Tar Sands Oil: You Can Stall It, But I Doubt You Can Stop It

May 27, 2013 | Updated Jul 27, 2013

In a recent New Yorker piece, Elizabeth Kolbert argues that President Obama should reject the Keystone pipeline to "put a brake on the process" of extracting this highly polluting energy source from Alberta's tar sands.

It's a timely argument because approval of the pipeline's construction is at the top of the Republican's wish list, and they'll continue hammering on it until they get it (it's their main jobs program, though it will only create a few thousand temporary construction jobs). If the President doesn't approve it in time for the debt ceiling debate, I'll bet you a metric ton of CO2 that it's a Republican condition for raising the ceiling.

However, while her argument is timely, it's not very strong. Here's the problem:

"It's overwhelmingly likely the oil would find another way to market," USA Today observed in a recent editorial. For instance, a pipeline could be built to British Columbia, and the oil shipped from there to China, though there are many political and logistic barriers to such a plan--among them the Canadian Rockies.

Sure, the Canadians and everyone else in the energy-supply chain business would rather move this goop south through the relatively unencumbered American Midwest, on through our southern ports and onto the world market. But if they can't do that, as long as they can sell it for more than it costs to extract and move it -- and by "costs," I'm decidedly not including the heavily discounted environmental costs -- then extract and move it they will.

In this regard, the only compelling reason to "put on the brakes" would be if there was some hope of keeping this stuff in the ground. The fact that tar sands extraction releases "significantly more carbon dioxide" than the ordinary stuff won't do it. No one in power is saying "keep it in the ground." Though what we should be arguing about is the cost/benefit ratio of extracting oil from tar sands, instead we're arguing about whether its delivery mechanism -- the pipeline -- is up to code. Once again, we're missing the endangered forest for the trees.

Fundamentally, the problem is with the President's "all of the above" energy strategy, specifically the "all" part. It's a smart political strategy, because it diffuses the opposition's drill3 position while giving Obama the space to simultaneously pursue renewables. But it means you don't get to say, "sorry...'all' doesn't include this stuff."

Making it harder to get tar sand oil on the world market might gain the air and the oceans a few years, which ain't nothing. But it's not much either.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.