Now that Barack Obama has kicked the Keystone project down the road, anti-pipeline activists are rejoicing. “This is what it means to change the conversation,” said Naomi Klein. “This is an amazing victory for our movement,” crowed Bill McKibben and his 350.org team.
In fact, the decision to re-review the pipeline route is an amazing victory for political expediency. By ensuring that nothing will happen until after the 2012 election, Mr. Obama buys himself a reprieve with the environmentalists. But nothing else will change. The U.S. will not consume a litre less of oil if Keystone is never built. It will simply buy the oil from somewhere else. Nor will this decision threaten the long-term future of the oil (oops, tar) sands. If the U.S. doesn’t buy our oil, the Chinese will.
Most of the anti-Keystone activists don’t want a better pipeline route. What they really want is no pipeline at all. Their goal is to replace dirty oil with clean renewables. But they face a double whammy – make that a triple whammy – of bad news. The first is economic. Renewables are simply too expensive, and fossil fuels are too cheap. Forget solar power – the world is in the middle of an old-fashioned coal rush. As climate delegates jet around the world to their endless conferences, coal use has expanded to supply nearly 30 per cent of the world’s energy. Over the next decade, global coal production is set to rise by another 35 per cent – partly because so many people have been scared off nuclear. “The cheapest, most abundant and dirtiest of all the fossil fuels is extending its grip on the world’s energy system,” writes the Guardian’s Fred Pearce, a fierce proponent of energy realism.
The second piece of bad news is that the world’s recoverable oil and gas reserves have exploded. Forget Peak Oil – we won’t be there any time soon. From Israel to the high Arctic, we keep finding more and more fossil fuel. And rapid progress in technology means we can get at it. We can drill deeper beneath the ocean floor than anyone ever dreamed. There may be 25 billion barrels of oil in the Alaskan Arctic alone. Across the U.S. and Europe, new technologies have opened up huge shale fields that used to be worthless. The greens will fight like hell. But national interests will win out. These new sources of oil and gas will dramatically increase energy independence, liberating the Western world from the grip of the Middle East and unreliable regimes like Russia. And they will create jobs, jobs, jobs in a job-starved age.
The third piece of bad news is green boondoggles, on a scale so vast that clean energy could be discredited forever. Solyndra, the solar company that collected $528-million in federal loans before it went bust, was just the start. When Mr. Obama’s administration expanded its clean-energy subsidies in 2009, the pigs stampeded to the trough. As The New York Times noted in a scorching investigative report, “a gold-rush mentality took over.” The government dispensed no less than $16-billion in loan guarantees, and it also guaranteed a windfall for the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, General Electric and Brookfield Asset Management, a Canadian firm that is building a heavily subsidized wind farm in New Hampshire. And as fat-cat investors count their money, ratepayers will be coughing up billions in extra electricity costs for decades to come.
Abundant fossil fuel, energy security within reach, green boondoggles on a massive scale – that’s the news Naomi Klein hopes you won’t hear. Because it’s all very, very bad for the conversation.