war over oil A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Image © Smulsky \ Fotolia.com

THE DEBATE about the Keystone XL pipeline has dragged on for more than five years now, and it is beginning to look like a petroleum-fuelled version of the Napoleonic Wars.

On one side, Big Oil and its revenue-hungry government allies want to maintain the Napoleonic status quo by expanding an aging and poorly regulated hydrocarbon infrastructure. It took 150 years to build this leaky petroleum empire, and its owners will not surrender any part of this network without a bitter fight. 

Having invested $200-billion in the tar sands over the last decade and billions more in shale oil extraction, Big Oil hopes to create new Asian markets for extreme hydrocarbons before the global community puts a real price on their sizeable carbon and water liabilities. Meanwhile, industry PR shills vow that the pipeline will bolster continental energy security – but that’s another dramatic rupture of the truth. 

Since 2005, US oil demand has dropped by two million barrels per day due to the ongoing financial crisis, new fuel standards and rising domestic production. This diminished demand for oil on the continent poses a problem for the petro-state of Canada, which plans to more than double bitumen production to six million barrels a day by 2035. 

Keystone proposes to repeat a telltale Canadian tragedy: exporting a raw good abroad so others can add value to it. Underutilized US coastal refineries owned by Big Oil or Saudi Arabia are already turning railcars filled with Canada’s heavy sour crude into gasoline and diesel for global sales. Not surprisingly, the export of US-refined oil products has increased 150 per cent since 2005.  

The ragtag army of North Americans who oppose the pipeline recognize that a bold “no” to Keystone XL could be an energy Waterloo. In fact, they hope a “no” could signal an end to the expansion of petroleum’s empire and the start of some sort of transition to a low-carbon society. And they’ve marshaled their forces to take on three issues that are pivotal to the decision-making process: climate change, the freedom to choose different energy futures, and abuse of power. 

Opponents regard pipelines as an aging 19th-century technology that is designed to carry fuel to energy starved places so communities can spend above their means. About half of the more than 4-million-kilometer pipeline network in the US was built in the 1950s and 60s. As this infrastructure ages and corrodes, the risk of catastrophic events increases, such as the $1-billion bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, in July 2010. Rather than fix or expand this network of dependencies (or its captive regulators), greens propose investments in more localized or cleaner sources of energy. They want choice. 

Next comes the carbon issue. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, lifecycle GHG emissions from tar sands crude are 81 per cent higher than conventional crude on a well-to-tank basis, and 17 per cent higher on a well-to-wheels basis. That means Keystone XL would deliver a carbon footprint that is 935 million metric tonnes greater than conventional oil over a 50-year period. Respect for the welfare of future generations means keeping this carbon in the ground and spending less energy.  

Abuse of power is also paramount here. Two of Canada’s largest pipeline companies, TransCanada and Enbridge, have furiously lobbied Ottawa to weaken the nation’s most important environmental laws, including the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act. Not only did Ottawa oblige, it also attacked greens, defunded climate change programs and muzzled scientists. No one voted for these changes. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has gone rogue for oil. 

So the battle lines have been drawn. Whether Keystone XL is approved or not, every new pipeline proposal on this continent will likely erupt into a battle about empire, choice and power.  

Want more from Andrew Nikiforuk? Read his column, The Energy Matrix, in every issue of A\J. Subscribe today for just $35.00.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, is the author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, looks at how human slavery has shaped our attitudes and values about energy. For more on Andrew visit his website at andrewnikiforuk.com


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