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Michael Meeropol: Opposing The Keystone XL Pipeline Same As Imposing A Tax on Oil From Tar-Sands

Members of my family live in New York’s 18th  Congressional District.  Previously, I have criticized the former representative from this district, Republican Nan Hayworth.  Today I want to strongly criticize the Democrat who beat her, Sean Patrick Maloney.  Recently, he voted in support of building the last section of the Keystone Pipeline – a terrible vote in my opinion.

The proposed extension will run from the Alberta, Canada tar-sands through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico so that the crude oil refined from the tar-sands can be exported.

Right now Keystone runs to two distribution centers in the United States,  isolating this oil from the international market.  In the May 27, New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert notes that tar-sands oil is not the viscous liquid that gushes out of the ground when tapped.  It’s actually a solid that needs to be either mined or melted before it becomes useful crude.  Thus, it takes significantly more energy to extract oil from tar-sands throwing more Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere than does ordinary oil.

The article is entitled “Comment:  Lines in the Sand” and runs from page 23 to 24.   It includes the following description of the rising CO2 content of the earth’s atmosphere since measurements began on Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii:  “Carbon-dioxide levels have been monitored at the observatory ever since [1958] and they’ve exhibited a pattern that started out as terrifying and may be now described as terrifyingly predictable.  They have increased every year and earlier this month [May] they reached the milestone of four hundred parts per million.  No one knows exactly when CO2 levels were last this high:  the best guess if the mid-Pliocene, about three million years ago.  At that point, summertime temperatures in the Arctic were fourteen degrees warmer than they are now and sea levels were some seventy-five feet higher.”  In other words we may have already reached a point where nothing but disaster awaits our grandchildren.]

The problem of global warming is caused by the rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  This creates the greenhouse effect, not permitting some of the heat that the sun sends to earth to escape back into space.  This trapped heat is warming the earth with terrible consequences predicted for between 50 and 100 years from now.

Since the concentration of CO2 has reached such a high level already, even if emissions stopped today (an impossibility of course) it would take quite some time (perhaps centuries) for the concentrations that exist now to fall back to more “normal” levels – usually identified as 280 parts per million.  Thus, any effort to make it cheaper and easier to burn fossil fuels – such as subsidizing the export of Canadian tar-sands oil by building the last leg of Keystone  – will make the disasters facing our grandchildren all that more likely.

[By the way, it is important to note that the claim that constructing the pipeline will improve America’s “energy independence” is absurd on its face.  The already built section of the Keystone Pipeline terminates in the United States.  The extension of  the pipeline will facilitate the EXPORT of the Canadian oil, adding nothing to either Canadian or US “energy independence” and merely enriching the Canadian companies that mine the tar sands and the pipeline company that moves it.]

On the other hand, not extending the pipeline will make it more expensive to extract that oil.  If the Canadians want to export it, they will have to build a more expensive pipeline.  This is where economics comes in.  Economists have long advocated taxes on fossil fuels in order to force some of the true costs (the destructiveness to future civilization from global warming) onto today’s decision-makers in the market for energy.

Current energy prices seriously understate the social costs of burning fossil fuels but governments in thrall to the corporations who make large profits mining, refining and selling these products have been unwilling to put an appropriately high price on them through the imposition of a carbon tax.

As economist Dean Baker pointed out in a recent blog post – denying a permit to extend the Keystone Pipeline would have the same impact as a significant tax on tar-sands oil – it would raise its price.  [See Dean Baker:  “Blocking Keystone is Like a Carbon Tax:  http://720investor.com/2013/05/blocking-keystone-is-like-a-carbon-tax/]

Ultimately, the price of energy from fossil fuels must rise high enough to make alternative non-carbon producing sources of energy economically viable.  The sooner this happens, the sooner mother earth will slow its temperature rise and – we hope -- ultimately start to cool down.  Representative Maloney’s vote moves policy exactly in the wrong direction.

This generation’s inaction on global warming has already damaged our grand-childrens’ futures in ways that are only imaginable by novelists and playwrights.  No doubt they will curse us roundly for our failures.

If we take action now – any action – to raise the price of oil, they will take note of the few of us who stood up to the oil, gas and coal interests and their disgusting political enablers. 

Please write to President Obama and tell him to stop Keystone.  It will be a small step towards slowing global warming by raising the price of tar-sands oil.

Michael Meeropol is visiting professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author of Surrender, How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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