By John Karoly,
Chicago, IL, USA
Arguments are raging back and forth between environmentalist, opponents of the Keystone pipeline, and industry, proponents of the construction of a pipeline to transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. gulf port refineries. Both groups are trying to pressure President Obama to do according to their wishes. The President, as we well know, is against the pipeline. He is against pollution and there is no doubt that tar sands mines are heavy polluters, not only to the atmosphere, but also at the mining sites. Nobody can be in favor of the consequences of open-pit mining of this size or of the ill effects it brings to the huge area where these mines are located. No one. I don't even believe those involved are in favor of it.
But the President of the United States has no control over Canadian mining operation. In fact, very few people outside of the Province of Alberta have. Alberta will not even listen to what is said in Ottawa if it is not in harmony with what the people of the Province want. Much less are they likely to listen to some environmentalist, say in California or some other U.S. State. President Obama can stop the building of the Keystone pipeline, but then many say: "So what?" Not building the pipeline would be bad for the Canadian firms who want to build the pipeline and it would do damage to employment in the U.S. as the workers who would have had jobs will not be able to enjoy the economic benefits. It will have some effect on refineries in the U.S. that are geared to process tar sands crude. It will, however, benefit the railroads that will fill in the gap and provide transportation of the Canadian crude. They will love this decision; it would mean business to replace the coal business lost since natural gas is replacing the use of coal (which makes me happy; I do not like coal!). But shipping crude by rail is more polluting than shipping by pipeline. So what is accomplished?
We cannot shut down the mining of crude oil at the tar sands. If the pipeline is not built through the U.S., it will be built to British Columbia and more likely to Alaska. What is lost by the failure to build the Keystone pipeline will be replaced by these other pipelines, by rail and by, low and behold, trucks. We cannot shut down the production of crude at the Alberta tar sands by picketing, pressuring our President or by boycotting. So long as we use fossil fuels, the Canadian tar sands production will survive and prosper. And here is the catch – if it prospers it cannot be shut down. No industry has ever been shut down (correct me if I am wrong) which has prospered. The road to shutdowns is unfeasible operation. The rest is noise.
Tar Sands Mine - Canada
We will use fossil fuels well beyond our lifetime. There is no way around it and we will need increasingly more of it while the world population is expanding and we have more and more cars on the road. There is no way around that kind of population and automobile expansion either. Alternate energy is a dream, nice projects in the laboratories of the world, and even if successful, such projects will require 40 years to create large-scale commercialization. Wind and solar power do not drive cars. We are trying with electric cars, but that is not a success story either, and we need to burn fossil fuels to generate the electricity. Sometime in the 22nd century perhaps we will find solutions to these problems.
We only have one effective tool in our hands to even the playing field, to help polluting projects be less desirable and to push the economic equation in favor of non-polluting, or more accurately, lesser polluting fuels. That is carbon taxation. We will not eliminate fossil fuels, we will only make our choices by way of free market economics – the less evil ones.
We could, of course, always cut down our driving, take public transportation or change our lifestyle. This may happen, but gradually, and the increase in people and car population will keep the demand higher than conservation can decrease our need for fossil fuels.
Carbon tax can keep a level playing field, pressure for conservation and ideally provide the funds for research and development. Carbon taxation is not a difficult or for that matter ambivalent task. It should probably be renamed as no one likes to pay taxes, even for a good reason. Maybe we could call it a "carbon offset program", or some such. It can be designed to count and price each carbon atom discharged into the atmosphere when producing a barrel of crude oil. The pricing could be set by international agreements and laws that would be identical in each country, and translated to the same exact cost per carbon atom. International experts could determine the amount of carbon discharged into the atmosphere by each process. Universities would eagerly undertake the task of determining exactly how much pollutant is discharged by each of these processes. There will be no room for misinterpretation if it is done with transparency.
Carbon tax, or call it whatever you choose, is supported by the President. No one needs to perform the dramatic act of chaining himself to the White House fence, although he will forgo the two-minutes of fame this offers. He could chain himself to the idea of a uniform, international, enforceable treatment of air pollution where a definitive cost is assigned to polluting. Once we have that in place, anyone can build whatever pipeline he wishes.