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And a river (of oil) runs through it: How the Keystone XL pipeline will bleed Africa’s future dry

By Richard Poplak 12 March 2013

At the present moment, the greatest opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline –basically a tube of money that will ferry environment slaughtering tar sands oil from Canada to America – are tree huggers and folks who wear sandals and socks. In reality, it’s Africans who should be lobbying against Keystone. Because when the United States becomes a net energy exporter, the resources “boom” in Africa is over. By RICHARD POPLAK.

If you enjoy birds, grass, trees, animals, First Nations people, the future, or any combination of the aforementioned, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline will probably rub you the wrong way. The pipeline is a long-in-the-works project designed to schlep 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day, from the Canadian province of Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, and onwards to the Gulf Coast region (roughly Houston, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana), almost all of which is meant for export. The pipeline itself would run almost 3,500km, through some fairly pristine terrain, including untouched parts of Nebraska.

Climate change has been top-ish of the Obama agenda since he rallied hundreds of thousands of beardos and granolas during his 2008 campaign, duly throwing those constituents under the proverbial diesel-spewing bus when he no longer needed to add Twitter followers. No US president has paid such lip service to the environment and done so little in support of it. But the environment lobby’s cause célèbre – it’s Death Star, if you will – is the Keystone pipeline. If Obama allows this to happen, his legacy will be forever smeared with goops of filthy crude, like a BP-kissed sea bird.

The State Department has just published a second environmental assessment of a recently revised route for Keystone that now avoids the sensitive Sand Hills area of Nebraska. The assessment is sober in the extreme, and avoids any recommendations on whether the pipeline should go forward or not. The crappily Photoshopped cover page of the executive summary is comprised of a badly rendered map, and thumbnails of several animals and birds, none of which I have encountered before. (One looks like a cross between a panda, an otter and a house cat – in other words, nothing you’d want drown in a pool of 93 unleaded.) There are also images of farmland, and a body of water, presumably a lake. You get the picture – it’s all about the nature, dude!

Photo: SA-KEYSTONE/PIPELINE – Map depicting the Keystone XL pipeline project linking Alberta, Canada to southern U.S .

Because the pipeline crosses national borders, the decision falls directly with the president’s office – Obama must sign the executive order, and it is his signature, and his alone, that seals its fate. He knows that oil from the Canadian tar sands is filthier, costlier and more damaging to his climate credentials than any other on Earth. (Fouling Nigeria is less of a worry, as far as North Americans are concerned.) According to the New York Times, the process yields 17 times the greenhouse gas emissions of regular crude oil, to say nothing of the vast tracks of forest that lie atop the sands, all ready to be mowed down for further development. The tar sands foul streams and waterways, and ruin land owned by First Nations peoples. (Who, by the way, are largely onside, given how much they stand to benefit financially.)

But Obama also knows that the oil comes with no geopolitical strings. The US does not have to prop the Canadian government up with billions of dollars of military aid. The oil will stream across the longest, least restive national border in the world –and allows Washington to start divesting itself from oil regions that have, let us say, consistent behavioral issues. What’s more, when Canada is producing 6 million barrels a day by 2030, both countries become net exporters, a state of affairs once considered unimaginable.

Think about it: because of advances in energy production – like shale gas capturing (AKA fracking) and oil sands development – the US will no longer need to buy oil or gas from anywhere outside of North America. Combine that with emerging energy technologies, like lithium-water batteries and working solar panels, and Saudi Arabia starts to seem very far away. Indeed, Saudi will cease becoming a source for American oil, but first a competitor and then, as the century winds down, a customer.

Oh yes, if you imagined that the developing world was developing poorly, just wait a few decades. Take the sterling example of Nigeria, a country that has systematically squandered its oil wealth, with billions of dollars a year simply disappearing along with the ozone layer. Every last stolen penny will one day be a source of regret, because Nigeria is going to be fighting for customers. Should the region remain Boko Haram infested, will the Chinese continue to lose men and treasure in the region, or switch to buying from the Americans and the Canadians? (The Chinese oil giant, CNOOC, recently purchased the Canadian oil sands producer Nexen for more than $15 billion.)

The geopolitical play is simple – major oil consumers will purchase from allies or regions that don’t send corpses along with the crude. Russia, the Sudans, Nigeria, the Middle East – all of these economies, utterly tied to oil production, will find themselves in serious difficulty if they don’t start diversifying. The significance of these shifts in energy production and consumption are utterly missed by African governments, like Angola, which seem to believe that the status quo is unchangeable. Yes, the fetish for Norway-style sovereign funds has arrived in Luanda, but this is just another Dos Santos family business designed to enrich cronies. That country in particular has done so poorly in facilitating development that one wonders what will become of it when it’s competing with North Americans at energy trade shows. That will, indeed, be an ugly day in Angolan history.

Of course, North America will one day be overtaken by China as the biggest energy consumer in the world. And nickel, copper, gold, rare earth, manganite and dozens of other commodities will continue to be mined in the African veld. But the coming shift in energy production and consumption is a major game changer. If I were an African mining minister, I’d be praying that Obama kiboshes Keystone. But there is little chance of that happening. With thousands of jobs and billions of dollars on the line, to say nothing of geopolitically untainted oil, the only downside is the environment. The sad political truth is that tree huggers grow up to be Republicans. They are the ultimate non-entity, and Obama is about to treat them as such. Again. DM

Main photo: Demonstrators carry a giant mock pipeline while calling for the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline during a rally in Washington November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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