Keystone pipeline, now a political football, won't determine oil sands endgame
Keystone pipeline extension, part of payroll tax bill approved by the US House, has met fierce resistance from Democrats, environmentalists. But they're aiming at the wrong target if they want to slow Canadian oil sands development.
In the face of fierce protests, the Obama administration recently delayed the decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil made from Canada's oil sands in Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf Coast.Skip to next paragraph
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Score one for environmentalists. They got a temporary reprieve – at least, they thought they did – until after the 2012 presidential election, when the White House would make a decision. But the Keystone pipeline is now caught in the middle of a political free-for-all over taxes: House Republicans on Tuesday passed a bill to extend the payroll tax cut (which Democrats want) with a measure that would force the White House to make a quick decision on the pipeline (which Democrats don't want).
Scrape away all the political gamesmanship, however, and the question over the pipeline becomes very simple: Would stopping it slow the development of Canada's oil sands. Those who oppose the pipeline believe it will, but they're aiming at the wrong target. If they really want to help the climate and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, they should be fighting oil demand, not oil supply.
Consider one of their major arguments: The pipeline would cross the important Ogallala Aquifer, and because pipelines sometimes leak there would be a significant risk of contaminating Midwestern water supplies. But numerous pipelines already crisscross the aquifer, and have transported oil across the region for decades. More importantly, farmers deposit thousands of tons of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers on top of the aquifer every year. If runoff from the cities built on top of the aquifer has not contaminated it, there is no reason to believe a leak in a pipeline would.
The protesters' real aim, of course, is to force Canada to stop developing the Athabasca oil sands, whose extraction creates more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional oil production does. Keystone opponent and NASA scientist Jim Hansen has called the pipeline the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” and that if it is built it is “game over” for the climate.