The (Oily) Road to Damascus

A few weeks ago, I offered a principled case for the Keystone XL pipeline project and its eventual approval by President Obama. I stand by those opinions – and as I explain here, recent Alberta political pronouncements elevate my views from so much environmentalist digital compost to pure gold. Realpolitik is rarely pretty. My bottom line suggestion that ‘hey, until America evolves beyond its fossil fuels fixation, oil’s gotta come from somewhere, so why not your friends?’ may at first seem an affront to any ‘principled case’ claims.

Like making sausage and policy - oil isn't pretty

Like making sausage and policy — oil isn’t pretty. Image: Lara Solt / Staff photographer of Dallas News

I call it counter-intuitive, Keystone and the foul Oil Sands properly cast as unlikely agents of change, a dependable non-renewable stopgap, until our energy emancipation. Caroline Selle called it a number of less flattering things in her passionate, counter-pointed response, a terrific article that should be featured in the global media bombing runs ordered up daily from anti-Keystone HQ. I have read, marked, learned…even inwardly digested (!), (as a true High Church dude must)[1], Caroline’s doctrinaire Keystone depiction as the latter-day environmentalist Rubicon. So I ask this – does Caroline provide a true rebuttal to my pitch, or are we really talking about what makes the best approach to an intractable problem?

Let’s look hard at our respective positions…. Caroline and I agree that (1) global warming and associated climate change are real, and getting worse (2) fossil fuel consumption jacks greenhouse gases into a finite, vulnerable atmosphere (3) these anthropomorphic impacts cannot possibly improve environmental quality (4) Oil Sands bitumen extraction and processing is more impactful and dangerous to surrounding ecosystems (by degree) than conventional petroleum industry methods (5) the sooner the global economy transitions to a renewable energy platform, the better.

Caroline and I differ on how best to get to ‘yes’.  I see Keystone in the same category as maintaining a huge, resource-rapacious military, or economic relations with cheerful, Gulf States human rights repressors that make zillions selling oil to a waiting world – necessary evils, that through principled, determined effort, are an eventual Cheshire Cat, where all that is left is a smile.

And right on cue, as the political rhetoric heats way past the boiling point along Pennsylvania Avenue, and principled billionaires arrange swell cocktail parties to chat up the wavering Prez on Keystone, Alberta does something brilliant. Not principled, the way I and Caroline might understand that term. The Oil Sands masters (and their Canadian federal government boyos who crave the oil royalty juice to balance the books, people) – they announce new environmental regulation standards that exceed all expectations. These may not cleanse the Oil Sands image, the environmental movements ultimate bête noire…but Alberta now make their own smart pitch to a cautious US president – we can change, we can make the Oil Sands cleaner, we wuz wrong….please approve the Big Pipe.

Good ideas come from anywhere, even desperate politicos who need Keystone worse than yours truly needs a makeover. And to Caroline, and her principled friends….some admitted ‘ifs’. If Alberta realizes that it must clean up its Oil Sands act to get Keystone approved, and if the previously resistant province smacks its petroleum industry barons into line, taking these small, however unprincipled steps on a cleaner road to Damascus, and if oil isn’t going anywhere for a while – don’t we both win?

[1] This old line comes from Ezekiel 2:8, the reading known to Canadian Anglicans, American Episcopalians, and the Church of England as the Advent ‘Second Reading’, Book of Common Prayer.


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