Environmentalists Should Thank Fracking for Stopping Keystone XL
Last Friday, President Obama announced that he rejected the request from TransCanada to construct the 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, environmentalists have hailed the news as proof that their years of protesting have finally paid off. Looking at the recent turn of events from another angle, however, the president’s announcement is hardly surprising given the extent of the US oil boom.
There are 2.5 million miles of oil pipelines in the US, but Keystone XL has received the most attention. This started in 2011 when it became the symbol of the environmental movement after NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote that extracting Canadian tar sands would result in a “game over” climate scenario. That essay gave environmentalists the proof they needed to wage war on this piece of energy infrastructure. Led by Bill McKibben, outspoken environmentalist and founder of 350.org, environmentalists latched onto the pipeline as their symbol of everything that is wrong with oil production.
The anti-Keystone crusade spread throughout the country as the crux of the environmental movement. The pipeline served as an obvious target for activists, who amplified the controversy surrounding the project to pressure the White House directly. And, because Keystone XL’s route crossed an international border, it needed a presidential permit, making it a good target. So, after countless protests and congressional hearings, here we are almost five years later, with the pipeline having finally been put to a stop.
Canadian tar sands are extremely harmful to the environment; the process of extracting tar sands produces 17 percent more greenhouse gases than does conventional oil extraction. But, regardless of the pipeline’s construction, the oil will likely still be extracted and shipped through the US via existing pipelines. Can the defeat of the Keystone XL Pipeline, then, truly be lauded as a victory for environmentalists? At the same time, can the president’s rejection of the pipeline realistically be attributed to the efforts of environmental activists?
The US energy market has shifted drastically since the pipeline was first proposed, with oil and gas production now at an unprecedented high. The EIA predicts that the US will surpass Saudi Arabia as the top global producer of oil by 2020. Because of new hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology, the US is on track to become a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since 1949. Global oil prices crashed in mid-2014 with the help of rising US production. The oil sands on the other hand, have small profit margins and are incredibly costly to produce.
Despite the greenhouse gas emissions that the tar sands represent, Obama did not reject the pipeline because of environmentalist protests. Rather, the combination of increasing domestic oil production, low oil and gas prices, and high costs of tar sands extraction killed the pipeline. Environmentalists may have played a role in the process, but that role is not nearly as significant as they would like to think. Environmental activism may not keep the tar sands in the ground, but low oil prices certainly will.