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An analysis from Reuters today explores the different paths that the Obama administration might take in approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
To recap: Keystone XL is a proposed pipeline that would carry up to 900,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to Texas. The vast majority of that oil would come from Alberta’s tar sands, which, because of the energy required to extract it, has a carbon footprint much higher than that of conventional crude oil.
At this point, TransCanada, the pipeline’s developer, is waiting on approval from the State Department for the project.
As Reuters points out, the Obama administration has to weigh the interests of Canada, our ally and neighbor, with the risk of generating animosity in the rest of the world for green-lighting a project that will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions (while it’s considered unseemly in this country to discuss “climate change” in polite company, the trend hasn’t caught on elsewhere).
Keystone XL seemed like a slam-dunk until a similar pipeline, owned by Enbridge, Inc., ruptured and spilled 800,000 gallons of oil into a Michigan river.
Since then, discussions of the project have largely revolved around the environmental impact of the pipeline itself. Nebraska has become a major battleground because of the pipeline’s route over a critical aquifer. Land use battles have popped up in other states, with one family in Oklahoma filing legal action over concerns that a foreign company is exercising eminent domain in the United States.
And last year, environmental group Plains Justice issued a report that outlined how many of the remote, rural counties along the pipeline’s route will be ill-equipped to handle a disaster.
Then a bunch of people in Egypt started protesting.
What does that have to do with Keystone XL?
One of the counterarguments to the environmental concerns is that the pipeline is vital for national security. With most of our oil coming from foreign countries that don’t like us, the thinking goes, why wouldn’t we want to import more oil from Canada?
Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee, told Politico on Sunday that the instability in Egypt “underscores our vulnerabilities and the need for American-made energy.”
“Now is not the time for policies that lock away our domestic oil and gas resources,” Upton added, calling for, among other things, to move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring Canadian oil to Texas.
Granted, Upton talks about “American-made” energy, and Canada is, according to my research, a foreign country. But that’s really a technicality in the national security framing. In an ad campaign last summer, Alberta’s government urged Americans to think of Canadians as “a good neighbor” who “lends you a cup of sugar” and “provides you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day.”
And let’s be honest – there are few countries on earth more politically stable than Canada. The only way you’re going to get 2 million Canadians marching in the street at once is if the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.
The weakness in the argument is that Keystone XL would only make a tiny dent in our oil imports. At its full capacity of 900,000 barrels, the pipeline could move the equivalent of about 4.7 percent of the oil that the U.S. consumes in a day.
That’s also, incidentally, only about one-fifth the amount of oil that moves through Egypt’s Suez Canal and SuMed pipeline in a day.
But whether or not the numbers make any sense, ultimately, it’s the narrative that will matter. And right now, with mass protests in the streets in Egypt and Jordan (as well as, you know, a couple of wars going on), it will be interesting to see if national security questions trump environmental ones as the State Department nears its decision.
Photo by DJorgensen via Creative Commons