Robert Bennett: Keystone: What difference does it make?

Published: Monday, March 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

 (Associated Press) (Associated Press)

My mother once told me of a heated argument that occurred in her social group that was ended by a woman whose father was acknowledged to be an expert on the subject. She said, “I’ll ask Daddy.” Later, when asked what “Daddy” had said, she replied, “He said, ‘What difference does it make?’ ”

That is a very good question. It often gets ignored when political ideology injects itself into analysis. A case in point is the battle being waged over the building of the Keystone Pipeline, an infrastructure project that would bring crude oil produced in Canada to distribution points in America. It’s big enough that it deserves close scrutiny and serious evaluation, but the groups fighting over it are pushing arguments that greatly exaggerate the difference it would make, whichever way the decision goes.

Start with the arguments opposing it. One is that the pipeline would be a “climate disaster” because it would bring “dirty” oil into the United States and thus increase the amount of greenhouse gasses being emitted here. True, if it were our only source of oil, but it clearly is not. The additional emissions generated by Canadian oil put through the pipeline would add only a small fraction of 1 percent to total annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s hardly a difference that matters.

Next comes the cry of “safety,” the claim that the pipeline will make a huge difference to the communities through which it would pass because of leaks and spills. That ignores the fact that the oil the pipeline would carry is now being transported to market by trains and trucks, which are more inclined to leaks and spills (while emitting more greenhouse gasses) than pipelines are. About 80 percent of America’s oil is currently moving safely around the country in pipelines, a fact that demonstrates safety is a non-issue here.

Finally, opponents say refusal to build the pipeline would make a big difference because it would slow if not eventually stop the use of tar sands as a source of oil. It won’t, because the Canadians are determined to keep doing it; if we don’t buy their tar sands oil, they’ll just sell it elsewhere.

On the other side, supporters of the pipeline are also guilty of overstatement. They claim it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but they’re guessing. The best estimate for direct jobs is about 20,000, 13,000 of them being construction jobs that will disappear once it’s done. That’s nice, but it won’t make much of a dent in the unemployment rate.

Another dubious claim is that the pipeline will lower oil prices in the U.S. and give us energy security. Oil prices are set by international political and economic conditions. Canada is already our largest foreign source for oil, so a new pipeline to America is unlikely to have much effect on what the Saudis, Mexicans or Venezuelans might do.

Michael Levi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, summarizes the debate in a way that chides both sides. He writes, “The fate of the Keystone XL pipeline will be of limited consequence to either long-term U.S. energy security or climate change (though its rejection will probably be ugly for U.S.-Canada relations). The Keystone decision ultimately became far more about symbolism than substance. It’s a shame that so much attention was diverted from things that matter more.”

These are the things I think matter: Canada is a stable source of oil. We are customers for oil. A pipeline is the most efficient way to transport oil. As for the ideological issues, “What difference do they make?”

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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