Should the Keystone XL pipeline project be permitted in the U.S.?
The proposed pipeline -- which would travel from Alberta's tar sands oil deposits to Gulf Coast refineries in the U.S. -- has drawn strong responses from individuals on both sides of a growing debate.
Supporters contend that the pipeline will create thousands of jobs and lower gas prices in the U.S. Opponents claim that the pipeline will carry oil which will contribute to climate change and a spill along the pipeline route could impact a large drinking and irrigation water source in Nebraska.
President Obama rejected TransCanada's permit for the Keystone XL in January, but his decision still leaves an opportunity for the company to reapply for permission to build the international pipeline.
In the first installment of our Change My Mind debate series, we challenge two leading voices in the debate to defend their views on the Keystone XL project.
His challenger is Canadian lawyer and author Ezra Levant. A columnist for Sun Media newspapers and a conservative commentator on the Sun News Network, Levant is also the author of 2010's "Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands."
Join the debate below, and see if Bill or Ezra change your mind.
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The Keystone XL pipeline project should be permitted in the U.S.
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Who makes the better argument?
One day scientists will invent a fuel source that is perfect in every way -- environmentally sustainable, affordable, practical -- so we can replace the imperfect fuels we use now, like oil. But that hasn't happened yet, and isn't likely to happen this week -- which is when most American families will need to fill up their cars with gas.
Until that fantasy fuel of the future is invented, we have a choice: ethical oil from Canada, or conflict oil from OPEC dictatorships. There really isn't a third option. Out of the top ten countries ranked by oil reserves, Canada is the only western, liberal democracy on the list. Gentle countries like Switzerland, or Belgium, or Holland -- the chocolate-making superpowers -- just don't have oil. It's us, or the world's terrorists and bullies.
Some professional lobbyists like James Hansen -- his day job is to work at NASA, but the bulk of his income comes from his green activism -- have demonized Canada's oilsands, and have called for their production to be stopped. That didn't work, so now he's calling for their pipelines to be blocked. He has yet to bring that same anti-Canada passion to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Anti-oilsands activism has made Hansen a celebrity millionaire. In an OPEC country, it would make him dead.
Which proves the point about Canadian oil. It burns the same in your gas tank as conflict oil does. It just harmed human rights, peace, workers and the environment less on its way to America than OPEC oil did.
The Keystone XL pipeline would bring about 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas. By coincidence, that's the same amount of oil that Venezuela currently ships to Texas. So it offers a very stark choice between ethical oil from a liberal, peace-loving democracy, or conflict oil from the bully of South America.
Hansen has said Keystone XL would be "game over for the planet" because of the carbon footprint of the oilsands. But, according to the Obama Administration's own well-to-wheels analysis of greenhouse gases, oilsands oil has a lower carbon footprint than Venezuelan oil -- some of the heaviest oil in the world.
It is true that oilsands oil has a trace amount more carbon dioxide per barrel than Saudi Arabian conflict oil. But would it really be "game over" for the planet?
Andrew Weaver doesn't think so. He's a lead author on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Weaver's a staunch climate change believer, but he just published a study in the scientific journal Nature that found the oil sands emit a statistically insignificant amount of greenhouse gas. If all 170 billion barrels of recoverable oilsands oil were burned up all at once, Weaver says it "would be almost undetectable at our significance level," his research found. That's not "game over." That's not even a "game changer." It's 0.03 degrees -- over 100 years.
"Coal presents a climate challenge 1500x [times] greater than that presented by the oil sands," Weaver found. Maybe it's politically easier for Americans like Hansen to criticize Canadian oil than U.S. coal-fired power plants.
Almost all the accusations by professional anti-oilsands lobbyists fall apart on inspection. They claim that oil sands developers are leveling Canada's Boreal forest, when, in fact, just one percent of one percent -- 0.01 percent -- of the forest's 1.4 billion acres is being mined for oil sands production, and all of that must be reclaimed after (and 61 square km already has been). They claim that the oil sands are polluting the air and water and causing cancers in nearby native communities, despite thorough investigations by health regulators and the Royal Society of Canada that have found no sign of unhealthy environmental contamination.
If the anti-oil sands lobbyists who pressured Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal really cared about carbon emissions, they'd have directed all their energy, all those months of lobbying, to campaigning against coal power instead. It's not only the far bigger carbon emitter - of real air pollution, not just carbon dioxide. And, unlike oil, it's actually one with feasible alternatives. We're already energizing power grids with nuclear power and gas (natural gas, for instance, produces half the emissions for the equivalent power output, compared to coal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and it's increasingly economically competitive with coal since there's now so much U.S. gas available).
