11/18/2011 09:00 EST | Updated 01/18/2012 05:12 EST

Without Keystone, the "Tyranny of Oil" Reigns


The activists who rally constantly against the oil sands may think they've helped make the world a better place, now that U.S. President Barack Obama has turtled, in the face of their pressure, on the Keystone XL pipeline. They haven't. They've made it worse.

They made up claims, lacking scientific evidence, that the pipeline would be unsafe, risking spills in ecologically sensitive areas, whipping up unnecessary fear among farmers and landowners in Nebraska -- the same way they continue to panic residents living downstream from the oil sands production facilities.

Dr. John O' Connor and his enablers in the anti-oil sands lobby persist in telling the lie that there are elevated cancer rates in communities along the Athabasca, like Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, even though thorough study after thorough study has shown such claims to be utterly baseless. We have come to expect exaggerations and fabrications from anti-oil sands groups, but there is something deeply unethical about their reckless exploitation of innocent people's fears -- for their livelihoods and their lives -- in the selfish pursuit of a take-no-prisoners campaign against all fossil fuels.

Contrary to the fear mongering of professional agitators like Naomi Klein and enviro-chic celebrities like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the U.S. Department of State had ruled that Keystone XL -- which could have delivered more than a million barrels of secure, peaceful, ethical Canadian oil to U.S. markets every single day, displacing oil from belligerent countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia -- passed the environmental safety test. It would have "no significant impact" on the environment, studies found. More than that, though, the pipeline would have actually helped end the "tyranny of oil" that Barack Obama himself once warned about.

Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on Seinfeld, tried manipulating that warning -- the same way environmentalists have manipulated so many truths -- issued by Obama, during his 2008 election campaign. In a video for the activist group Tar Sands Action, she made it sound like he said that while railing against North American oil producers. He wasn't. He was lamenting the power that undemocratic and hostile regimes were able to leverage against the U.S. thanks to their oil resources.

"We must free ourselves from the tyranny of oil. The price of a barrel of oil is one of the most dangerous weapons in the world. Petrodollars pay for weapons that kill American troops and Israeli citizens," Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The way to a safer, more democratic world, he said, was for oil consumers to "stop bankrolling" totalitarian, hostile regimes. It goes without saying that he didn't mean Canada.

But anti-oil sands groups don't actually want that. They don't want safer oil. They don't want more stable oil. They don't want oil that enriches countries that stand up for human rights and women and minorities and democracy and peace. They want America off oil, period. And they'll pursue that at any cost. Daryl Hannah, another B-list celebrity who joined the anti-Keystone cause, warned that the pipeline would make America "slaves to fossil fuel dependency." That's like saying having a Taco Bell in your neighbourhood makes you a slave to chalupas. Applying words like "slaves" and "tyranny" to something as benign as the exchange of commodities between two democratic, peaceable trading partners is just part of the propaganda that extremists use to stigmatize the use of oil. All oil. Regardless of its source. But just because Canada wanted to open a new source of oil to Americans, doesn't mean that Americans would be forced to consume it.

What actually motivates Americans to be dependent on fossil fuels isn't the number of pipelines they have running their way. Without Keystone XL, they'll still get as much oil as they want, tankered in from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Kuwait. What keeps Americans using oil are the laws of economics and physics: there just isn't an alternative fuel that can power our cars, trucks, planes and ships as oil does. There are no solar powered 747s. Big rigs can't run on geothermal energy. They'll still be dependent on fossil fuels, they'll just be increasingly dependent on conflict oil.

That may not be what average Americans want, but it would appear to be exactly what the anti-oil lobby prefers. They actually want oil to remain as ethically dirty as possible. Giving American consumers the option of switching to a secure and stable supply of ethical Canadian oil -- which opinion polls show American citizens want more of -- would surely make them feel far less guilty about their oil dependency and far less likely to seek alternatives. Anti-oil sands activists may figure that the more unpalatable they can make oil consumption and the more dangerous they can make oil dependency seem -- by keeping Americans tied to the most atrocious and bellicose tyrants on the planet -- the sooner they'll convince their fellow Americans to give up oil altogether.

That's a naïve and perilous belief. The U.S. won't stop using oil any time in the near future. The widely respected energy economist Daniel Yergin recently told National Public Radio that "even [in] the most optimistic case, it's hard to see more than three per cent of the vehicles [in America] being electric by 2020." Any significant share of non-oil vehicles wouldn't occur till "2030 or beyond," Yergin said. Hydrocarbons today represent about 80 per cent of America's energy mix; in 20 years, Yergin predicts that share will drop only meagerly, to 75 per cent. In the real economy, where Yergin lives, the necessity of fossil fuels is real and durable. It can't be wished away by sit-ins at the White House and YouTube videos starring sitcom actresses.

If the anti-Keystone crowd thinks it can easily put an end to America's need for oil by blocking ethical sources and making the consumption of fossil fuels as unsavoury as possible, they're clearly very wrong. The unsavoury oil, from OPEC's conflict oil merchants, will keep coming. And the real tyranny of oil -- the one Obama once warned against in such stark terms -- will continue to reign.