Kimia Ghannad-Zadeh/THE VARSITY

Earlier this month, environmental activists cheered Obama’s decision to reject the hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline project. U of T’s 350 branch, for example, called the move a “historic victory” that “is a reflection of the courage of thousands of people who stood up to fight this project.” They even set up a system by which people could send President Obama a “thank you” card.

This victory in the name of environmental concerns, however, is suspect at best. The total US demand for oil is unlikely to change, meaning that one of two alternative, less carbon efficient schemes will likely occur. In the first scenario, the US will reduce oil imports from Canada, and turn to Venezuela — this would, in effect, actually increase carbon emissions from refineries in the US. The additional pipeline capacity provided by Keystone XL is unlikely to displace the lowest-cost conventional crude, but may have an impact on the last marginal barrel, which in the US comes from Venezuela. The comparison between carbon emissions from conventional crude and heavy crude are moot.

Alternatively, production from new oil sands projects in Canada will simply be ferried to markets in the US by rail. According to analysis undertaken by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy regarding the Northern Gateway Project, transportation for oil shipped by rail produces carbon emissions three times higher than those shipped via pipeline. This is not to mention that, as the National Post has noted, “rail transportation is widely regarded as more dangerous than pipelines…[and] are not as regulated as pipelines.” In either case, the carbon intensity of US oil demand will not fall, and may very well increase — not a particularly laudable outcome for environmentalists. 

Granted, the controversy surrounding Keystone XL’s approval is also fundamentally related to land rights. Topics that are at the forefront of this debate include to what extenet one has the right to determine what infrastructure is built, both on their property and others’, as well as how to balance potential repercussions to individuals against society’s greater interests. Indeed, many news organizations were cloyed by images of farmers desperately attempting to protect their land from the nefarious toxic pipeline.

However, this is not a common experience among landowners on the Keystone XL route: many simply agreed to have the pipeline on their land and accepted payment from TransCanada. In fact, 91 per cent of landowners along the pipeline site in Nebraska have signed voluntary agreements in favour of the project. While people may point to the 9 per cent that have not agreed, it must be noted that if a society were to require that 100 per cent of landowners affected by a proposed infrastructure project agree to its construction, it is unlikely that any project would ever be completed. 

The same principle could be applied to Aboriginal land claims. Like any other identifiable group of people, indigenous people have a diverse set of opinions and as a result, the requirement of social license from Aboriginal groups should not require unanimity. I doubt that similar land claims protesting a transmission line providing green energy to the masses would elicit the same public support.

Furthermore, there has been broad societal buy-in for other similar projects in the United States — pipelines totalling multiple times the magnitude of the Keystone project have been built since 2010 with little protest. It is thus puzzling, at best, why activists have created such a fuss over Keystone.

Assuredly, some activists on our campus would like to see the end to projects outside their backyard, such as Energy East and Northern Gateway, in order to choke off the Alberta Oil sands. However, this loses track of the real issues at hand. Especially with the COP21 conference looming, it is important we concentrate on tangible, practical solutions, such as carbon pricing. If we want to make the world better, we need to base decisions on facts and not mere symbols. 

Matthew Pick is a fourth-year student at Innis College studying economics, mathematics and history.

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