The hottest environmental trigger point in North America today isn’t the melting Arctic ice or the disappearing polar bear. It’s the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which, if it gets the go-ahead, will pipe bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands (or tar sands, depending on your point of view) to refineries in Texas.
Al Gore opposes it, of course, along with Bishop Desmond Tutu and The New York Times. Last month, a long list of environmental/Hollywood celebrities, including Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Margot Kidder, and Daryl Hannah, begged for the privilege of being arrested at protest demonstrations outside the White House. On Sept. 26, protesters will gather on Parliament Hill for another day of action.
Ms. Klein said she didn’t originally intend to get arrested. But the speeches she heard “from the people living downstream, who are dealing with having their land spoiled, who are dealing with outbreaks of disease and cancer, [were]just so moving that I really felt the need to stand with them in solidarity.”
The Keystone project has become a litmus test for Barack Obama’s environmental cred. He has the power to turn it down. But unlike the environmentalists, Mr. Obama has to live in the real world of hard choices. And the Keystone project is a job-creation machine at a time when the United States is desperate for them. It could create 20,000 direct new jobs as early as next year, and five times that number in indirect jobs.
The greens’ objections to the pipeline are a mishmash of reasonable questions and total fantasy. Does oil extracted from the oil/tar sands create more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional oil? Yes, but not by much. Could pipeline spills destroy the wildlife and the aquifers of the lands through which it passes? Highly unlikely. In fact, pipelines are the safest way of transporting oil, and are getting safer all the time. As for disease and cancer downstream, there’s not a shred of evidence for any link.
As the protesters readily admit, their real concern isn’t safety or health, or even environmental degradation. What they hate is oil itself. As Ms. Klein puts it, “We need to get off fossil fuels, period.” And no type of oil is more hateful than the gooey, sludgy stuff from Alberta. For environmentalists, the oil sands are a synonym for pure, unadulterated evil.
In the long run, Ms. Klein may well be right about the need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. In the short run, the U.S. needs 10 million barrels a day of imported oil, whether the greens like it or not. This energy will not be supplanted by wind power or solar power or any other type of green power any time soon. It has to come from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from Canada, it will come from Nigeria, Venezuela and other places with less stringent environmental standards and less friendly attitudes than Canada. And even if the protesters stop the pipeline from being built, the oil will come out of the ground anyway. Canada will just sell it to someone else.
The Keystone protesters believe they’re following in the footsteps of the civil-rights movement, when people broke the law in order to draw attention to the great injustices of slavery and segregation. If the pipeline project goes ahead, one activist warns, “we may see bodies before bulldozers on the western plains.” (Fortunately, unlike the civil-rights era protesters, who were beaten and sometimes shot, Ms. Klein and friends face nothing worse than a ride in an un-air-conditioned police van and a few hours in jail.)
For some, the moral stakes are even higher still. Writing in the Toronto Star this week, Stephen Scharper, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Toronto, suggests that the pipeline represents nothing less than an ecological Holocaust. “Significantly, at the Nuremberg trials following World War II, Nazi officials were hanged for not committing civil disobedience,” he wrote. “In future years … these protesters may well be remembered not as criminals, but as champions of a life-filled world.”
Why have the greens suffered defeat after defeat? Because, while they claim to be a political movement, they behave like a religious movement. They are driven by dogma. They have no regard for facts or proportion, and no larger sense of political realities. This time is no different. Barack Obama is dealing with the worst economy in a generation. And when the choice comes down to jobs and oil security versus purity of belief, it’s going to be no contest. Their champion is about to turn into an apostate.