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Canada, oh Canada, will your tar-sands oil help or hurt US fuel objectives?

Tar Pit #3I just finished a recent Forbes article by Jude Clemente, “Canada is North America’s Great Oil Security Blanket.” Gosh, it’s good to know that Canada can supply 10 million barrels a day for the next 675 years. Just think of the biblical proportions of Canada’s reserves. Methuselah lived only 969 years! I feel safer already.

I am (fairly) comfortable that the French won’t take over Quebec and act out residual imperial desires and that the British won’t try to recapture their former colonies. So, sleep easy and leave a note in the morning to your children, their children and their children’s children, ad nauseam. Future generations of U.S. residents won’t have to worry about the definitions of peak oil or real oil shortages, and we will always have fossil fuel in our future. Our very valued friend to the north can and will produce whatever oil the U.S. requires for centuries.

Aren’t we lucky?! Our decedents will be able to depend on what the author calls “ethical Canadian oil.” Why? He argues that “Canada is a democracy and a free market sought by investors that desire less risk.” Wow…freedom to choose and capitalism; John Rawls and Adam Smith. I am crying with joy. But my emotional high lasts for only a few minutes.

Do we need to substitute Middle East imports for Canadian imports, even though Canada is a trusted ally? Are Canadian oil reserves a real, long-term, strategic benefit to the U.S. and are they ethical (a funny term used in the context of big oil’s historical behavior, speculation with respect to investment in oil and the perils of surface mining)? According to many analysts, oil from tar sands is among the most polluting and GHG emission causing oil in the ground. Aren’t you happy? In light of reserves, we can tether ourselves to fossil fuels for hundreds of years and a range of environmental problems, including, but not limited to, air pollution, landscape destruction, toxic water resulting from tailing ponds and excessive water use. Many scientists warn of increased rates of cancer and other diseases. While the tar sand industry, to its credit, has tried to limit the problems, according to the Scientific American article by David Biello, “tar sands may be among the least climate- [and health-] friendly oil produced at present.” By the way, conversion to gasoline will likely result in higher prices for the least advantaged among us, not exactly Rawlsian ethics.

We are in a difficult position, policy wise. Sure, we can establish long-term institutional relationships with Canada and its provinces that will assure U.S. on-demand access for Canadian oil sands. To do this would be comforting to vested interests and some leaders who still believe that oil is the key to America’s economic future. But business, academic, nonprofit, community as well as government leaders are increasingly searching for alternatives that will be better for the economy, the environment and national security. Weaning the U.S. off of oil, as the president has sought, will require, at least for the transportation sector, substituting a “drill, baby, drill” mentality for a strategy that includes increased use of alternative fuels, open fuel markets and flex-fuel vehicles.

Alternative fuels are not perfect, but for the most part, they are much better than gasoline in light of national energy and fuel objectives. Many replacement fuels, like natural gas and natural gas-based ethanol, cannot compete easily because of government regulations (e.g., RFS, etc.) and oil company efforts, despite large subsidies to limit their purchase by consumers (e.g., lobbying against open competitive markets, franchise agreements, price setting, etc.). Most alternatives appear to have sufficient reserves to provide the consumer with cheaper and better fuel than gasoline for a long time. For example, natural gas seems to have more than a proven 100-year supply, and that’s without further exploration.

The policy framework is easier to define than implement given America’s interest group politics. It would go something like this: As soon as they are ready for prime time and reflect competitive prices, design and miles per tank, increasing numbers of electric and perhaps hydrogen-fueled cars will appeal to a much wider band of U.S. consumers than they do now. The nation should support initiatives to improve marketability of both thorough research and development. Until then, the good or the better should not be frustrated by the perfect or an unreal idealization of the perfect. Please remember that even electric cars spew greenhouse gas emissions when they are powered by utilities that are fired up by coal, and that the most immediately available source of hydrogen-based fuel is natural gas. Currently, there are no defined predictable supply chains for hydrogen fuel. Perhaps, more important, neither electricity nor hydrogen fuel cells can be used in the 300,000,000 existing cars and their internal combustion engines.

So what’s a country to do, particularly one like the U.S., which is assumedly interested in reducing GHG emissions, protecting the environment, growing the economy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil? Paraphrasing, the poet Robert Frost, let’s take the road less traveled. Let’s develop and implement a strategic, alternative-fuels approach that incorporates expanding consumer choices regarding corn and natural gas-based ethanol, a range of bio fuels and more electric and hydrogen fuel cars. Let’s match alternative fuels with initiatives to increase Detroit’s production of new FFVs and the capacity (through software adjustments and conversion kits) for consumers to convert their existing cars to FFVs. To succeed, we should take a collective Alka-Seltzer and build a diverse strong fuels coalition that will encourage the U.S. to develop a comprehensive, alternative fuel strategy. The coalition, once formed, should place its bet on faith in the public interest and good analysis to gain citizen and congressional support. I bet the nation is ready for success — just remember how Linus of the famous Peanuts comic strip ultimately gave up his security blanket.

