Brune and McKibben have been very clear about what they hope to accomplish. Oil companies have invested upward of $100 billion to extract the unconventional oil in the sands. A pipeline is the only way to export it. The Keystone pipeline is Canada’s Plan A. Plan B is a pipeline to British Columbia, which would get the oil to China. If the president blocks Keystone, and the First Nation tribes continue their staunch opposition to the western pipeline, then Canada will have the second largest oil reserves in the world — and no place to sell it. The assumption of the activists is that by choking off the supply of new oil sources like the tar sands, the U.S. — and maybe the world — will be forced to transition more quickly to green energy.
Can you see how backward this logic is? As Adam Brandt, an energy expert at Stanford University, pointed out to me recently, so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. “With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away,” he said. “Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?” The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate.