This week President Obama is widely expected to veto a bill that would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands deposits, provides a convenient, tangible rallying point for the environmental movement. But without concerted political action around the world to limit carbon dioxide emissions and promote lower-carbon alternatives to oil, stopping the pipeline will have little or no impact on climate change.
Oil from the oil sands can actually be better for the environment than some of the heavy crude oil that it would replace, says Chris Knittel, an economist at MIT that ran an analysis of the impact Keystone would have on greenhouse gas emissions (see “Why It’s Fine That Obama Didn’t Mention Tar Sands”). Knittel also notes that, relative to the world oil market, the pipeline will transport a small amount of oil, having little impact on the market or total oil consumption.
It’s true that limiting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will require leaving large amounts of oil in the ground, and that the oil sands are a good place to start (“How Much Fossil Fuel Should Be Left in the Ground?”).
But stopping the pipeline won’t keep oil sands in the ground—it’s already being exported via other means, and more pipelines are likely to be built, if not through the United States.
David Keith, a professor of public policy and applied physics at Harvard warns that the Keystone fight may be a dangerous distraction, turning people’s attention away from the much harder task of orchestrating a large-scale shift away from transportation that uses fossil fuels. Keith writes:
I hope the Keystone permit is denied, because the strategic case for blocking huge capital investments in unconventional fuels is compelling. Yet I worry that the environmental movement has overinvested in a battle it seems unlikely to win—one whose tactics distract attention from the hard choices needed to decarbonize transportation and accelerate energy innovation (see “Dirty Distraction”).
In terms of climate change, Obama’s veto only matters if he can now use the Keystone issue as a bargaining chip to persuade Congress to approve some real action to make alternatives to oil attractive–hopefully by funding energy innovation and putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.