Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Trouble With TransCanada

Think of it as the circulatory system of the Alberta tar sands. The Keystone Pipeline System, which presently connects the petroleum town of Hardisty, Alberta with refineries in Illinois, is one of the main ways by which all that synthetic crude oil is shipped out of Snow Texas. It's been in the news recently thanks to dickering over the Keystone XL. This extension of the pipeline, in the works for the last few years, would run south to the United States Gulf Coast, where the oil could be refined and loaded directly onto tankers - much like how the Canadian government wants to ram the Northern Gateway Pipeline through the British Columbia upcountry, to be loaded onto tankers in Kitimat for shipment to China. The difference between the two is that since Keystone XL passes through the United States, it's the United States government that decides whether or not to let it pass.

After what seemed like an eternity of back and forth, with people in town halls speaking out for it or against it, environmentalists trying to raise the word against and the oil industry attempting to stack the debate in its favor with things like the "ethical oil" claim, the State Department yesterday denied TransCanada the necessary Presidential Permit to build the Keystone XL. Among its opponents, cheers and celebration all around.

TransCanada, of course, was ready for this contingency, and didn't waste much time in shooting back - though in this case "shooting back" takes the form doing pretty much the same thing they already did, since they're just re-applying for the permit. What really got me about this is the memetic angle they're using in their pursuit of the Keystone - though, to be honest, it's not really surprising in light of the "ethical oil" angle. In fact, according to them the Keystone XL is the democratic choice, because otherwise American oil will come from "countries who do not share democratic values Canadians and Americans are privileged to have."

TransCanada CEO Russ Girling put it bluntly, saying that "the U.S. will continue to import millions of barrels of conflict oil from the Middle East and Venezuela" without the pipeline - wait, WHAT? Did he seriously just utter the words "conflict oil" with what was presumably a straight face? I know exactly what he's trying to do here, draw a line connecting oil from the Mideast and Venezuela - in other words, current American rivals - with the conflict diamonds of Africa, mined in war zones and sold to finance wars or revolutions or insurgencies.

I found the sheer cheek in that statement to be despicable - how dare he? Sure, Saudi Arabia isn't exactly a hotbed of democracy and Hugo Chavez has spent the last thirteen years steering Venezuela onto a course that doesn't simply parallel the United States. Neither country is currently involved in a war or experiencing an armed insurrection. They just aren't assured providers, the way Canada is. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia can always take their balls and go home. Canada, thanks to the decisions of the last twenty-five years, lacks that option. Canada is trapped in an American orbit with insufficient delta-v to achieve escape velocity.

I wouldn't be as irritated about this, I suspect, if it wasn't so transparent on TransCanada's part. A society-wide push for "ethical products" would, if done correctly, do a lot of good for worker's conditions and the health of the North American economy; I mean, is it even possible anymore to buy something that wasn't made in some Pearl River Delta factory sweatshop, the sort of place where workers are threatening suicide over the conditions? For some things, like consumer electronics, it pretty much is impossible. Focusing just on "ethical oil" is a particularly narrow view, where "ethical" does not mean "the right thing to do" so much as it means "the right thing to do for those with an economic stake in the tar sands." The way I see it, an honest appraisal of ethical oil would include strong actions to minimize the use of it and switch over to other sources of fuel, because isn't it ethical to minimize the environmental impact we're going to leave our successors? Isn't it ethical to ensure that future generations have access to the same resource we did, so that they can get good things out of it as well?

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is vastly out of step with the modern world, "ethics" and all.

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