Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Keystone Mattered

Dan Moutal comments:

Frankly this is very over-optimistic. As you noted the Canadian government is working hard to re-write legislation to ensure that opponents to the pipeline don't get in the way.

I would be very surprised if the pipeline is not built before the next election in 2015.

It might be over-optimistic to predict that no new pipeline will ever be built for the tar sands, but I didn't say that. Rather, note is taken of the fact that, contrary to the anguished protests of pro-Keystone folks like Nocera, an alternative route is not automatic, and will only come about by means of further political battles as yet unfought.

Those battles are yet to be won or lost, but without the defeat of Keystone XL, the oil interests would not have had to fight them at all. This is in stark contrast to the arguments of Nocera and others that refusing to approve Keystone XL would cost us jobs and otherwise not affect the development of the tar sands whatsoever.

The benefits of the bare-knuckled fight over Keystone XL are many:

* The pipeline itself is not being built, and hopefully will not be built.
* It is uncertain whether an alternative pipeline will be built. That uncertainty discourages further investment in and development of Canadian dirty oil today, even if an alternative route is built eventually.
* The pipeline has been delayed, which hits oil company profits, provides more time for alternative sources of energy to fall in price, provides more time for an international carbon regime to be put in place, and more time for the government of Canada to change course, as democratic governments are wont to do.

* Alternative pipeline routes are sure to involve further bruising political fights -- hence Harper's attempt to target the charities opposing the pipeline. Even if the oil interests win those fights, they still have to expend time, money and political capital to fight them, and no interest, no matter how powerful, has an infinite supply of those.

It's important that we recognize what was accomplished by the people who demonstrated, who called their representatives, who donated money or spoke out or went to jail, even though it is, of course, a matter of only one possible route of one possible source of dirty-fuel disaster.

Of late I've been re-reading Shelby Foote's epic history of the Civil War; I highly recommend it. One of the things that strikes me, in reading it again, is that the most important and effective commanders were not always the smartest; Grant, for example, was neither a masterful tactician nor a great strategist, he was often caught unprepared, and he was beaten in the field repeatedly. What successful commanders, North and South, Army or Navy, possessed is aptly described by Foote as "[A] hard-driving, bulldog, cut-and-slash aggressiveness, a preference for action at close quarters, and a burning sense of personal insult at the slightest advantage gained by an opponent at [their] expense."

That is the quality that sent Keystone XL down to defeat and left the tar sands developers and the Harper administration with another pipeline fight in the offing, this one in their own backyard. At if their is a similar spirit of action by opponents up there, they may very well lose again. We can only ever fight today's battle, and the reward for winning it -- now and for the foreseeable future -- is tomorrow's battle.

Say not the Struggle Naught availeth
Arthur Hugh Clough. 1819–1861
SAY not the struggle naught availeth, 
  The labour and the wounds are vain, 
The enemy faints not, nor faileth, 
  And as things have been they remain. 
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;         5
  It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd, 
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers, 
  And, but for you, possess the field. 
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking, 
  Seem here no painful inch to gain,  10
Far back, through creeks and inlets making, 
  Comes silent, flooding in, the main. 
And not by eastern windows only, 
  When daylight comes, comes in the light; 
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!  15
  But westward, look, the land is bright!


  1. I am not sure how closely you are following the situation here in Canada, but bill c-38 (the one that rolls back environmental protection legislation prevents most Canadians from participating in public hearings and targets opponents of the pipeline has passed the house of commons and is expected to sail through the Conservative dominated senate.

    Unfortunately this wasn't really that surprising a turn of events given that Harper currently enjoys a healthy majority government.

    Also you seem to be under the impression that the northern gateway pipeline was proposed as an alternative to keystone XL. This is not correct.

  2. I'm sure I don't know the situation as well as you do. It's my understanding that the native lands and the provinces in which alternative transport would have to be built have some decision-making power in the matter; it's not solely at the discretion of the Harper government. Am I wrong in that?

    The fact that the Harper government is trying to restrict the public's input into the approval process also implies that there is a "process," that it is not in fact a done deal, and that they are worried enough that the process will not be successful to try and stack the deck in advance.

    I feel we are talking past each other. Are you under the impression that I am saying all is good in Canada? I am not. Are you of the opinion that blocking Keystone XL was pointless because there are lots of easy alternatives to transport those fuels? Because that is the only position that I am actually arguing against.

    1. I guess the point I am making is that more and more it is looking like the approval process for the pipeline is just a formality.

      The first nations issue is perhaps the most complex but if I had to predict an outcome is that the pipeline would go ahead despite the concerns of the first nations and later, after the pipeline is built, there would be a long and complicated court battle.

      To your specific point I don't think the blocking of Keystone was pointless, but ultimately I don't think it accomplished very much. Pipelines will still be built.

      The problem as I see it is that their are billions of dollars locked up in the tar sands. They will be exploited until the resource is made uneconomical (say with a hefty carbon tax). Those wanting to stop the pipelines have to keep on winning while those who want to build them only have to win once. Seems like our efforts could be better spent elsewhere.

  3. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this underpublicized stink:

    "Third pipeline leak in Alberta in three weeks"

    (Planet3.0, linked by Dan Moutal)

    I have a more than passing interest in the project to establish a route through Portland in the northeast. For detailed maps, here, and as the site says: "Everyone's downstream"

    Of course, the google produced Exxon's item at the top of the list. S*cks boo.

    I was glad to get the EROEI figure of 3:1 compared to 200:1 for conventional oil. Seems like that should get people's attention, but of course it didn't. However I continue to believe that knowledge is a good thing, despite half the US's effort to bury or destroy it.

  4. There is already a pipeline transporting bitumen to the West Cost, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline which presently transports 300,000 bpd. There is a plan in the works to increase capacity to 800,000 bpd.

  5. I still don't understand why these nasty things couldn't be transported by train if they must be moved. Why do something elaborate and dangerous when we could have the additional benefit of restored or new train lines as well?

    1. I am a big proponent of improving rail networks, but how does piping a toxic substance to a rail yard, pumping it onto rail cars, and reversing the process at the other end help? It seems to me that more transitions = greater risk of spills.

      In the end we just need to leave this carbon in the ground. That we subsidize dirty fuels by not forcing producers to pay for the environmental damage they do just adds insult to injury.