What we don't have is a feasible alternative to oil. It's true that some electric vehicles have trickled onto the marketplace, but their impact can only be marginal: they're expensive, suffer limited range and require intensive charging periods of several hours. Electric motors, meanwhile, are useless for air travel and trucking. And we'll still rely on oil as an ingredient in thousands of products we use every day, from computers to aspirin. Daniel Yergin, the highly regarded, Pulitzer prize-winning energy analystsays that in "the most optimistic case, it's hard to see more than three percent of vehicles being electric by 2020."
Stopping Keystone XL won't stop the oil sands -- China is waiting eagerly to buy what American won't. If the oilsands will be produced anyways, why would America choose conflict oil instead?
Surveys tell us Americans want more ethically produced Canadian oil to displace the conflict oil from OPEC they've been forced to rely on for so long. Science tells us the oil sands are nothing like the catastrophe its enemies claim. Those trying to stop Keystone XL aren't achieving anything except keeping Americans dependent on OPEC's conflict oil.
This is a bad project in every dimension. Let's start in Alberta and move our way down the continent, around the globe, and out into the atmosphere.
- Because this low-grade oil won't flow out of the ground, oil companies have to mine it, creating an enormous scar. Though they've only gotten three percent of the oil so far, the toxic tailing ponds are already the largest on earth, holding more liquid than the reservoir behind China's Three Gorges Dam.
- This has damaged the land and lives of indigenous people -- cancer rates are up and traditional ways of life impossible. Hence, virtually every Native group on the continent opposes the pipeline. Here's a great young voice explaining what it's like.
- The toll goes beyond the human. Millions of acres of boreal forest are being wrecked or fragmented. The Canadian government plans to poison thousands of wolves in order to protect caribou populations decimated by the mining.
- Now oil companies are starting to use a new technique called in situ mining, which involves burning natural gas to inject steam underground to heat the tar sands and allow oil to flow. Obviously this is a double whammy for carbon emissions, making this is in carbon terms the "dirtiest oil on earth."
- The biggest unions in America, including the steelworkers and autoworkers, also supported President Obama's decision to deny the pipeline permit, arguing that because "addressing global climate change, establishing sustainable and secure energy sources, and creating and retaining safe and family-supportive jobs are keys to a positive future for our children and grandchildren. President Obama has acted wisely."
- The jobs that would be created by pipeline construction are nothing to sneer at, even if, like all construction jobs, they are temporary. But industry's initial estimates of how many jobs would be created proved to be ludicrously high; at best, 3000 jobs or so will be created for two years, and the permanent posts will number "in the hundreds." (The whole point of a pipeline, after all, is to remove the need for labor).
- In fact, despite the endless fibbing on jobs best described by Stephen Colbert, the one employment study not funded by big oil showed the project would actually kill as many jobs as it would create.
- The big winners would be folks like the Koch Brothers, who have a tar sands refinery. And they plan to spend their profits on projects like breaking unions.
- The pipeline would do nothing to enhance America's energy security, because its output is slated for export. In fact, one of the big beneficiaries would be the Saudi state oil company. Billions in taxpayer subsidies underwrite this folly, including the Saudi connection.
- The pipeline would do nothing to change world oil prices or reduce volatility in the face of global events like a crisis in Iran, because crude prices are set by world markets.
- But building Keystone would raise gas prices within the U.S., by eliminating a glut of oil in the Midwest. Who says? TransCanada, the pipeline builder, reported to the Canadian government that pipeline would let them charge Americans up to billion extra annually. For motorists in 15 mid-western states, that could mean an extra on every 20-gallon fill-up.
- The pipeline poses a clear danger to the states it crosses, because the "diluted bitumen" that will flow through it is abrasive and hard to handle. The much smaller precursor pipeline leaked 12 times in its first year of operation, one leak resulting in a 60-foot geyser of crude.
- When it spills, the tar sands oil is even harder to clean up than regular oil, as residents along the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone rivers have discovered.
- TransCanada has been using eminent domain to take land from ranchers and farmers, even without a permit to build the pipeline. That's ugly, and it has united property rights activists and environmentalists.
- If the oil the pipeline carries safely reaches Texas and is sent abroad to be burned, that combustion will increase global warming gases in the atmosphere. Altogether, the world's tar sands have enough carbon to increase temperatures more than half a degree Fahrenheit -- or half again as much as the planet has already warmed. If we keep burning unconventional energy like tar sands, it will be "game over for the climate" according to the NASA's James Hansen. Alberta's tar sands alone, if you could burn them all, would increase carbon concentrations in the atmosphere from 392 to 540 parts per million, far past any safe level.
- Everyone knows the biggest reason: the longer we stay addicted to dirty oil, the longer we delay the transition to the sun, the wind, and myriad other clean ways to power our lives. (Remember: Exxon can't meter the sun).
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The Keystone XL pipeline project should be permitted in the U.S.
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