After a decade in which the coal and oil lobbies have frustrated their efforts to put in place a cost-effective policy to slow climate change, environmental groups scored a win last week on a related, high visibility issue. Trouble is, their objective, halting the expansion of the Keystone pipeline system to bring more oil south from Canada, wasn’t worth the fight. Indeed, the primary lesson here seems to be that NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) trumps other environmental policy arguments (good and bad) in a dysfunctional Washington.
America is, of necessity, crisscrossed with pipelines that move crude and refined liquids from well to refinery to market. And for the most part, their construction hasn’t made waves because oil is relatively safe (far safer than natural gas) to transport. What really sets apart the proposed pipeline expansion, which would add a link between Canada and Gulf Coast refineries, is the source of the crude.
Canada is rapidly expanding production of oil from “tar sands,” which is available in great quantity in Alberta. There’s no free lunch here: the extraction process uses a lot of energy, thereby generating more carbon emissions than extraction from conventional oil fields. But Canada, which (unlike the United States) has a climate change policy in place, decided that the benefits exceed the societal costs. The closest market for the additional oil is to the south; hence the proposed pipeline expansion.
U.S. environmental groups, which failed to stop tar sands development, have redirected their efforts to blocking the lowest-cost way of moving the oil around. And with that in mind, they made common cause with residents of Nebraska who don’t want to be bothered with a pipeline. The White House, for its part, is eager to avoid further conflict with enviros, who are already alienated by its tepid support for climate change legislation and reluctance to toughen air quality standards. It’s not surprising, then, that the administration decided to take the path of least political resistance, putting the project on hold until the 2012 election is history.
This is being heralded as a great victory for environmentalists. It’s not clear what they’ve accomplished, though, apart from the psychological and financial lift of beating the pipeline lobbyists. The alleged risks to groundwater in Nebraska, now averted, were minimal. Moreover, Canada is almost certainly going to develop the tar sands anyway, if necessary spending a bit more to ship the product across the Pacific to energy-hungry Asia. Remember, too, that Americans aren’t going to conserve oil just because supplies from Canada are restricted. What doesn’t get pumped across the American Great Plains to refineries in the American south will thus be replaced by imports arriving on supertankers from Africa and South America – a far riskier way to move oil as well as one that increases CO2 emissions.
The broader message here is that, with a federal government badly weakened by partisanship and a public ever less inclined to defer to planners in Washington, the chances of productive compromises on controversial environmental issues is approaching zero. And that will leave all sorts of changes that many environmentalists really want – everything from the expansion of wind power to mandated increases in energy efficiency to a sensible solution to nuclear waste storage – in limbo. Not a message most of us want to hear.
(This post was also published on Forbes.com.)