Keystone XL and Fossil Fuel Dependence

by Fernando Garcia

On November 10th, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University gathered to discuss the Keystone XL Pipeline and fossil fuel dependence in a debate led by the two Energy and the Environment co-directors: Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal intended to extend a current pipeline that would transport 1.3 million barrels of tar sand oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Texas. The proposal had an estimated cost of $7 billion and was ultimately rejected by the State Department after years of protests and controversy.

The discussion began with an analysis of the pros and cons of the proposal. The extension of the pipeline would create 2000 short-term (one to two years) and 50 long-term jobs and would lower the cost of transporting tar sand oil, possibly leading to a worldwide drop in oil prices. It would also strengthen U.S.-Canadian economic and diplomatic relations. However, these benefits would come at a huge environmental cost, not only because of increased burning of fossil fuel but also due to the fact that the extension would pass over aquifers and endanger the welfare of surrounding ecosystems. Some members pointed out that the pipeline would also put nature at risk on certain Native American and First Nations reservations. Others discussed the fact that a justification for the expansion based on increased jobs is faulty because renewable energy development and maintenance has the potential to create a profitable industry with many new jobs, especially if given the necessary governmental support.

Another key question raised during the discussion was the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and whether or not declining the proposal to import Canadian oil would only further this dependence. Many argued that it is better to import oil from countries that are more respectful of human rights and have closer diplomatic ties to the United States such as Canada than to rely on oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia. Some members equated U.S. reliance on Saudi oil with direct support for the Saudi regime its widespread violation of human rights. Supporters of this view also argued that if the United States does not trade this oil with Canada, Canada will happily trade it with another nation, thereby leading to the burning of fossil fuel and environmental damage in any case.

The opposing view is that the United States as a global superpower has the clout necessary to influence other nations and set the precedent that fossil fuel energy is a thing of the past and that we as humans should now focus solely on renewable energy infrastructure for the sake of our very existence in the coming decades. By rejecting such fossil fuel infrastructure proposals and implementing other policies such as a carbon tax or expanding renewable energy subsidies, many argued, the United States can shift away from fossil fuel dependence and start building an infrastructure that is completely geared toward renewable energy sources. Many also argued that this has to be as much of a local effort as a national effort. States such as Arizona can focus on solar energy whereas windier states can focus on expanding wind energy infrastructure. By doing this, the United States can show the rest of the world that it is indeed possible to eventually let go of fossil fuels. This can be achieved in many ways: diplomatic influence, transnational agreements, economic partnerships, development and exporting of cheap renewable energy technology and other forms of soft power.

Despite having differing opinions on the recent decision by the State Department, all members of the Institute agreed that it was necessary to shift away from fossil fuels in favor of green energy sources. In other words, everyone acknowledged the impending consequences of climate change. This led to another point being raised: the fact that many members of the United States Congress publicly deny the very existence of global warming. The general opinion was that this is a deep-rooted problem that must be addressed before the U.S. quits dirty energy.