I wouldn’t be much of an environmental professional if I didn’t present an opinion on the hot topic of the new year: the Keystone XL pipeline. So here it is.
This past week the Republican leadership in Congress declared its intent to see the pipeline approved without completion of the required environmental assessment. The leaders of the Democrats suggested to their members certain additions that might make such a bill less distasteful, including requiring the pipeline to be built with US-made materials and funding green jobs in equal number to pipeline jobs. The one bee in my bonnet throughout this years-long debate has been this: why haven’t we used this opportunity to haggle on cap and trade?
Cap and Trade has been in a mortal slumber since 2010, and with other high-priority policy matters to tackle along with a completely intransigent Congress, there simply has been no window in which to resuscitate the idea. But now the Republicans are fighting hard for an issue which has very clear environmental impacts, not only to the habitats, farms, and open space that would be sliced up to create the pipeline’s path, and to the water that will become contaminated by the inevitable spill, but also to the atmosphere that will be permanently disfigured by the disgorgement of toxins in the process of extracting and refining the fuel, and ultimately the burning of it in our vehicles and factories.
Extracting, refining, and emitting carbon has a direct cost to human health and the environment, but we don’t pay that price at the pump or meter. The costs are buried in fines and fees (the ‘cost of doing business’), health insurance premiums, payment for prescription drugs and emergency room visits, and the miles we have to travel to ‘visit nature’. Just to use my own household as an example, all of our utilities combined consume only 4% of our income, but health care is a whopping 14%, and that’s just maintenance for healthy people.
Free market people will say that environmental regulation is not necessary because business people know not to bankrupt their companies either by showing ill will or by degrading the very resources they need to produce their goods. As a history major I must call this total baloney, there are far too many examples of total disregard for the integrity of the environment and the communities that rely on natural resources (i.e., all of us). Cap and trade worked for the ‘acid rain’ chemicals of the 1980’s, and it can work again to reduce reliance on carbon-based energy and simultaneously spur the creation of new technologies the US so desperately needs to revive its manufacturing base.
Are we not horse-trading because our disgust for the tar sands would make us feel like traitors to do so? I agree that it’s awful and I wish it were not allowed, but it is, and there is no way our current or any future government (here or in Canada) is going to make the practice illegal. Yeah, oil prices are low right now and that’s putting added pressure on the industry, but they’ve been around too long to give up on a new technology this fast.
Someone in authority needs to stand up and make a real offer: ‘they’ get the pipeline, ‘we’ get cap and trade (or cap and dividend, even a carbon tax, let’s just get something on the table). In this modern era, when was the last time we were faced with such a golden opportunity?