Biden’s Foolish Sabotage of the Keystone Pipeline

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The Editors
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Joe Biden has not yet been sworn in, but already, he is at war with American energy — which is to say, at war with American prosperity. Biden has promised to sabotage the Keystone XL pipeline, a privately financed, multi-billion-dollar project already under way, and “cancel it on his first day,” according to a briefing document cited by the BBC.

The Keystone pipeline would, if it were allowed to, carry crude from the oil sands of Alberta to Nebraska, where the pipeline would link up with the existing distribution network to send that oil on to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. This would benefit Canadian producers and their investors, American refineries and their large, excellently paid work forces — those good, high-paying, blue-collar jobs Biden talks about — and, most important, American consumers, who would have access to yet another source of fuel at attractive prices from a nearby friendly country. This sort of thing is the point of international economic cooperation.

The notional case against Keystone is environmental in the main part, and in the lesser part an issue of Indian lands and rights. The environmental case is unsound: Canada has ratified the Paris agreement and takes environmental issues relatively seriously. Innovation and technological improvements have substantially reduced the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with Canadian tar-sands productions — by 30 percent since the 1990s, as the Canadian government calculates. Of course, it matters relatively little whether a gallon of gasoline in the tank of a Cadillac Escalade in Houston is refined from Canadian tar-sands oil or from West Texas oil — the relevant emissions come overwhelmingly from the point of combustion.

Of course there are environmental challenges associated with the oil sands, as there are with any usable source of energy, including wind and solar. These are regulatory and practical challenges that are perfectly manageable. (Which is not the same thing as a guarantee that U.S. or Canadian authorities, or businesses, will manage them perfectly — that kind of oversight is hard work and a serious business.) The same is true of “fracking” and other petroleum-extraction practices. There are many reasonable ways to manage tradeoffs between economic development and environmental priorities — if environmentalists were interested in reasonable tradeoffs, which they aren’t. Biden, already looking over his shoulder at a restive progressive caucus, apparently intends to buy environmentalists off with other people’s money.

Why?

Fossil fuels, far from being the great villain of the climate story, have been the main source of greenhouse-gas reductions in the United States over the past several decades, as relatively clean-burning natural gas displaces relatively dirty coal in electricity generation. But that is not the kind of intelligent tradeoff that interests American environmentalists, who are moralists and romantics and committed to the notion that hydrocarbon fuels are, simply, evil — and that they must be fought on every front. Hence, the American Left’s comprehensive and total war on any and all infrastructure associated with our most abundant energy sources — not only oil pipelines but natural-gas pipelines, too, along with rail-shipping facilities, refineries and other plants, and West Coast export depots intended to help U.S. producers in Asian markets. If it produces, consumes, moves, or processes oil or gas, the American Left opposes it. If Joe Biden is interested in improving the employment and wage outlook for middle-class Americans, he ought not make our industrial, chemical, manufacturing, transportation, and electricity sectors hostage to the narrow-minded concerns of a small group of fanatics.

There is a worrying Hayekian lesson in this, too: It is impossible for American businesses to make big, long-term investments in a political environment in which every project is up for renegotiation — or summary economic execution — every time the White House changes hands. Why invest in building and moving physical goods, and taking on the political risk that goes along with such investments, when you could join the booming financial sector and put your money into the money business? This is not to sniff at finance or other work in the service economy, but, surely, in a continental nation as vast as ours, with an economy as complex as ours, it shouldn’t be possible for one man serving a short term in a temporary elected office to undo years of work and billions of dollars in investment. This is pure foolishness, and it will cost us.

Joe Biden is getting ready to get off to a poor start. And if he thinks that he can buy off the green lobby by sacrificing Keystone, he is mistaken. Their ambitions are bigger and broader than that, and they will not be easily satisfied: L’appétit vient en mangeant.

If you were wondering who actually has Joe Biden’s ear, now you know.

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