Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The China Factor and the Keystone XL

Note: An alternate version of this post appeared in the Daily Kos "No Tar Sands" Blogathon as "Oil Companies Are Multinational But We Are Too" on August 19.

I mentioned to a colleague of mine this week that I’d be participating in the Keystone XL protest. While he was supportive, he didn’t think it would matter much in terms of global emissions since China would be all too happy to take that sweet sweet bitumen off our hands. The Washington Post editorial a few days ago echoes the sentiment:
Considering geography, exporting oil from Canada to a non-American market doesn’t sound easy; Canada’s tar sands are close to the U.S. border, but not much else. So we asked John Baird — Canada’s new foreign minister — which nations would buy oil that America decided not to take. His answer was quick and unequivocal: the Chinese. New pipeline infrastructure will transport oil between the tar sands and Canada’s west coast, from which tankers can ship it across the Pacific Ocean. And, even now, Chinese firms are buying stakes in Canadian tar sands.
So as the story goes, should we succeed in getting Obama to shut down Keystone XL, Canada would simply fire up other pipelines, notably the Northern Gateway. That pipeline would carry the oil from Alberta to Canada’s west coast and off into the sunset, prompting sorrowful oil-hungry Americans to shed tears at their loss (as if KXL would guarantee Americans sole access to the stuff anyway). Is our protest a pointless exercise then? I don’t think so:

First off, Michael Byer, a professor at the University of British Columbia wrote Tuesday that he spoke with a Singapore-based consultant and oil industry insider who suggested that any tar sand oil China buys from Canada would need to be sent to Gulf oil refineries anyway. That would be extra costly and Canada might not be willing to lower the price of the bitumen enough to make it attractive to Asian buyers. Okay, so this is hearsay, but interesting enough to raise doubts…

Secondly, the Northern Gateway has inspired its own dynamic protest movement (as, to a lesser extent, has the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion). Bill McKibben points out in his WaPo op-ed this week, the Northern Gateway is “tangled in litigation” and perhaps, by the time they get it sorted out, we’ll already be on the right clean energy track. TransCanada is also betting on Keystone XL and doesn’t have a good contingency plan should it fall through. He points to an article in The Globe and Mail that details industry hand-wringing over this basket of eggs.
For the oil patch, the possibility that the XL project will falter is so outside expectations that many haven’t even considered it. Indeed, companies have already signed up for the majority of its capacity. “None of us are really planning for that,” Devon Canada president Chris Seasons said.
But thirdly, and this is the most important point: we must stop the Keystone XL because the potential environmental damage is not isolated to the US. Our resolve expresses solidarity with those fighting similar battles in other places. Even if Canada decides to push ahead with the Northern Gateway, our protest should serve to embolden our global neighbors, to show them we stand with them. One of the most important things the environmental movement can do is show that our national affinities are less important than our shared planetary future. This is not about China vs. the US and who gets to have the oil in the end. It’s about sparking a movement that recognizes common humanity across borders. We have no other choice.

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