Greg Rickford, Canada’s minister of natural resources, was in the United States most of this past week on a trip that didn’t get much attention in the media with so much bigger news swirling about. So let’s bring you up to speed.
Rickford spent the first two days of his trip in Washington, where of course debate over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is under way in earnest in the new Republican-led Senate. The Republican-led House, meanwhile, has already passed a bill giving the go-ahead to the pipeline, which, if it’s ever built, will transport heavy crude from the tar sands of Alberta to U.S. refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any such bill, should one land on his desk.
In Washington, Rickford met with his Obama administration counterpart, Ernest Moniz, the secretary of energy. Although the Keystone pipeline was not on the agenda, the two men talked about it anyway. Rickford paid a visit to Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, who strongly supports the Keystone pipeline. (In addition to the Alberta crude, the pipeline would transport shale oil from North Dakota.)
He met with State Department officials to get a Keystone update; because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, the department has to do a review, which it has done several times, always coming down in favor of the project.
In several speeches, Rickford talked up the close energy relationship between the United States and Canada, noting that Canada sends 3 million barrels per day to America — more than Venezuela and Saudi Arabia combined. He mentioned Canada’s new pipeline safety law. He said he thought the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved, which is essentially what Canadian officials have been saying for the past six years.
Then Wednesday, Rickford went to Texas for two days. This is the part of his trip that really caught my attention. His main focus in Texas was on two new Canadian-controlled pipelines that became operational in mid-December. One is called the Flanagan South pipeline, which cost $2.8 billion. It covers nearly 600 miles, from Pontiac, Ill., to Cushing, Okla. The other pipeline, called the Seaway Twin, runs an additional 500 miles, from Cushing to Freeport, Texas, where the refineries are. It cost $1.2 billion.
Guess where some of the oil that’s going to run through those pipelines is coming from? Yep — the tar sands of Alberta.
If you are wondering why the environmental community hasn’t been chaining itself to the White House fence to protest these two new pipelines, the way it has with Keystone, the answer is that neither of these pipelines crosses the Canadian border, so they don’t require the same complicated approval process that Keystone requires. (The Flanagan South line will connect with a pipeline that already crosses the border.)
More to the point, perhaps, they were never the symbol that the high-profile Keystone XL became, so that even the approvals they did require never aroused the same attention from environmentalists.
Yet, these new pipelines are going to be carrying some 200,000 barrels per day of the heavy crude mined from the tar sands. True, that is only a third of what the Keystone XL would be able to deliver, but it essentially helps double the amount of tar sands oil that can be exported to the United States. In addition, there will be expanded rail capacity for Alberta’s oil, which is a far more dangerous way to move it than a state-of-the-art pipeline.
The point is this: With or without Keystone, Canada’s tar sands oil is coming to the United States. One of the stated reasons that environmental activists wanted to prevent Keystone from being built was that doing so would force Canada to stop mining the oil. Without Keystone, it was said, Canada would have no means to export it. But that has never been a particularly plausible argument. Even before the opening of these two new pipelines, tar sands oil was coming to the United States, primarily by rail. Indeed, the only thing that can slow it down now is the rapid drop in the price of oil, which is likely to make expensive tar sands crude unprofitable.
Even as the Keystone debate reaches its current crescendo, all that is left, really, is the symbolism. The Republican right claims that Keystone will create jobs. It won’t, not to any significant degree. The Democratic left says that the oil Keystone will bring to the Gulf is so dirty, so carbon-laden, that it will wreak havoc on the climate. It won’t do that, either.
If Obama continues to oppose Keystone, he will do so knowing full well that he cannot stop the tar sands oil in any meaningful way.
NORM ‘n’ AL Note: NOW YOU KNOW!
[by Joe Nocera, writing for The New York Times]
As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by
NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis