Friday, November 14, 2014

Profiles in Pointlessness - Keystone Edition

Or, we could just use a lot of trains
The political saga of the Keystone XL Pipeline has been a steady narrative of stupidity, pointless waste of resources and poorly chosen fights. I realize common sense does not regularly rear it's head in the political realm, but the entire debate is structured on a set of assumptions and contentions so badly informed, and so disingenuous that it calls to mind the worst of Tammany Hall or the Mississippi Democratic machine of the 1930s. When it comes to real debate, the Republicans long ago abandoned the field, mindlessly defending anything their energy company benefactors ordered them to do. When you have a political system as broadly and deeply corrupt as the modern US system, this should come as a surprise to no one. But the Democrats are feckless here too, torn between local and regional economic interests and national environmental policies.

But while the Republicans are predictable in their blatant corruption, there has to be some serious questions asked of the liberal environmentalists that are driving the resistance to Keystone. To wit: What are you hoping to accomplish? We know that the oil from the tar sands is dirtier in a toxic sense, dirtier in a pollution sense and dirtier in a carbon emissions sense. But let me ask a single question: If the pipeline is not build, how much Canadian tar sands oil would not be shipped? And the answer, of course, is zero. It would merely be shipped by rail to ports on the east and gulf coasts. One tanker car at a time, on poorly maintained track, every train and every car a potential toxic disaster.

So that's where we find ourselves. It was dumb to invest the Keystone XL Pipeline with the gravitas of the entire political environmental struggle, when a reasonable person might wonder if winning the battle meant losing the war. But now the Democrats find themselves in the minority in the Senate, and in yet another desperate and pointless political move around the Keystone pipeline, they now are letting their Louisiana Senate hopeful Mary Landrieu lead a vote to pass the pipeline. Without condition, without quid pro quo, without any horsetrading at all. In a doomed effort to save one seat in a Senate already lost.

Frankly - and ironically in the worst kind of rain-on-your-wedding-day fashion - the Keystone Pipeline is environmentally favorable when considered against shipping the same volume of tar sands oil by rail. Resistance to the pipeline only made sense to the extent it would limit the amount of oil that went to market - as soon as the answer to that question was 'zero', the pipeline made sense for every concerned party. But years of political leverage had been built up, and to just hand that over without extracting some consideration from the Republicans - food stamps, unemployment extensions, infrastructure investment, SOMETHING - reveals a Democratic party so inept, so unable to manage its caucus and its agenda that one can only wonder how they've won any arguments at all.

Now, there is some indication that President Obama will veto the bill approving construction of the Keystone Pipeline. And that would be precisely the right answer to this cobbled - together kindergarten strategy. Let 'the adult in the room' force some kind of concession out of a Republican caucus desperate to get the pipeline built.


  1. Things like the Keystone pipeline or ANWR drilling or spotted owls seem to take on a fetish--like symbolic significance in our partisan duels. It is true that dlbit not shipped by pipeline (cheap and massive) will be shipped by rail ( increasingly dangerous as more cars are added to freight trains--and potentially more hazardous as people are likely to be casualties in a train-based fossil fuel transport mishap. The Lac- Megantic disaster resulted in a spill of enormous proportions, into water also, in addition to resulting in numerous deaths and horrible property-destruction. Rail is a terrible way to transport fossil fuels, and trucks are worse. But pipelines can be pretty bad.

    I think what I'm getting at is, on general principles, schlepping dilbit is unsafe at any speed and blocking one method of transporting it is like a holding maneuver to just slow the industries' dirtiest bits until they can't work. It isn't 100% effective, but it part of a overall strategy to make fossil fuels disagreeable.