A Shortsighted Victory in Delaying the Keystone Pipeline
AFTER months of protests and more than a thousand arrests , environmental activists have succeeded in getting the United States government to indefinitely delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil-laden bitumen from Canada to the Gulf Coast. They are understandably jubilant, but their celebrations are shortsighted. The tactics and arguments that have won the day are ultimately as likely to retard clean energy development as they are to thwart dirty fuels.
The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.
Yet oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.
The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.
And those may be the easy cases. Zero-carbon nuclear power will ultimately require depositories for radioactive waste, but if the intense (and ultimately successful) backlash against the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada is any indication, local pushback is pretty much inevitable. If technologies that capture greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants can be successfully deployed, they’ll still need somewhere to store the carbon dioxide underground. Few people are likely to be enthusiastic about that happening in their backyards.
That leaves environmentalists with a real conundrum. For green groups, the shortest route to blocking fossil fuel development appears to be leveraging local opposition. Many will seek to turn this not only against the Canadian oil sands but against United States oil production and coal exports, too. At the same time, they will find themselves increasingly appealing to the federal government for help in overriding local opposition to wind farms, solar plants, long distance transmission lines and other critical pieces of zero-carbon infrastructure. These two endeavors will conflict.