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Environmentalists Made a Big Mistake by Focusing All Their Attention on Keystone

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Writing on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” former green-jobs czar Van Jones invoked Dr. King to justify the environmental movement's singular focus on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

If you want to understand why the pipeline—which, the State Department concluded last week, won't have much impact on carbon pollution—will likely go forward over the objections of environmentalists, and why no amount of marching and civil disobedience is likely to stop it, it is worth considering just how misplaced Jones' comparison is.

Imagine that after the "March on Washington" in 1963, the 300,000 or so participants all got on segregated buses for their return home. The equivalent is precisely what happens every time Keystone opponents climb into gas-powered vehicles after their D.C. protests. Whether the next destination is the hinterlands of Alberta, the gates of the White House, or the next stop on the lecture circuit, even the most hardened protesters depend upon petroleum-fueled transport because oil is the lifeblood of the American economy. And the basic political economy of oil, not the political power of fossil-fuel companies, is what keeps America’s pipelines and oil rigs humming, despite the high economic and environmental price that we pay.

It's true that we have weaned ourselves off oil before: After the energy crises of the 1970’s, the U.S. stopped using oil to generate electricity, but that was because coal, natural gas, and nuclear power were easy substitutes. Were similar substitutes available to replace oil for transportation, the political power of the fossil fuel industry would be no match for public outrage over $4-per-gallon gasoline.

The problem is that oil is a remarkable transportation fuel. It is energy-dense (just ten or fifteen gallons of the stuff in your tank will take you hundreds of miles) and easy to transport (a single pipeline can carry hundreds of thousands of barrels a day). If new pipelines aren’t available, rail cars or supertankers can be easily substituted with little technological or economic difficulty.

When gasoline prices rise, presidents respond. It doesn't matter that oil prices are set on the global market, or that oil from any particular oil patch, be it in Alaska, Alberta, or the Gulf Coast, is just a drop in the giant pool of global petroleum that sets the price. No politician worth his or her salt wants to end up on the wrong side of public anger over rising gas prices, and opposing major oil development—or a pipeline to carry that oil—in most cases is one sure way to end up there.

Neither protests and presidential promises in the United States, nor very high gas taxes in Europe, have appreciably reduced the dependence of modern economies on petroleum as a transportation fuel. Europe’s lower consumption of gasoline is almost entirely a function of greater population density allowing for shorter trips and more mass transit.

Electric and fuel-cell vehicles show great promise and merit billions in long-term public and private sector investment. It will take decades, though, before they significantly impact total oil consumption. And doing so will require not only that electric cars meet or exceed the performance of gasoline-powered vehicles at a price that the average American can pay, but also building an enormous electric charging infrastructure and roughly doubling the size of our current electrical system.

The leading lights of the Keystone opposition appear to have little patience for such pragmatic efforts. Writing in Rolling Stone last December, Bill McKibben accused President Barack Obama of offering empty words on climate change, describing Obama's efforts to develop better alternatives as akin to “eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's.” But it is not the president’s words that have proven empty. After leading the environmental movement on a two-year crusade against Keystone, McKibben half-acknowledged in that article that “the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline” had been a distraction.

By contrast, over the last five years, Obama has directed billions in public spending toward electric cars and battery technologies, bringing Detroit back from the dead while greening it in the process. These and other measures taken by the president have had far greater impact on emissions than the Keystone decision will ever have. U.S. emissions have fallen faster than those of any other nation in the world since Obama’s election. Yet his legacy, McKibben claimed, will have been to turn America into “a global-warming machine.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that Obama’s efforts have proven unsatisfying to his environmental critics. Once you get beyond the self-satisfied comparisons to Dr. King and other civil rights legends, many Keystone opponents turn out to dismiss or outright oppose just about every proven strategy to reduce emissions, whether it is public investments in electric vehicles, replacing coal with natural gas, or building new nuclear power plants.

Developing real alternatives to oil won’t happen quickly and will come at a significant cost. Electrifying the entire transport sector will require more investments in the years to come. And it will require hard work and the perseverance necessary to sustain such an effort.

Easier to give another sermon quoting Martin Luther King.

Correction: A previous version said that a single pipeline can carry hundreds of thousands of barrels a year. A pipeline can carry that much in a day.