The debate over extending an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico is getting more press. Actress Daryl Hannah was arrested  outside the White House last week along with 100 other folks protesting the pipeline, which certainly helped draw attention to the issue. Yesterday’s Star Tribune includes competing protest-inspired commentaries, one supporting  and the other opposing  the pipeline. The opposition writer, Kevin Redmon, is actually a protestor who saw fit to be arrested.
Redmon argues that the pipeline will expand Canadian oil production and, as a result, increase global greenhouse gas emissions and wreak havoc on our climate. This is because Canadian oil comes from oil sands and refining this oil emits more greenhouse gas emissions than oil pumped from a standard well.
However, Redmon has things backwards. Not approving the pipeline and, thereby, not using our region’s natural resources is what will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s true that refining this Canadian oil emits more greenhouse gases. But Redmon’s argument presumes that not building the pipeline will result in less Canadian oil production. But is that the likely consequence? Not at all. Canada will likely just find another oil-hungry buyer, such as China, and go on producing oil. And, undoubtedly, oil sourced to another buyer will result in higher greenhouse emissions than oil piped to the United States. There’ll be more emissions due to additional transportation and the end user will probably not burn it as efficiently as a U.S. user. Thus, not building the pipeline will very likely increase global greenhouse gas emissions.
Redmon does acknowledge this argument, but blithely dismisses it by claiming Canada’s First Nation communities might block a pipeline that could pump oil to tankers for worldwide distribution. There’s certainly strong opposition to this second pipeline, but it’s hard to imagine that a resource as valuable as Canadian oil sands is going to be left in the ground.
I’ll grant that if President Obama were to reject the pipeline, extraction of Canadian oil sands could be delayed. Environmentalists certainly have a strong track record when it comes to delaying things. But ultimately, the forces of world trade will bring Canadian oil to market.
Minnesota’s restrictions on coal power present a remarkably similar set of facts and consequences. Minnesota essentially bans the production and importation of coal from any new coal plant. But if Minnesota doesn’t burn the coal, someone else will. As I reported earlier  this year, U.S. coal exports are rising and most of the coal is heading to Asia. It’s just as easy to put Wyoming coal on a train headed to Minnesota as it is to put coal on a train headed for shipping terminals in Washington. Shipping coal to Washington for export will result in more greenhouse gas emissions just the same as exporting Canadian oil sands: The coal must be hauled farther and it will tend to be burned in less-efficient power plants.
It’s true that there are obstacles and certainly opposition to expanding Washington’s ports for coal exports. But as Josh Goodman reports  for Stateline, “There is no sign that the Washington State government will block construction of new port terminals to carry coal.” Thus, the coal that Minnesota might have burned—coal that would have kept electricity rates low—will indeed be exported for use in less-efficient locales.
One hopes Canadian oil is not forced down a similar export path.