 

Photo Credit: http://priceofoil.org/

Obama, Congress draw battle lines on Keystone XL

On the same day two Republican senators introduced a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL oil-pipeline extension, the White House said President Obama would veto such a bill if it reached his desk.

“If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

Republicans took over control of the Senate as the 114th Congress was sworn in Tuesday. The GOP, and some Democrats, have supported the pipeline project for much of the past six years that it’s been in limbo, and the party wasted no time in sponsoring a bill to pressure the Obama administration to approve it: Sens. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota, introduced the Senate bill, and a committee hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

The House is expected to begin deliberations on its own Keystone bill on Friday.

The last time the House passed an authorization, in November, it was blocked from proceeding by Senate Democrats. But with fewer numbers, the measure has a greater chance of passing this time.

However, the Senate needs 67 votes — two-thirds — to override a presidential veto. As BusinessWeek reported, Hoeven says he has 63 votes in favor of approval, four shy of a veto-proof majority.

Reaction to the White House announcement ran the gamut. House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said in a statement:

On a bipartisan basis, the American people overwhelmingly support building the Keystone XL pipeline. After years of manufacturing every possible excuse, today President Obama was finally straight with them about where he truly stands. His answer is no to more American infrastructure, no to more American energy, and no to more American jobs.

By contrast, environmental activist Bill McKibben, writing in The Guardian, praised the effort that led to the veto threat, considering the pipeline once was considered a shoo-in for approval.

Keystone’s not dead yet – feckless Democrats in the Congress could make some kind of deal later this month or later this year, and the president could still yield down the road to the endlessly corrupt State Department bureaucracy that continues to push the pipeline – but it’s pretty amazing to see what happens when people organize.

The State Department has concluded that the 1,179-mile pipeline extension, which would carry oil-sands crude from western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, wouldn’t significantly add to carbon emissions, but the project would create only 35 permanent U.S. jobs.

Regardless of what happens between Congress and Obama, the final decision on Keystone rests with the State Department, which reports to the president. State has responsibility because the pipeline, to be built by TransCanada Corp., would cross the Canada-U.S. border.

The Post added:

“I think the president has been pretty clear that he does not think that circumventing a well-established process for evaluating these projects is … the right thing for Congress to do,” Earnest said.

Obama rejected a Canadian firm’s application to build the pipeline in 2012.

At a year-end news conference in December, Obama sought to downplay the benefits of the pipeline. He said the benefits for U.S. citizens and workers from the pipeline would be “nominal.”

“I think that there’s been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula to what ails the U.S. economy,” Obama said.

Naomi Klein: 4 reasons Keystone matters

Environmental writer and activist Naomi Klein writes in The Nation that the conventional wisdom, at least among supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, is that the project didn’t really matter. Even if it were scuttled, TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline extension from tar-sands oil in western Canada to Nebraska, would find another way to get the oil to market, either by way of another pipeline across Canada or by rail.

But opposition to the project has put pressure squarely on President Obama, Klein writes.

His decision is no longer about one pipeline. It’s about whether the US government will throw a lifeline to a climate-destabilizing industrial project that is under a confluence of pressures that add up to a very real crisis.

Klein, author of the new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, then outlines four ways in which the Keystone XL debate does, indeed matter.

Read it and tell us what you think.

Vox answers ‘9 questions about KXL you were too embarrassed to ask’

Great, informative piece by Vox.com about the Keystone XL pipeline, which the U.S. House approved yet again Friday.

The Vox post answers “9 questions about the Keystone XL pipeline you were too embarrassed to ask.”

There’s even music!

President Obama is described as possibly leaning toward skepticism about the project, saying in an ABC interview: “Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. It doesn’t have an impact on US gas prices.”

Is that true? As with many aspects of the KXL debate, it depends on whom you ask, and what data set you consult.

Here’s what an op-ed in the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune said in October:

Canada’s National Energy Board anticipates 15 Midwestern states will experience a 10 to 20 cent per gallon increase in gasoline prices if KXL is built. It would happen because an oversupply of Canadian crude now refined for U.S. domestic use will be diverted to KXL for export.