The Washington Post editorial board has recently commented on the legitimacy of support for the Keystone XL Pipeline (A better case for Keystone XL ), but Sunday also released commentary about the limitations of KXL (What the Keystone pipeline won’t do). What the editors argue is energy security for the US is not going to come by way of the Keystone pipeline (they agree with Michale Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, Brad Plumer, and, in fact, the author of this article). But they still see the completion of the Keystone project as a wise move in terms of economic reality – and potentially environmental reality as well. The editors offer a complex recommendation for dealing with “the most important energy priority: climate change”, with rationale that seems contradictory at first glance.
The editors provide this conclusion as to why to go forward with KXL, in spite of acknowledging its limitations:
None of this argues against the Keystone XL pipeline or expanding domestic oil production. There are valuable economic benefits to both, starting with jobs. But policymakers shouldn’t pretend that increasing supply can deliver energy independence. Reducing consumption has far more promise.
It may seem particularly curious, in part because of what immediately precedes that conclusion, regarding environmental priority:
In fact, the best way to insulate Americans from oil-price volatility and other drawbacks of oil use would be to use less oil. The price would still move around, but it would matter less. Such an approach would also help achieve the most important energy priority: slowing climate change. [emphasis added]
There are sensible policies to promote this long-range goal. An economy-wide, anti-carbon policy, such as a carbon tax, would fit the bill. Short of that, the best policy would be a higher gasoline tax, which could also fund transportation needs. President Obama’s auto efficiency standards will also help. In contrast, direct subsidies for electric cars are extremely expensive for meager benefits.
There is a vagueness here, as the editors designate climate change as being the most important energy priority, but argue for something that some environmentalists view as ‘game over’ in regard to human actions impacting the climate. So what does this mean for the Washington Post?
If you’re an environmentalists who maintains the only way forward with climate progress is stopping fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Keystone Pipeline, the idea is ludicrous. It would be seen as ‘wanting to have your cake and eat it too’. The uncompromising environmentalist would say the line must be drawn here – Keystone XL should be an example, at least for the US, that the country does not want to further engage and promote that type of energy usage. If you’re an uncompromising economy-first advocate, the opposite is the case: we need jobs now, the environment can wait – and so can something as economically compromising as carbon taxes.
The Washington Post editorial board brings it’s rationale into the clear here:
[I]t demonstrates a critical point: Even if environmentalists manage to stop one pipeline or another, given high world oil prices, the enthusiastic support of the Canadian government, the many transport options and the years available to develop infrastructure, it’s beyond quixotic to believe that enough of the affordable paths out will be blocked.
This is to say, they believe it will be impossible to stop all routes to the production of oil coming from the tar sands; the global energy market has too much demand and pressure to exploit the resources will be too great (and too profitable for Canada to pass up). The editors take the position that climate change is a priority, but because of the economics surrounding this issue, an environmentalist’s victory on Keystone XL seems untenable and perhaps ineffectual. They seem to be advocating for a long-term solution for climate change, coming from a macro-level approach, ‘economy-wide, anti-carbon policy’. In short, the editors at the Washington Post take the stance of: someone is going to exploit the tar sands, it might as well be us – for the sake of the economic benefit. It will not help with energy independence; reducing overall oil consumption will. Climate change is real and significant, but the more tenable way to make progress is macro-scale policies, rather than protesting the development of Keystone XL.
I would add, as a supplement that is perhaps implied, that the editors are in one sense advising environmentalists to concentrate less on Keystone and more on policy and regulation, specifically federal policy. Perhaps, even, if the US does have carbon policy breakthroughs, it would be better in the long run to have the Keystone Pipeline developed within the US and under strong(er) regulation.
Of course, there is still plenty of room for debate. Whether or not you believe protestors will be able to -or ought to- stop all potential pipelines from exploiting the may be an ink-blot for telling your approach to politics. The Washington Post editorial board believes global energy demand will trump the influence of anti-Keystone activists in holding influence over government’s decision on KXL. Public opinion also holds significance; a March Gallup poll indicates a majority of Americans being in favor of the pipeline, while endless energy advertisements preceding the 2012 presidential election further politicizes energy discussion. As I have written before, I don’t see Keystone XL as a particularly significant element of US energy in and of itself, yet its symbolic nature and inherent implication for future energy infrastructure development is real, and that’s why it is a flashpoint at this time. To the victor go the spoils, and whatever group ‘wins’ the Keystone XL battle receives the prestige of highly visible victory of their interests.
One side of the story that remains untouched by the above commentary is the ground-zero situation in the state of Nebraska, where multiple routs for the completion of the Keystone project have been consided. Nebraskans have a particular interest in the issue because the state’s livelihood may be at stake, which is a different dimension to the pipeline debate; at the macro-level, Keystone represents national issues like ‘energy independence’, a recovering economy, and growing environmental concerns – all of which are even more complicated by the inherent trans-national connections they have (a global economy, a global energy market, and a global environmental interconnectedness). Yet micro-level of Nebraksa’s agricultural tradition remains, one which could be greatly impacted by contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer .
With a curious tension mounting between Canada and the US over the completion of the Keystone project, the situation remains complicated. President Barack Obama has stated the Gulf Coast portion of the pipeline was a priority for his administration, which could be a form of hedging his bet for the 2012 election. With continued inconclusiveness surrounding the Keystone pipeline, watching how these many factors play out will provide an insight at how the US is maneuvering to shapes its future.
For more of Jesse’s thoughts throughout the week and to see what news he’s following, you are invited to join the conversation via Twitter and Facebook. Visit INFLUENCE with Jesse Parent to view Case Studies, Reports, Commentary and more.
- NEWS: New Keystone XL Plan Still Finds Discontent in Nebraska (jpinfluence.com)
- COMMENT: Justified vetoing of transporation bill due to Keystone XL provision? (jpinfluence.com)
- Case for Keystone XL pipeline keeps growing (mysanantonio.com)
- May 4 News: TransCanada Could File New Route For Keystone XL As Soon As Friday (thinkprogress.org)
- A new application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline means a new review process (switchboard.nrdc.org)
- Retired Brigadier General says Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would feed “dangerous addiction” and do nothing to lower gas prices (switchboard.nrdc.org)
- Apparently, Beck Talks And They Listen: Buffett’s Support Signals Movement on Keystone Pipeline (tarpon.wordpress.com)
- Pipeline Politics (bangordailynews.com)
- Climate Reality | Stop Keystone XL (fourbluehills.com)