The Morality of Keystone XL Protests in Context: Why Dangerous, Expensive Oil is Best Left In the Ground


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NASA scientist and climate activist James Hansen has called the tar sands ‘climate game over.’ And it is easy to understand why. Alberta’s tar sands and other deposits like it around the world are the worst polluting form of oil on the planet. The bitumen burns very dirty and is the most carbon intensive fuel on Earth to extract. Currently, Canada uses about 8% of its entire natural gas supply just to push out 1.6 million barrels per day of the toxic stuff. And if greater and greater volumes of tar sands are produced, more and more of this gas supply will be used — before the oil refined from tar sands is even burned in a vehicle.

Some estimates even show that tar sands is as dirty as some forms of coal. So with an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable tar sands sitting under Alberta’s pristine arboreal forests, it is no wonder why James Hansen has called the exploitation of this dirty and expensive resource ‘climate game over.’


Oil Companies Push For Exploitation


(source: Vancouver Observer)

All that said, there remains an economic argument, no matter how morally flimsy, to be made for the exploitation of tar sands and its ongoing ecocide. And what it boils down to is simply this: oil company profits.

The supply of tar sands is very large. And, oil companies reason, if they can get tar sands oil to the international market, where prices have ranged between 100 and 120 dollars per barrel of crude oil, they can make a pretty decent return on their massive investments in exploiting Canada’s tar sands.

The centerpiece of such a push for exploitation is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Without such a pipeline in place, oil companies would be forced to ship tar sands via rail or truck in order to reach international markets. And such shipping would increase costs as much as 20 dollars per barrel, wiping out much of the profit potential for tar sands.

The reason is that the oil is very expensive to extract. All the mining, baking and crushing necessary to remove and process bitumen results in marginal costs for tar sands oil that are now higher, in some cases, than 95 dollars per barrel. In the North American market, where bidding for tar sands oil is about 60 dollars per barrel, a decent portion of the tar sands resource is too expensive to extract. So oil companies are desperate for a low cost means of transport — the Keystone XL pipeline– to bring their tar-oil the Gulf Coast where it can easily access international markets.

Now, should the pipeline go through, oil companies have a rational means to continue expanding dirty, dangerous, and expensive tar sands production indefinitely. If prices remain high — 100 to 120 dollars per barrel or more — tar sands production from Alberta could  rapidly increase over the coming decades. But, without the pipeline, many projects become uneconomical and would be put on hold or shut down indefinitely. And this would mean that a substantial portion of tar sands ends up remaining in the ground — where it can’t make any money for oil companies, and where it also can’t do further harm to the world’s climate.

Now oil companies are very attached to their profits, no matter how much harm such profits may ultimately cause. And the prospect of much of their potential future profits languishing in the ground beneath Alberta is not an appealing prospect for those already invested in tar sands. The result has been a major lobbying effort by oil companies for the US government to allow Keystone to go through. And, now, it appears that much of US government has been swayed to the oil industry’s way of thinking. In fact, without a broad and popular public protest against the pipeline, the project would, likely, have already been completed and the world shackled to yet another climatologically damaging energy resource.

In the final industry and government push to complete the pipeline, the Department of State has produced an inaccurate study in support of approving the pipeline, making the false claim that failure to approve the pipeline would have no impact on tar sands production. Even to the superficial observer, such claims should seem ludicrous, as the industry, itself, has stated in various reports that Keystone is necessary for increasing flows of tar sands oil. In fact, such a pipeline, as the oil companies intend, would pave the way for the production of ever-increasing volumes of the dirty and expensive Alberta oil. Instead, the misleading report seems to attempt to remove a rationale for public opposition to a pipeline that will, indeed, dramatically increase the delivery to market of dirty and climatologically harmful tar.

A Conflict for Our Age

We have entered an age of expensive, difficult to extract, highly polluting, and less useful oil. We have also entered an age of increasingly dangerous impacts from human caused climate change. Oil companies, whose goal it is to convince us to use every drop of crude they can extract will do everything in their power to increase the economic reach of expensive and dirty fuels, extending as far into the future as possible the lifespan of those fuels.

But for us to have much hope for a stable climate and a prosperous future, we must do all we can to ensure such dirty, expensive and climatologically harmful fuels remain in the ground. And so the effort to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline is a moral one. One in which we make the choice for responsibly working for greater access to sustainable energy sources and against fuels that will ultimately wreck our civilization’s future.

For even as the oil, gas and coal companies are struggling to access ever more expensive and harmful energy sources, they also seek to suppress the alternatives. Wind, solar, biofuels, rapidly increasing efficiency, and vehicle to grid technology all represent alternative choices to dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. And it is a replacement of fossil fuels with these new energy systems which must happen if we are to have a hope of economic prosperity without a combination of ever-worsening climate impacts and ever-increasing and more volatile energy prices.

So the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is a fight over which future we chose. On the one hand we have a new energy era reliant on the expansion of a fuel source that will do serious, ongoing harm to the climate. On the other a new beginning. One that turns away from the dirty fuel sources and seeks the energies of a new generation. Energy sources that will begin to enable the healing of our climate and the building of a truly sustainable and prosperous society. Not one shackled to the uncertainties of limited and climatologically harmful fuel supplies. But a future based on a solid foundation of predictable outcomes.

That’s what’s at stake here. Rational hope for dealing with the double challenges of climate change and resource depletion. Or a continuation down the path toward ruin. And anyone saying anything different is simply spreading misinformation.

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