Canada’s Oil Will Get To Market

The Obama administration rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline yesterday, a project intended to move Canadian tar sands oil through the US to the Gulf of Mexico. While environmentalists jumped on the decision as a victory for the climate, it was not so much a green move by the White House as it was a reaction to a 60-day time limit imposed by Republicans on the decision. The president said he didn’t have enough time to properly consider the issue, and thus denied the permit.

While the pipeline is an important environmental issue to win, it serves as a better example for why the environment will not win in the long haul. Two things immediately happened in the wake of the decision:

  • The fossil fuel lobby pledged to redouble its efforts and immediately put alternative routes on the table, and Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, a Washington-based policy-analysis firm, wrote in a client note yesterday: “We regard realization of the XL project as more likely under a Republican Administration in 2013, but we don’t believe the project is necessarily dead even if President Obama returns in 2013 for another term.”
  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that his country would begin working to diversify its energy exports away from the US to Asia. Canada’s Resource Minister said that the “decision by the Obama administration underlines the importance of diversifying and expanding our markets, including the growing Asian market.”

In other words, regardless of whether or not the initial proposal for the pipeline eventually receives its permit or not, the oil will be processed, shipped, and burned by somebody somewhere. The global nature of the environmental challenge, and the unwillingness of any nation to give up growth for the nebulous goal of saving the planet, means that no policy-level changes will happen in time to avert the disasters that environmental scientists warn about. We will cause them.

China is the world’s largest coal producer. While Germany, the UK, and the US contributed the largest amount of carbon emissions to the atmosphere from history to now, China is assuming the lead and has no intention of slowing its economic progress for any green group anywhere. Meanwhile, the West isn’t slowing its use of fossil fuel, either. Actions on an individual level are meaningless against such policy momentum in the wrong direction. Recycle all you want and carpool every day for the rest of your life; an hour of modern fuel consumption in one major city anywhere will negate your efforts. An hour planetwide will negate the efforts of your entire city.

It’s time to move beyond offering absurd solutions along the lines of “50 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet” when policy is unchanging, even when it seems to be changing. It will not change in time, we will hit the wrong targets scientists warn about, and smart people need to prepare for that eventuality rather than harboring baseless hope for a change of direction.

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  1. Eric
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink


    Sorry to post again so quickly, but I want to point out something I’ve been noticing lately that is driving me nuts.

    The words “Policies”, ” environmental challenges”, or “climate proposals” do not equate to technical definitions in relation to cleaner vehicles or engineering efficiency valuations.

    Cars are currently (and will maintain in future versions) at max 30% efficient. When we increase efficiency on a combustion engine we also increase the maintenance interval time. This equates to Joe Smoe who works at Burger King for minimum wage to service his car for two hours in the morning just prior to his 60 MPG, 20 min commute to work. With gas at 3.50 per/gal this is unacceptable. He can own a 20 MPG car with 15 minutes of maintenance per month (I hope everybody checks there tire pressure monthly :).

    As gas prices increase dramatically in the U.S., I would expect to see 50/60/70 mpgs rolling off the line in the coming years. I also expect to see Americans putting in the work to sustain these cars… but again this takes a huge revolutionary change in the way we live our lives. Evolutionary changes (+/- 5 or so MPG per yr increase) will be the norm until the Have’s and and Have Nots switch places (or a bunch of tree huggers get engineering and physics degrees, raise money and start a car company… whichever comes first)

    Just my opinion, but thought I’d enjoy the comments I get from the “in” crowd.



  2. Eric
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    This article reminds me of the book Atlas Shrugged where the Colorado guy burns his oil fields and leaves the US due to the incompetence of politicians…

    Lets just hand China the keys to Fort Knox…whatever it may be protecting.

    It’s purely supply and demand.

  3. Posted January 24, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the reading suggestions. Your upcoming book sounds very interesting. I think you’d also find ‘Sea Sick: the Hidden Crisis in the Global Ocean’ by Alanna Mitchell very informative. (

  4. Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason,

    I fully agree with your assessment. Efforts to live in a greener way will always be grossly ineffectual in the face of our destructive impact on the planet. The momentum is too great. Unfortunately I also feel that nothing but one or a series of global shocks or catastrophes will permanently stop the destructive behavior and lead to a permanent change in our relationship to the planet. My fear is that it may then be too late.

    • Posted January 23, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      It’s a valid fear, without a doubt.

      I’m outlining a new annual guide I’m going to publish that assumes humanity will hit the environmental wall. No debate, no space for misinformation campaigns, just the assumption right upfront that we’re going in all the wrong directions and will keep going in them due to many factors. The book will then present an annual summary of key evidence of our still moving in the wrong directions, an updated timeline, and a fresh forecast of what will go wrong when.

      The point? To help smart people give up the inane hope that governments will make needed policy changes to prevent calamity, and begin preparing their families to survive the fallout to come. Consequences are arriving more quickly than even pessimists once thought. I think we’ll see severe impact in our lifetimes.

      For some convincing science on the subject of climate change, I suggest Storms Of My Grandchildren by climatologist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

      It’s heavy on science, but I think that helps in the credibility department.

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