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Chris Ladd

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Keystone as a Political Barometer

Posted: 01/17/12 12:52 PM ET

Oil is to progressives what Planned Parenthood is to fundamentalists. There's little point trying to discuss reasonable ways to use or develop it. When progressives hear the word "oil" all that comes to mind is the left wing equivalent of dead babies which is, of course, adorable birds rolled in crude. That's why the otherwise dull matter of the Keystone pipeline has devolved into a political stalemate. That stalemate in turn says a lot about our faltering politics.

In a country already crisscrossed by more than 200,000 miles of oil pipelines and deeply dependent on strategically dangerous energy sources, a new pipeline that will deliver abundant energy from our most reliable foreign partner seems like a non-issue.

Although the Obama administration has put the brakes on its development through the next election, the odds that the pipeline project will finally be blocked are almost zero. When the president has finished mollifying the professional left the project will almost certainly continue. Yet progressives are still foaming over the proposed Keystone XL project.

The left has two primary complaints about the pipeline, neither of which stands up to scrutiny. First, they are trying to paint the project as an unprecedented danger to the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. The aquifer is not particularly vulnerable to any sort of spill, even in the most outlandish scenarios. There are already oil pipelines over the aquifer, including a fully functioning section of the existing Keystone project which delivers oil all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma. Apart from the pipelines, vast amounts of oil are being stored or transported over this sensitive aquifer while you read this article.

Trucks, rail cars, storage facilities, even the notoriously leaky buried gas tanks at convenience stores are sitting on top of the aquifer. The concern over one additional pipeline with its accompanying bonds, safety features, and political attention is meaningless beside the activities which have proceeded there up to now with only minimal celebrity outrage.

The other concern is the project's carbon impact. As an example of the hyperbole driving this debate, NASA scientist James Hansen said the pipeline would be "game over" for controlling climate change and signed a letter referred to the project as a "carbon bomb."

According to the State Department's report, the highest estimates for the carbon output from this project would be equal to the development of 2-4 more coal-fired power plants. That's it. Hansen's overblown analysis assumes that the pipeline would lead to the exploitation of every molecule of tar sands, something that we could potentially do at full production by about the year 3316.

Even if the environmental concerns regarding the project could be taken seriously, the impact of the pipeline can't be evaluated without looking at its alternatives. This pipeline will not determine whether the Alberta oil sands are developed, it will only determine whether Americans reap any of the benefits.

It turns out there are other potential buyers of Canadian oil and they might be just a tad less likely than the Obama administration to influenced by the scientific concerns of Robert Redford. If the U.S. does not get less expensive oil from Canada, where will Redford get the energy to ship the overpriced products in his Sundance catalog? You don't get much energy from burning kitsch. That power will continue to come from strategically dangerous sources like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia, or from ecological nightmares like the Niger Delta or the Ecuadorian rain forest.

The biggest obstacle to a sensible energy policy is the refusal of both sides to deal in realities. While Republican Presidential candidates are accusing scientists of perpetrating a hoax, like they did with that "evolution" thing, progressives are mired in their own quasi-religious delusions that treat any oil or coal-based energy as some sort of secular sin. The Keystone opposition is not about global warming. It's not about protecting the environment. The debate over Keystone is a barometer of how difficult it has become for Americans to address any political issue in a rational manner.

We need to come to terms with these three realities: Much more of our energy demand should be met through domestic, renewable sources. There is no new energy source on the horizon that will completely replace oil, gas or coal anytime soon. And if we're ever going to develop alternatives, we will need the benefit of secure, inexpensive sources of oil, gas, and coal for the realistic near term.

Once it becomes possible for a majority on both sides to agree on these things, we will be able to build an energy policy that can address our needs. Until then expect lots more competing blather about devious scientists and evil oil companies and not much progress toward energy solutions.