08/25/2011 10:54 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2011

Small Quakes, Big Impacts

Washington, DC -- By Japanese or California or New Zealand standards, the 5.9 earthquake that rolled through the East Coast on Tuesday was not a big seismic event. Even in a city like our nation's capital -- spectacularly unengineered for seismic risk -- damages were modest and fatalities and serious injuries nonexistent. But because it was unusual, the temblor drew tremendous attention. Many people initially assumed it was a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Schools here were closed today, and closer to the Virginia epicenter they will stay closed until Labor Day. The Washington Monument is closed.

Similarly, by the standards of the Arab Spring, the civil disobedience at the White House this week over the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was statistically tiny, with none of the brutality that faces protestors in Syria.

But I hope the Keystone protest will attract serious attention in the Obama White House -- this was the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement. More than 200 people have already been arrested; the number will keep growing -- perhaps into the thousands. The protest is around a project that, the more scrutiny it receives, the ranker its stench becomes. For most of the D.C. protestors, the biggest threat posed by the XL pipeline is the massive increase in production of tar sands oil that it would encourage -- an increase that is utterly incompatible with the official climate positions of both the Canadian and U.S. governments.

North of the border, in Canada, public outrage is more focused on the devastating local impact to communities and ecosystems, with much of Alberta being turned into a moonscape to fatten the profits of the Koch brothers, Valero, and other oil interests.

But the shoe that has not yet dropped in much of the U.S. heartland is that the entire campaign to get the Obama administration to approve Keystone XL is based on an enormous lie -- that even though the oil the pipeline ships is devastatingly dirty, and even though the pipeline itself poses a catastrophic risk to the Ogallala Aquifer over which it will pass, that at least it might increase America's access to "friendly, secure" Canadian tar sands oil.

Not true.

The reality is that if you want to deliver more gasoline and diesel to drivers in the Midwest and Great Plains, you don't build a pipeline to Texas -- you use the existing pipelines that run to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma. Why build to Texas? So you can refine on the Gulf Coast and export the resulting gasoline and diesel to Europe and South America. And why export? Because the Midwest and Great Plains already have as much tar sands crude as they need. In fact, oil in the American heartland has been selling for about $15.00/barrel less than the global price because of what oil companies privately describe as a "glut" of crude in the region.

But instead of pumping only as much oil as their American customers need, the companies want to increase volumes and raise prices to European levels -- simultaneously pumping more oil and making more money in the U.S. from the oil they are already pumping. They can only accomplish this trick by exporting more tar sands gasoline and diesel than the new supplies they bring in with the XL pipeline. Only by reducing U.S. access to tar sands oil (by selling more of it overseas) can they charge higher prices at home. Shell, one of Keystone's major customers, has just applied for permission to reverse a 300,000 barrel/day pipeline that currently carries oil from Louisiana to its Texas refineries -- it will now pump oil from the refineries to the Gulf Coast for export.

So here's the real proposition: Let Koch, Valero, and Shell use the U.S. as a transmission corridor to the Gulf. Threaten the Ogallala Aquifer. Expropriate the farms of thousands of landowners in the way. Refine the oil in Texas, and dump the resulting pollution into America's air and water. Then export the refined product to Europe and South America to increase Koch's profits. And, finally, siphon off a sufficient amount of product from the Midwest and Great Plains to allow you to raise gasoline prices in Illinois and Montana to more appropriate "European" levels. Result? A huge environmental threat to the U.S., and a major increase in the price of gas.

And the Obama administration is on the verge of approving this scandal as being in the "national interest." Let's hope the protests outside the White House draw closer scrutiny to what's really happening. This project stinks.