Controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline is emblematic of the challenges facing those confronting the problem of climate change.
About 35,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to call attention to the climate crisis and to urge President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to reject the pipeline. Because the pipeline would cross the border between the United States and Canada on its way from Alberta to Texas, it requires approval from the U.S. government.
Scientists and environmentalists, notably Bill McKibben of Ripton, say that the oil contained in the tar sands of Alberta is the largest deposit on earth after Saudi Arabia and that burning it would be “game over” for climate change. Ultimately, their position is that a huge reserve of Canadian oil ought to be left in the ground for the sake of the planet.
Vermonters have taken an interest in the tar sands issue, in part because oil companies may use a pipeline that already exists in northern Vermont to ship tar sands oil from Montreal to Portland, Maine. Environmentalists have raised concerns about possible spills, as they had in Nebraska in connection with the Keystone pipeline. The more fundamental case is that the tar sands oil should not be shipped anywhere at all.
Those making that case must confront some large numbers. Already the United States imports about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day from Canada — about twice as much as from Saudi Arabia. Supporters of the pipeline say that development of North American sources has major national security benefits. The Keystone pipeline would increase imports from Canada by about 700,000 barrels a day. That is about two-thirds the amount imported from Venezuela, another unreliable source.
Canada and the oil companies have a huge financial stake in the Alberta oil. So do labor unions. Oil production in Alberta accounts for about 75,000 jobs in Canada, and the pipeline would create about 30,000 jobs in the United States.
Against all the money connected to this project, those concerned about climate change have an argument. It is based on a long-range view of the planet and its prospects. Of course, the reality of climate change is not merely prospective; it is already upon us, causing billions of dollars of damage and dislocating people from Australia to Staten Island to the narrow mountain valleys of Vermont.
It has long been argued that one of the best ways to attack the climate problem is to impose a carbon tax — to make oil, gas and coal expensive enough that its use is discouraged and other sources are developed. Politically, this has been a hard sell. Few politicians relish the idea of going before voters and promising to raise the price of gasoline.
Another way to impose a carbon tax is to make the development of oil more difficult by putting roadblocks in the way of the fossil fuel business. Canada can be expected to proceed with its tar sands project, but those concerned about the climate can do what they can to make the sale and export of Canadian oil difficult. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration is interested in butting heads with the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but ultimately, people will have to take on the oil industry and its friends.
That’s why McKibben and others are supporting another initiative — urging the divestment of fossil fuel company stocks by institutional investors. The profitability of oil production must be reduced in order to curtail the continuing production of climate-changing emissions. That is the hard nut of the climate problem.
On Sunday protesters in Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles sought to send a message to Obama, who had raised hopes in his Inaugural Address that in his second term he would take climate change seriously. They were presenting the president with a stark choice and hoping he would make good on his promises. Tar sands oil is going to be developed. What the United States can do is to put an indirect carbon tax on the project by making life more difficult for Canada and the oil companies.
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