidgeons, for all I care, but the basic issue of a market pressure to match demand isn't going away. We can, and should, ask what the safest (and most economical, because that matters too) method to transport oil is, given the choice to use oil in the first place. As it happens, pipelines are a not horrible means to this end. Canadians saw all too poignantly in Lac-Mégantic the downfalls of rail and I am worried about the risks of another Exxon Valdez on our west coast.

It seems like such a simple solution for environmentalists. Manage to prevent pipelines by appealing to localized environmental issues and somehow that fixes our broader oil consumption issues. It is like blaming obesity on the necks that transport food from the mouth to the stomach. The reason the State Department report concludes that this won't significantly increase greenhouse gases is because the tar sands oil is coming out one way or another, and this will be but one way to transport it; hence, it doesn't change the volume coming out, just the way it is transported. They are undoubtedly largely correct. The Harper government has made it clear it is going to do everything in its power to provide multiple channels forward whether that is Keystone XL or Northern Gateway. The environmental movement is faced with a hydra problem: if they manage to chop through one neck, the pressure for another neck to grow only increases.

That doesn't mean the environmental movement should just throw up its arms and capitulate. These are serious issues and we should fight aggressively on them. But we have to be smart about it, acknowledging realpolitik, and targeting the most effective avenues. Personally, I believe that the best approach is a too pronged one: demand reduction and creation of alternative supply. Namely, we aim to reduce our total need for energy while simultaneously creating non oil based supplies. This can be done through a combination of government involvement and social changes. One can go into quite a bit of detail about this, but the point for our purposes here is that it is a plan that acknowledges the balancing between supply and demand in a way that de facto opposition to pipelines (but one mechanism for balancing supply and demand) doesn't.

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