I think writing the essay against the Keystone pipeline is a good thing. It is a tangible project that climate activists can use to bring attention to the the issue of climate change, attention badly needed. That is, Keystone has great propaganda potential, and I use propaganda non-pejoratively here. To win the long game, it is important to find ways to constantly press the issue, raise awareness, and hopefully win sympathy from the masses. To the extent that Keystone can be used to do that for climate change, it is very important to use it that way.

With that said, it is still a bit of an open question whether Keystone opposition has any justification that is not of the long-game, awareness-raising, propaganda sort. I’ve made efforts to drill down on the arguments, and here is a survey of what I have seen so far.

Alberta Tar Sands
So the biggest issue with the Keystone pipeline is not actually the pipeline, but what is going through it, i.e. oil retrieved from the Alberta Tar Sands. The retrieval of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands is objectionable on three fronts. First, the amount of oil coming from tar sands is massive and by itself will contribute a significant amount of carbon to the atmosphere. Second, the tar sands extraction process is very energy-intensive and ends up emitting 3 times more carbon per barrel than conventional oil drilling. Third, the tar sands project creates a number of local environmental problems for the area surrounding the tar sands extraction site. The first two seem to be of the most significance to climate change, and so take center stage.

With those problems identified, the question presented is whether successfully blocking the pipeline would prevent any of the above harms. It seems on first glance like it would: without a pipeline, there would be no way to transport the refined oil and therefore no reason to carry out the tar sands project. But this first-glance assessment only works if there is no other way to transport the refined oil. As I understand it, oil is already being transported from the tar sands on trains, trucks, and barges. By itself then, it would seem that stopping the Keystone pipeline will not stop the tar sands project and therefore wont prevent the harms of the tar sands project from being realized.

Frictions from Blocking the Pipeline
Just because blocking the pipeline wont stop the tar sands extraction, that does not mean it wont have any effect on the project. Forcing the oil to travel on trains, trucks, and barges increases the unit costs of delivering that oil, which will increase the overall cost of the oil to the consumer. So blocking the pipeline could function as a really narrow carbon tax in that it might increase the overall price of oil relative to the world where the pipeline is in existence.

This seems like a credible argument, although I cannot find any estimates on exactly what effect such a strategy would have on prices. If it would just increase prices by a percentage point or so, it is hard to imagine that would have any real serious effect on overall consumption. If it would increase prices by many more times than that, then we might have something. Whether this is a serious strategy then is one for researchers to figure out.

These frictions have a downside however. If it is true that the oil will be transported anyways, then blocking the pipeline may cause total emissions from the project to increase. Transporting oil with trains and trucks is much more energy-intensive than pumping it through a pipeline, and as such involve more overall carbon emissions than the pipeline option. If the cost increases caused by forcing the oil through these alternative transportation routes are not sufficiently high to significantly reduce overall consumption, blocking the pipeline could just mean more overall atmospheric carbon, which kind of defeats the whole point.

The Need for Net Targeting
The final argument I have seen is that stopping individual projects is just broadly futile because climate change is an issue of emissions in the aggregate. This argument has in mind a kind of whack-a-mole theory of what happens when you just clamp down on individual projects. That is, clamping down on one project just causes another one to pop up elsewhere. If the demand is there and the supply is to be found elsewhere, the oil companies will just use the supply from elsewhere to satisfy the demand. If this is the case, then emissions from tar sands will go down, but emissions in general will not. And it is emissions in general that are the real problem.

So on this view, clamping down on the Keystone pipeline — even if it did totally shut down the tar sands project — ignores the forest for the trees. Specifically, if you shut the tar sands project down, but don’t create an aggregate emissions cap (or carbon tax that aims for a carbon target), aggregate emissions will be entirely unaffected. On the flipside, if you do have an aggregate emissions cap, then the tar sands project itself ceases to be a problem (at least for overall climate change). So the key ingredient then is the cap: with it, the tar sands project is fine; without it, preventing the tar sands project is useless. Or so the argument goes.

As I said at the top, I am on board with the campaign for propaganda purposes. This is a deadly serious issue and you take what you can get as far as protest opportunities go. However, in all my searching, I’ve yet to find a super-strong argument for how a successful campaign here scores any wins for averting climate change that don’t have to do with its awareness-raising features. I am eagerly receptive to arguments of those sorts; I just haven’t seen very strong ones yet. That could be because they do not exist, or it could be because — in my limited exposure to these sorts of issues — I just haven’t come across them.