One of the advantages of age is that, if you have a functioning memory, listen to the sides of a battle over some issue or another, and realize that it’s virtually a repeat of a similar battle that took place long ago. I’ve seen this in the battles over “digital piracy,” which remarkably resemble the same battles that took place over the introduction of cassette tapes and videotapes. I’m seeing it now in the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline.
Let’s see. The oil industry wants to construct a long pipeline through environmentally sensitive areas to help exploit a find. There’s lots of promises about how they’re going to build it right, that it won’t cause serious problems. The oil will help this country by giving us a steady supply, moderating gasoline prices and making us less dependent on politically unstable overseas suppliers. Sound familiar? If you’re my age, it should. It’s a summary of all the arguments for the Alaska Pipeline.
Which, as it turned out, didn’t have the all the worst effects that environmentalists had feared. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have bad, in fact, some (Exxon Valdez) weren’t thought of by the environmental groups at the time. The pipeline company (British Petroleum) has had a record of poor maintenance and problem spills over the years its been running. What else? Very little of the oil piped across Alaska was actually ended up here in the U.S. Instead, it went to Asia. We’re still just as dependent on politically unstable foreign countries for oil.
Which is why I take the proponents’ arguments for the pipeline with a hefty grain of salt. The route is problematic, so much so that even non-liberal states like Nebraska are against it. It also helps to know that the “massive deposit” isn’t, as at least one oil company has said in commercials, “clean.” It isn’t even going to significantly reduce the price of oil. While today they refer to the “oil sands,” the original name better describes them: Tar sands. It’s bitumen, or as the oil industry refers to it “very heavy crude oil.” There’s a lot of it, but the reason it hasn’t been developed before is that it’s not cheap to make it usable. You have to use a lot of energy (steam or very hot water) to get it out. Then you have to modify it to create “synthetic crude” to enable you to pump it over a pipeline. It’s not until the price of oil rises over a certain point (which happened in 2003) that it’s remotely profitable to do it. It’s also been pointed out by by opponents that there is no guarantee that the oil coming through the pipeline will be used in this country. That’s quite true. It’s a matter of the “free markets” that conservatives love to tout, although they really don’t believe in it. We’re not “the only game in town,” there are a lot of countries who are using oil these days. They’re willing to pay for it as well, and the result is that if they offer a better price, they’re going to get it. Which means that no matter how much there is, it’s not going to reduce the price you pay at the pump.
So when I hear various politicians singing the praises of the pipeline, and various oil companies telling me why it’s a good thing in massive advertising campaigns, I keep thinking “Where I have I heard that before?” Oh yeah, back in the ’70’s. Which leads me to a different reaction than they want: “Stop bullshitting me.”