Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

The key to the meaning of Keystone XL

By Chrystia Freeland
February 1, 2013

Is oil like red meat or is it like tobacco? Your answer to that question determines how you feel about the North American boom in unconventional sources of fossil fuel, particularly the Canadian oil sands.

If you think oil is like tobacco, it is a strictly noxious commodity, which seriously harms its users and those around them. We should stop consuming it at once and at all costs. But if you think oil is like red meat, you take a more nuanced view. For the health of the planet, we should find greener alternatives to it whenever we can, but used wisely and in moderation it has an honorable role in the 21st-century economy.

This morality play is being acted out with the greatest intensity in the fight over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

“Keystone is really a symbol of oil, it is very emotive,” Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning energy expert and chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told me. “It is probably the most famous pipeline in the history of the world, and it hasn’t even been built yet. It is a symbol around which the opponents of hydrocarbon have rallied.”

Last autumn, the consensus view was that the pipeline would be approved after the U.S. presidential election, no matter who won. In recent weeks, those odds have shifted.

“If you had asked me prior to the U.S. election, I would’ve said, ‘Of course it’s going to be built after the election, regardless of who wins,’” said Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta, where many of the oil companies that are counting on Keystone have their headquarters.

“If you had asked me immediately after the U.S. election, I would’ve said, ‘Of course it’s going to be built, now that the immediate political pressure is off,’” he said. But today, Nenshi is less certain: “The feeling in Canada over the past four or five weeks has become less optimistic about this thing being built.”

Jim Flaherty, the Canadian finance minister, took the same view. “I actually don’t know,” he replied, when I asked him if the Keystone pipeline would be built. “I had reason for optimism before the election that the president would approve it, were he re-elected.”

But, Flaherty said, President Barack Obama’s inaugural address “was not encouraging.”

Many politicians and business leaders in Canada, whose economy relies heavily on fossil fuels, have been caught by surprise by the intense opposition to the Keystone pipeline and to the oil sands crude it would carry south. The paperback edition of Yergin’s latest book, “The Quest,” provides a powerful explanation of that mystery.

“We have to start somewhere to end the addiction to oil,” is the way one environmentalist explained the broader strategy to Yergin. “The pipeline is a convenient device for fighting a larger battle,” Yergin said.

Canadians, who are accustomed to being thought of as the world’s official nice guys – think of all those students globe-trotting with maple leaves on their backpacks – are uncomfortable with this new role as climate change villains. (Disclosure: I am a proud Canadian myself.)

“I think it’s a shame that a one-meter-in-diameter pipe is suddenly having to wear all of the sins of the carbon economy,” Calgary’s Nenshi said. “You know, it’s not clubbing seals with child labor.”

Yergin agrees. “The one thing that doesn’t get much talked about is that this oil sands technology continues to advance; it is not static,” he said.

“We reached peak oil demand in the U.S. more than half a decade ago. Our oil demand is going down. Our cars are getting more efficient,” he said. “Meanwhile, there is a supply of energy we do need now. The real trade-off is, is it going to be Canadian oil or is it going to be Venezuelan oil?”

That trade-off used to be viewed in primarily strategic terms: Were our oil suppliers political friends or foes? By that measure, the Canadians score high. But the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, of all places, underscored another consequence of the North American boom in unconventional sources of oil: its impact on jobs.

Participants from slow-growth Europe and more vigorous Asia alike were dazzled by the job-creating potential of North America’s renaissance as a fossil fuel producer. Moreover, these jobs happen to be the very sort that are being hollowed out by globalization and the technology revolution: high-paying, skilled, blue-collar work that cannot be outsourced or done by robots.

Which may be why the Canadians are picking up such mixed messages from the White House on the Keystone pipeline. For the Al Gore wing of the Democratic Party, it has become a symbolic battle in the fight to save the planet; for the Joe Biden wing, Keystone and the unconventional oil revolution are a source of the middle-class jobs many feared modern economies could no longer provide.

The pipeline is also a litmus test for what you think is the most important problem in the early 21st century.

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

“If you think oil is like tobacco, it is a strictly noxious commodity, which seriously harms its users and those around them. We should stop consuming it at once and at all costs. But if you think oil is like red meat, you take a more nuanced view.” I guess we needn’t wonder what your view is, Ms. Freeland, as there’s clearly no nuance in it at all.

Some of us understand that we will not soon be moving off of oil, but that tapping into new and ever dirtier sources of the stuff is a particularly bad direction to move in. We understand that we already know about enough oil supply to take us over the cliff to >2C temp increase, so we do not need new sources to come online and add to the already overabundant supply. We understand that if the mayor of Calgary thinks that “clubbing seals with child labor” is a worse thing for humanity than failing to address climate change, he is sadly deluded. Is that nuanced enough for you?

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive
 

It’s difficult to understand why the environmentalists demonize heavy oil from Canada while the US continues to import 900,000 bbls/day of the same stuff from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and no one bats an eye. Is it really riskier to import oil through a brand new state-of-the-art pipeline built on dry land, than to ship the same stuff across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in foreign-flagged tankers of unknown provenance? Does the US really want to stick it to Canada and depend on Venezuela, Nigeria and Iraq? Does the US really want to incentivize Canada to market its petroleum to Asian markets? If you google: “Graphic: pipelines of North America”, you’ll see a map showing all of the petroleum pipelines on the continent, including about half a dozen in Nebraska. The continent is swathed in pipelines. Anyone concerned about pipeline spills is advised to worry about more the pipelines that are fifty years old and less about the brand new ones. Clearly the Keystone XL pipeline debate has become something beyond the rational.

