This is a week that many of us who care about protecting the environment have been dreading. The new 114th Congress takes over today, with Republicans now controlling both houses for the first time since the middle of the George W. Bush era. And — whatever the GOP pretended to stand for during the fall campaign — Republicans have now made it clear that their No. 1 priority will be boosting business interests at the expense of the environment. Today, leaders in the Senate hope to hammer that point home by passing — as the first substantive bill of the new term — a measure to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
There was never a good argument for this long pipeline, which would bisect the Great Plains states on its way south. Republicans call this a job creation project, but after the construction is finished some experts predict as few as 35 permanent new workers. To achieve that, the pipeline cuts through the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital source of drinking water for the people of Nebraska. The fuel that it would carry — from the Canadian tar sands — is some of the dirtiest energy around, highly inefficient to extract and thus making a contribution to climate-change-causing greenhouse gases that the planet simply cannot afford. And little, if any, of this will benefit U.S. consumers: The oil would be loaded on ships at the Gulf for overseas customers. It’s a ton of risk for Americans, with no gain.
But now here’s the kicker: Those arguments against the Keystone XL were all in place before the unexpected events of the last two months — the unprecedented drop in world oil prices. Today, many motorists across America are paying under $2 a gallon at the pump — a level that many experts thought would never be seen again. Simply put, there’s a glut of cheap, conventional crude oil on the market — so why on earth would we need to OK the dirty, unconventional stuff?
I wonder how big a deal the Keystone XL pipeline is these days? It won’t come on line for years, so current conditions shouldn’t logically affect anything. But the world doesn’t operate according to logic, and at the moment the world is awash in oil. Prices have plunged, OPEC is engaged in a production war, and gasoline is selling for two bucks a gallon. Does the American public really care very much right now about a pipeline that makes it easier for Canadians to ship their oil to Japan via the Gulf of Mexico?
I’m not sure, but I suspect Republicans may be choosing the wrong moment to take a stand on Keystone XL. Democrats can probably hold it up in the Senate without paying any real price, and even if they can’t, Obama can veto it without paying any real price. It’s lost its salience for the time being.
That’s all perfectly logical. Yet I suspect the Republicans will pass such a bill — in part just to show that they can, and in part to prove their loyalty to the corporate executives who donated millions of dollars to their 2014 campaigns. Perhaps reflecting the new reality of cheap energy, President Obama said he would veto the Keystone XL bill that’s currently before Congress, which is good news, indeed.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If our energy policy needs any tinkering, we should be raising the gasoline tax when the prices are so low, so that America can make the infrastructure repairs that have been neglected for decades. We should look to California, where Gov. Jerry Brown — in taking the oath this week for his second term — made the stunning pledge to boost renewable energy use to 50 percent by 2030.
The age of $2-a-gallon gas is a perfectly good time to re-think everything. Too bad Washington is not very good at that.
To read Kevin Drum’s analysis of the Keystone Pipeline vote, go to: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2015/01/republicans-have-lost-their-window-keystone-xl-pipeline
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