Canadian Tar Sands: The Need To Move Away From The Second-Hand Car Salesman Logic

 This week the United States will decide whether it will build a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. The pipeline, which will cost 7 billion dollars, will ensure the transportation of oil gained from Canadian tar sands to the United States. Proponents emphasize the need of energy supplied by a friendly neighboring country instead of the hostile Middle East. Opponents see great risks to the environment and would prefer investing in renewable energy. A debate followed on PBS between pipeline proponent Robert Bryce and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

During the opening of the debate McKibben mentions that the tar sands protests have become the biggest act of civil disobedience in the environmental movement in a generation and quotes Jim Hansen (leading climate scientist of NASA, not Jim Henson creator of the Muppets) as saying that going ahead with tapping these unconventional energy sources would “essentially mean game-over for the climate”. After this Robert Bryce starts a pitch that can only be described as that of a car-salesman. Bryce says that he is in favour of “cheap, abundant and reliable energy”. Why? Because 45 million Americans live off food stamps and 9 million are unemployed. OK, maybe a second-hand car salesman even: let’s extract over 100 billion barrels of oil from the tar sands (of which he doesn’t say that they form the second largest pool of carbon on earth) so that we can supply the 45 million Americans that live off food stamps and the 9 million unemployed with cheap, abundant and reliable energy. Not only will people spend less money on fuelling their car and paying the electricity bill so that they don’t need food stamps any more, the pipeline and the availability of cheap energy will also create jobs for the American people! The second-hand car salesman logic: coming to a deal quickly, giving people something to benefit from in the short-term, but not feeling responsible for anything that happens after that. In other words: let’s build this pipeline now, use up this so-called abundant (!) energy, and let’s not acknowledge the fact that after all this the US will have the same amount of unemployed people having to use food stamps, if not more, and an environmental disaster to go with it. McKibben sets the record straight in response to Bryce’s food stamp argument, as he indicates that climate change has caused the price of food around the world to have gone up 80% due to droughts and floods.

Something that would be hilariously funny, if it weren’t so immensely sad, is that Bryce urges us to look at the numbers: although there have been climate meetings in Copenhagen and Cancun, global energy consumption has gone up 27% and global CO2 emissions have gone up 28,5%, and during the last decade American CO2 emissions have dropped by 1.7%. Whilst naming and shaming countries with developing economies where people have an increasing need for energy Bryce states that “the issue is not the US it’s the rest of the world” . Let break his logic down: although there has been a lot of talking on the subject, CO2 emissions globally have gone up, whilst the US has seen CO2 emissions drop by 1.7%, so the problem lies with the rest of the world. What Bryce does not mention is that the big polluting countries are the ones that have not committed to any climate resolutions during these meetings, essentially making them into nothing more than talks. In addition, the fact that the US CO2 emission has dropped by 1.7% does not mean that the US has not been one of the main polluters in the past and remains to be one up until this day. Bryce also implicitly argues that the same standards regarding CO2 emission apply to developing countries and countries that already have major economies, ignoring the fact that the developing countries, relative newcomers where it regards CO2 emission, from a historical perspective have a right to produce more CO2 emission whilst they are still developing. And of course, the statement that the problem lies with other countries and not the US is absurd: climate change is a global issue, borders will not protect you from floods, droughts and rising temperatures. Bryce illustrates his ‘border-thinking’ further by stating that over the last decade Mexico’s oil production has dropped by 600.000 barrels and Canada’s has risen by 600.000 barrels, pushing Mexico aside to greet Canada as America’s new best friend.

Bryce doesn’t leave it at the crooked logic described above, he states that “every energy source has its toll on the environment”. Of course, wind power is dangerous (if your name is Don Quichotte and your riding out towards the windmills), as is solar energy (using a higher SPF factor may combat any reflection from the panels) and geothermal energy (used in Iceland to power and heat 86% of all houses, their main CO2 emission however came from the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull). My personal favourite argument of Bryce in favour of the pipeline is the following though: “the premium for better lives for those living in energy poverty around the world is too great”. How about that? Countries like the US apparently have the ‘moral obligation’ to help those in ‘energy poverty’. I am sure the trade off between successfully harvesting your crop and watching a M*A*S*H rerun on an early 1990’s TV is going to cause better lives. You would not believe it if you would not have seen and heard it: getting all this oil from the tar sands is mostly for altruistic reasons.

Although it’s obvious that Obama finds himself in an immensely complex political field, he can indeed remind the world why there was so much excitement at the time of his election. Although the US State Department issued a report stating that it found that the pipeline project will cause no significant environmental problems, Obama has the ability to overrule the State Department and he does not have to go to Congress with his decision. Whilst being pressured by the protesters to decide not to construct the pipeline, he is also struggling with a low approval rate and he would provide ammunition to the GOP presidential candidates if he would give in to the environmental movement. Indeed, a strong case can be made of energy independency, and the argument that there are alternative ways of doing this that provide a sustainable solution for the climate whilst creating jobs in the process is easily made, but the necessary paradigm shift away from border-thinking and the fossil fuel based economy has to start somewhere. If Obama is not going to point in the right direction, who is?

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