Much has been written and argued about the proposed pipeline that would bring heavy crude oil made from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Forced by pressure from Republicans, President Obama had to make a decision to either allow the construction or to defer a decision until after the election. He chose the latter, saying it was to make more detailed environmental studies, but it is considered evident that his decision was heavily influenced by his desire to go along with his environmental political base. I believe that he made the wrong decision. Joe Nocera, a highly respected columnist at the NYTimes, gives cogent reasons why the pipeline should go ahead.
It’s true that crude oil production from the tar sands produces more greenhouse gases, but only about 6% more than lighter crudes. Many other heavy crudes also emit more carbon dioxide. It’s true that a certain amount of the refined tar sands-based oil will be re-exported from Gulf Coast refineries. That’s because other countries use more diesel fuel than we do, but we keep all the gasoline produced. Also, exports reduce our balance of trade deficit. So, these two arguments against the pipeline are in fact quite weak. So, another reason had to be found. Nocera was told by the “most reasoned Keystone opponent” he talked to that while bringing in the tar sands crude will not make much of a difference in U.S. greenhous gas emissions in the overall scheme of things, it is a place where environmentalists decided to “draw a line in the sand to try and help shift the U.S. in the direction of more renewable sources of energy”(sic). This does not really make sense to me. What is important is that for every barrel of Canadian oil we import, we back out a barrel of oil from the OPEC countries and send less dollars to countries that either don’t like us (e.g. Venezuela and, yes, Iraq) or keep the price of oil high (Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, etc).
The governor of Nebraska also opposed the pipeline, worried that a always possible spill will contaminate ground water where it passes close to an aquifer. This might require rerouting the pipeline in a few locations.
For the next 20-25 years, at least, we will primarily run our cars on gasoline. Hopefully, along the way, our car fleet will start to use less and less gasoline (higher MPG standards, hybrids, plug-ins, electric cars, vehicles running on natural gas, on fuel cells, etc). In the meantime, striving for energy independence is a more important goal than differentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions here while China continues to build polluting coal-fired power plants as they also try to figure out how to become less dependent on oil. In fact, if we don’t take the oil, Canada will likely pipeline the oil in question to the West Coast and export a lot of it to China. Is that how we achieve energy independence?
I wonder whether the president will reverse his decision, now that gasoline prices are expected to hit new highs later this year. The pipeline will not lower prices this year or next, but Obama’s position – which is hard to defend – will hurt him in November even when his environment-oriented base cheers his decision.