People against pipelines… for the win!

Yes we can!

Activists and ordinary people across the country claimed a victory yesterday as the Obama administration has postponed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, pending further reassessment of the economic benefits and untold environmental consequences.

In case, you’re wondering, this is kind of a big deal.

I’ll try to keep it short: Oil industry folks — and some construction companies looking for temporary jobs — were very excited about laying a long pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, to make extraction of crude oil found in Alberta tar sands easier. Their argument: This brings more oil from a friendly source to the U.S. and would create jobs in the United States.

Those claims are at best specious and they ignore the serious harm the world would get in the bargain.

Let’s start with the “friendly energy” concept. Oil is a global commodity; prices are determined largely by world demand. Lower prices in the U.S. are not due to some charity or good will from our suppliers.

And this wouldn’t somehow supply the U.S. better. Some have actually argued the opposite, that the pipeline would make the export of the oil to the world market even easier. Plus, independent resource economists who have looked seriously at the “dependence on foreign oil” argument generally agree that price shocks from unfriendly sources are almost always smoothed by increased supply from other sources. If a country that doesn’t like us withholds, the price might rise briefly and another country will invariably give in and fill supply.

(In case you’re wondering, Cananda at present is the biggest supplier of the U.S., but that doesn’t mean we get drastically lower prices because Canucks like us so. Our discounts at the pump are largely thanks to the awesome [sarcasm] subsidies our government offers oil companies.)

Then there’s the jobs question. The U.S. economy is hurting, certainly, and proponents say the pipeline would create somewhere around 20,000 jobs. Not 20,000 permanent jobs, mind you. About 13,000 of those are job-years in construction. So maybe 6,500 one year, 6,500 another. The remainder of 7,000 is an equally dubious proposition, as it refers to secondary supply chain effects, some of which are unlikely as materials are already purchased or sourced.

So, in reality, we get just a temporary bump and then it’s back to unemployment. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s not structural economic change that leads to lasting work or better standards of living. We need a true green employment revolution, in public transport, eco-friendly energy, clean (slow) food, retooling our infrastructure across the country.

And we need an ethical change that decouples happiness and standards of living from over-consumptive growth dependent on materials (in this case, carbon).

In short, more love and bikes.

Meanwhile, the tar sands crude extraction process rips holes in the earth that are visible from space. This is the less-than-easily accessible oil; extraction is itself more energy and input intense, creating vast lakes of toxic water and vast swaths of razed forest. Due to the nature of this oil, using tar sands crude releases drastically more carbon dioxide, our not-so-friendly climate change gas. This quote has been over used, but it is worth repeating: NASA’s top climatologist, a guy who isn’t exactly political while he studies the atmosphere and space and the like, called the pipeline and full exploitation of these tar sands “game over.”

Speaking of climate change, this pipeline would have the added benefit of committing the U.S. and the world that much more to a carbon economy. It would only strengthen our “path dependency,” making structural change more difficult. Make no mistake, climate change is real and we will have to adapt to it. Despite the tirades of deniers in the U.S., we will be weaned of carbon one day; the question is whether that transition is orderly and comfortable sooner or chaotic and painful later.

That’s why 1,253 people were arrested, myself included, outside the White House gates this summer in protest. That’s why thousands of people across the country raised a ruckus. That’s why Obama was birddogged by reporters protesters on various circuits this autumn. That’s why Canadian embassies across the world were the targets of demonstrations. That’s why 10,000 or so folks literally joined arms last weekend in a human chain around the White House (I lost my voice shouting).

And let’s be clear, this was not a coalition of fringe hippies. I met students, retirees, labor, hunters, farmers, preachers, professors, lawyers, truckers and everyone in between. I was arrested with people from Vermont, Nebraska, Illinois, Puerto Rico and Canada.

To reiterate, this decision to reevaluate the pipeline is certainly a big win. Cynics will say it only punts the question until after the 2012 election, but it also likely dooms the project.

And, more importantly, it doesn’t send us careening us down the path to ever more environmental harm.

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