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WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: ‘Is Keystone the Biggest Green Defeat Ever?’

The American Interest



Is Keystone the Biggest Green Defeat Ever?
The long-awaited State Department report on Keystone XL was released last Friday, and it confirmed what common sense already told us: building this pipeline won’t significantly affect emissions. The oil in Canada’s tar sands will make its way to market one way or another—whether by rail, truck, or some other pipeline. Given that, whether or not Keystone is built will have no bearing on the thing environmentalists are so upset about here, which is the actual extraction and consumption of the heavy Albertan crude.

This wasn’t a surprise decision. In fact, it was a confirmation of an earlier draft report that sketched a very similar picture. Michael Levi calls this final version a “stress test” of that earlier report. He further notes that for Keystone to make or break tar sands production would require an incredibly specific set of circumstances: the price of oil would need to hover above the breakeven price for tar sands production but below the price at which producers could profitably bring crude to market by rail or truck. So if President Obama intends to nix the project on green grounds, “he’ll need to thread a very small needle.”

In a speech on climate change this past June, Obama said he would permit Keystone “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” This latest report shows that the pipeline passes that test, and not only that—it’s the greenest option we have in this situation. Scientific American reports:

[T]he State Department finds in the new assessment that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is the most environmentally friendly option compared to other transportation alternatives, such as railroads and tanker ships. Despite the significant (and unique, due to the oil’s characteristics) risk of spills, a pipeline like Keystone XL is a safer, cheaper and more environmentally benign way of transporting oil, the assessment concludes.

For greens, this should be a gut check—though already we’re seeing that it isn’t. Erich Pich, president of Friends of the Earth, called the report a “farce,” saying that ”the oil industry…had a direct pipeline into the agency” and the findings were a result of “collusion between the State Department, oil industry and the Canadian government.” But the hard truth here is that when Obama approves Keystone—and he now has every reason to do so—the green movement will have been soundly defeated not by special interests or some perverse capitalist desire to desecrate the earth, but by a very simple set of facts.

The New York Times, perhaps seeing this coming, tried to argue last week that the environmentalists’ mobilization against Keystone has been a boon to the movement, regardless of the end outcome. But whatever machinery greens may have built up over the last few years, you can be sure that the same strategic incompetence that permeates the movement will be brought to bear on whatever unicorn hunt they turn to next. The environmental movement desperately needs leadership with at least an iota of understanding of how the world works.

Published on February 3, 2014 3:35 pm