Build That Pipeline!

Reducing our dependence on oil will do far more to slow climate change than blocking the Keystone project

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Environmental groups are approaching this project much as the U.S. government fights the war on drugs. They are attacking supply rather than demand. In this case, environmentalists have chosen one particular source of energy--Alberta's tar sands--and are trying to shut it down. But as long as there is demand for oil, there will be supply. A far more effective solution would be to try to moderate demand by putting in place a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. Ideally we would use the proceeds to fund research on alternative energy. Washington spends $73 billion on research for defense, $31 billion on health care and just $3 billion on energy. Massive increases in research would make a difference. Targeting one Canadian oil field--or one pipeline company--will not.

Some in the environmental movement seem to recognize that the facts don't really support singling out Keystone, so they have turned to more intangible reasons to oppose it. Climate activist Bill McKibben argues that if Obama were to say no to Keystone, it would be a turning point: "He could finally say to the Chinese, 'We've done something significant. Your turn.'" Of all the arguments for blocking Keystone, this is surely the most naive. Is there a shred of evidence from the past 25 years that China would respond to this kind of unilateral concession by limiting its growth? How did Beijing respond to the Kyoto accords, under which European countries curbed their carbon emissions? By building a coal-fired power plant every week since then!

Opponents of Keystone say that the specifics are less important in this case and that it is the symbolism that matters. And it does. If we block this project--whose source is no worse than many others, rebuffing our closest trading partner and ally and spurning easily accessible energy in favor of Venezuelan or Saudi crude--it would be a symbol, and a depressing one at that. It would be a symbol of how emotion has taken the place of analysis and ideology now trumps science on both sides of the environmental debate.


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