War on tar sands

The reaction by Bill McKibben and others in the environmental movement to the hiatus on the Keystone pipeline project was premature and, frankly, misguided. I’m thinking Nancy Reagan, “Just say no” misguided.

Delaying the project will not keep the oil in the ground in Fort McMurray. The developer has already released plans to reroute the line around certain parts of the Ogalalla aquifer in Nebraska. If an American route is eventually blocked, the oil will be pumped somewhere — likely through the Rockies to the West Coast port of Prince Rupert, then carried on tankers to China, going en route past Haida Gwaii (pictured), a UNESCO World Heritage site, which will presumably be OK because it’s not Nebraska.

More likely, Canada could simply keep the tar sands oil and burn it domestically.

Anybody who thinks otherwise clearly hasn’t been paying attention to Alberta politics for the last 30 or 40 years; this is a province that elected a premier whose most famous moment before his successful campaign was saying “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark,” when the federal government tried taxing oil production (a provincial prerogative).

The key lesson from watching Alberta is that the province as a whole understands energy independence in a way that the northeastern US hasn’t even begun to come to grips with. Canada has been a provider of raw materials throughout its history, from supplying beaver pelts for London’s infatuation with tall hats to shipping everything that would float to England during WWII to supplying most of the wood to build America’s houses and much of the oil to heat them.

Periodically, the end users have shut off the market — usually through protectionist tariffs — causing havoc in whatever resource industry they target. Softwood, beginning in the early 1980s, for instance.

Alberta understands that oil is different and will continue to be … right up until cold fusion works, at which point it’s back to peddling lumber, wheat and postcards to the tourists driving through on the way to Alaska. Albertans also understand that the tar sands are an environmental disaster, but on the other hand, all energy has environmental costs (solar, for instance, is charged with harming southwestern desert habitat), and whoever is willing to pay that price will have a market for their product.

The current environmental push to block tar sands oil reminds me of the war on drugs. Unable or unwilling to control domestic demand, opponents instead try to inhibit supply, which has the dual advantages of “othering” the problem and putting any collateral damage (like loss of income) in somebody else’s backyard. It hasn’t worked with the “Colombian” drug problem and it won’t work with Alberta’s oil, because they’re willing to call anybody’s bluff.

Until Vermont and Cape Cod decide to blanket themselves with wind towers, keep Vermont Yankee open and build nuke plants on Lake Champlain and the Charles River, Albertans rest easy in the knowledge that sooner or later (generally sooner), somebody is going to want their oil bad enough to pay the going rate. As long as that rate is upwards of $100 per barrel, there’s plenty of work in the oil patch — be it traditional wellheads, in the tar sands or fracking shale in Pennsylvania.


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