In fact, stopping the pipeline may cause increased carbon emissions. An oil pipeline is about the most energy-efficient transportation method among all commodities. Yes, it’s made to transport dirty Canadian tar sands oil. But if Keystone XL isn’t built, that same filthy oil is most likely going to get shipped to Asia instead, using even more carbon on the way. And the US will buy oil from elsewhere, some of it being the carbon-intensive heavy oil of Venezuela and Colombia. (And every complaint raised here about the tar sands is true in the lawless llanos of South America: carbon-intensive processing; huge water production and little control over water disposal; disputes with indigenous people and other local cultures; pipeline spills.) The US will get that fuel by ship, using more carbon per barrel to import it than if it were carried by pipeline.
The problem isn’t the transportation method of the oil. The problem is the oil. Cars kill everything: they run over people, birds, dogs, butterflies, you name it. Single-occupant cars obstruct social life and increase stress. Cars make mass transit less efficient and get in the way of bicycles. Meanwhile, they devour the bulk of the world’s liquid fuels and convert these long-buried plant molecules into carbon dioxide and smog. The problem, at heart, is cars. (Planes suck too, especially per passenger. My biggest contributions to the greenhouse effect are from my occasional plane trips.)
The story is in the news these days because environmentalists are counting on US President Barack Obama to stop the pipeline, while some are expecting him to let the pipe get built. Personally, I say he stops it. It’s become a cause celebre, and the main beneficiary is a Canadian company. It’s easier to stand up to those supposedly dirty Canucks than to stop the real climate villains in suburbia, those who fire up a one-occupant car every morning to commute to work.
What’s most frustrating about watching this fight from afar is that it is so similar to the drug war. Just as slowing the flow of cocaine from Colombia’s Caribbean coast has done nothing to reduce US drug addiction (the shipments moved to the Pacific, to Venezuela, and to Brazil), slowing the flow of oil from Alberta to Louisiana will do nothing to reduce US car addiction. And just as with the drug war, it’s easier to rant and rave about some foreign threat than to face the fact that the harms are ultimately caused by one’s own friends, clients, neighbors, family members, and self.
If you don’t want a hotter planet, stop driving cars, especially inefficient cars and those with just one or two occupants. Stop building parking lots. Don’t take plane trips, either. Convince the people you know to do the same. And don’t go start with some “we need structural change first.” Structures, such as new transit lines, get built to meet demand. You need to be that demand, rather than blocking the intersection and slowing down the few US bus lines that still exist.
On the other hand, if you want to feel good about yourself without making such a change, go ahead and worry about one pipeline or another. But don’t try and convince yourself you are stopping climate change.
PS: If you have either already made what personal changes you can, or you just prefer to stick to structures rather than personal choices, the infrastructure projects that are most important to halt are parking garages, regional malls, exurban office parks, and regional sprawl more generally. They are what induce driving. (Low-density suburban residential development can also make the list, but as I’ve seen here in Latin America, such development can coexist with good mass transit and a low-carbon lifestyle as long as there are little shops scattered through, neighborhood schools and nearby transit stops. Such things are verboten in the USA.)