There is a famous tale in the Bible of King Solomon’s wisdom. When confronted with two women claiming to be the mother of a certain baby, the wise king proposed cutting the baby in half, and giving half to each. When one woman refused, he gave her the baby, since it was clear to him that she must be the real mother.
A State Department report, published recently, after poring over the mountains of data pertaining to the Keystone XL pipeline, in hopes of finding a clear signal to resolve this difficult decision, announced a finding that more people would likely die from spills if the tar sands oil is transported by train, than if the pipeline is completed. That’s because oil train spills occur even more frequently than pipeline spills. Rail is also more expensive. So, one might surmise, as Coral Davenport suggests in the NY Times, that if King Solomon were alive today, he would say that if we care at all about all those people living besides railroad lines, whose lives are about to become a game of Russian roulette, we would go ahead and approve the pipeline.
Except, of course, that tar sands oil is not a baby—unless of course, you count another illustrious literary character, the Tar Baby, that concoction that old Br’er Fox used to first anger and then entrap Br’er Rabbit. You’ll recall that the more Br’er Rabbit fought the Tar Baby, the more tangled up he became.
Delicious parallels aside, we needn’t go there because it’s a false choice.
First of all, the Canadian government, not particularly well known for their level of environmental concern, just approved an alternative pipeline, the Northern Gateway, that would run to the Canadian west coast in British Columbia, therefore not requiring any kind of approval from the US. The Northern Gateway cannot yet be considered a fait accomplit, as it is bound to encounter stiff opposition in British Columbia, which is filled with both liberals and aboriginal First Nations, who, unlike their counterparts in the US, enjoy substantial territorial rights. Still, it does represent a third possibility beyond Keystone and the accident-prone trains.
But, the second and far more widely reaching point is that neither pipeline is necessary in any definition of the term that stretches wider than the immediate concern of those investors who have put their money into that particular slot machine and are waiting anxiously for the tumblers to stop rolling.
We don’t need the oil. Or perhaps more precisely, we can’t use it. Scientist have already calculated how much more oil we can burn before rendering the planet uninhabitable, and we have that much already, in more easily accessible forms than the tar sands that must be heated before being extracted, at tremendous economic and environmental cost. The fact that we have more oil than we can use is the reason why numerous shareholder groups are introducing resolutions to oil companies asking for an accounting of the stranded assets represented by the millions of barrels of oil that will be left underground, when it finally becomes clear to all involved that we dare not burn a single drop more. Those assets are currently valued at close to $20 trillion at today’s prices, but could become as worthless as a Confederate two-dollar bill in a world that can burn no more.
Just last week ExxonMobil agreed to disclose its climate-related, stranded asset risk, bowing to pressure from shareholder groups.
Even Shell Oil UK’s former chair James Smith, talks about the trillionth ton of carbon and how we dare not ever emit it (though we’re on a track to do so by 2040).
Indeed our love affair with fossil fuels is becoming high maintenance. Going to such extreme and risky measures as fracking and tar sands extraction to get the fuel we’ve become hooked on—is that not akin to lavishing flowers and champagne and expensive dinners to elicit the smile that once came so easily?
In the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
How long can I delay?
We’re just a habit
And I’m habitually feelin’ kinda blue.
But each time I try on
The thought of leaving you,
I stop and think it over…
As for old Br’er Rabbit, he escaped his plight by convincing Br’er Fox to throw him into the briar patch, where he’d been born and bred. Perhaps we could take a page from his book.