Posted by unclepie | Report as abusive
 

In an increasingly young “instant gratification” society that has seldom understood precisely where their present comfort and position have come from, why am I not surprised at this “divide”? I’m sure they would all rush forward to scrap their cars and buy horses, plant and chop hay and clean up dung from curb to curb on our streets in order to live a completely “green” life style NOW.

Turn off the oil and gas, shutter the coal mines and they will have to chop wood to heat their homes. Never mind the “killer fogs” of history that afflicted large cities from time to time, killing residents wholesale when temperature inversions trapped the byproducts of combustion from many, many wood-fired hearths in winter.

When one of these wizards comes up with a battery design that will allow more efficient storage and use of power from the sun, the tides, the wind, and other “clean sources” and we can ALL tell the power companies to POUND SAND owning our own little power sources on our own property that don’t need huge distribution networks, it will be time to listen to them. Or when ccold fusion is found to work and is practical on a small individual scale for a price the average citizen can afford to buy and maintain.

Until them, every rational American citizen had better understand that “…oil is like red meat…we should find greener alternatives to it whenever we can, but used wisely and in moderation it has an honorable role in the 21st-century economy.” The reality continues to be that the “role” is not only “honorable” but ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL!

The fact that these good paying jobs are desperately needed by the unemployed, and a struggling fiscally unsustainable economy needs such payrolls for taxes and consumer spending if it is to emerge from the “great recession” should not be ignored either.

Let the ecologists freeze in the dark.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Back when Canada helped Americans escape the thugs of the Iranian revolution of the seventies, lots of people said “THANKS, CANADA!”. Those were words. A saying today is “Watch not what they say, but what they do”.

America is today under continuing assault by hispanic hoards from south of our largely ineffective border who continue to invade our territory and society so as to appropriate for themselves benefits and opportunities that should be largely reserved for American citizens of the LEGAL kind. It is increasingly hard for the average American taxpayer to regard our “neighbor” to the south, Mexico, as either true friend or ally when they are conspicuously complicit in this continuing travesty. Are we to let our “greens” alienate our neighbor to the north as well?

America has much in common with Canada. If we would be a friend, friends wish each other well. They act in a way consistent with that intent. Those who would deny Canada cooperation in developing their natural resources for the betterment of their society are enemies of Canada.

As an American who remembers what happened in Iran and at so many other times in history over the years, I am ashamed of “Americans” so short of memory or genuine understanding of “right” and “wrong”. “Do unto others…” is still a wise basis for living.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

As a chemist, also an environmentalist, I would make a specific point about running tar sands material through a pipe, whether it be Keystone XL, Northern Gateway or from Alberta to New Brunswick through Ontario – the stuff is coarser than is crude oil and will probably cause more rapid abrasion to the pipe, making leakage more likely than the latter. None of the companies involved has a very good safety record – so that would worry me, especially when running through sensitive terrain. Transport by road, rail or, worst of all, by barge down the Mississippi, are even more alarming to an environmentalist. But what is so wrong about refining tar sands bitumen, all the way to marketable products in Alberta, or at least somewhere in Canada? Think of the loss of “value added”! I do not see the necessity to ramp up production of bitumen as the powers that be seem to believe.

Posted by roylance | Report as abusive
 

It’s difficult to understand why the environmentalists demonize Canada’s heavy oil while the US imports about 900,000 bbls/day of the same stuff from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and no one bats an eye. Is it really riskier to import oil in a brand new, state-of-the-art pipeline over dry land than shipping it in foreign flagged tankers of unknown provenance who carry it across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico? Is it prudent to reject Canada’s oil, and continue to depend on imports from Venezuela, Nigeria and Iraq? Does the US really want to incentivize Canada to ship its petroleum to Asia? If you google “Graphic: Pipelines of North America” you’ll see a map of all the petroleum pipelines on the continent. Including a half a dozen across Nebraska. Our continent is already criss-crossed with hundreds of petroleum pipelines. For those who worry over pipeline spills, should they not worry more about the pipelines that are 50 years old than the brand new ones? When you put it into context, the debate over the Keystone XL has clearly gone beyond the rational.

Posted by unclepie | Report as abusive
 

where the heck is my comment? I’ve posted it twice.

Posted by unclepie | Report as abusive
 

I don’t think it has been properly explained why we need the pipe line. Why can’t these oil companies build more refineries on the border. The answers I come too is that it is both cheaper for these oil companies to have taxpayers pay for this pipeline and it makes it easier for them to control the prices by leting them export this oil.

Posted by Lothiel | Report as abusive
 

The distance from the shale oil fields in Alberta to the coastline in British Columbia is over one thousand miles less than to the Texas Gulf. So, why the preference?

And, since America is expected to be a net exporter of oil within a few years, again why this pipleline through the United States to the ports of Texas?

Obviously, it’s not about satisfying the petroleum needs of the United States.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

Benefits of the Keystone pipeline to the USA: Many if not all of the odious political regimes in the world who gorge themselves on oil revenue, impoverish their own peoples, buy weapons they don’t need and cause mischief in many areas of the world will collapse if North America has 100% oil supply from its own resources.
The pipeline will cause lower oil prices, create high paying jobs on both sides of the border and kick the GDP of both countries up to a higher level.
Build the Keystone!

Posted by iceform | Report as abusive
 

This is a matter of Obama’s ties to Warren Buffett. If the pipeline isn’t built, Buffett stands to make huge profits hauling the oil with his Burlington Northern railroad. I can only assume this is his payback for backing Obama’s tax hikes on the rich.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive
 

Follow the money. Warren Buffett stands to make another fortune by transporting that oil with his Burlington Northern railroad. I can only assume that Obama is standing in the way of the pipeline to repay Buffett for helping get the taxes on the rich pushed through. The left will say blocking the pipeline is a win for the environment, but in reality, it’s just a win for crony capitalism.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive
 

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