Opponents of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline have focused largely on its disproportionate role in global warming. President Obama gave a nod to this concern last June, when he said he would deny approval for Keystone if research indicated that its completion would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” (The president has final say in the matter because the proposed pipeline will cross an international boundary.) But proponents of Keystone—including some in the president’s inner circle—place great emphasis on its geopolitical value, claiming that it will enhance America’s economic prowess and reduce its vulnerability to overseas supply disruptions. Now, with the January 31 release of a State Department–mandated report alleging that construction of Keystone will not significantly increase global emissions because so much tar sands oil is being imported by rail and other means, it appears likely that this argument will prevail. But far from bolstering US security, this approach is bound to produce new risks and dangers.
That professions of national security would trump the future of the planet might seem absurd to many, but not to anyone who has followed the evolution of the administration’s strategic thinking. Initially, Obama’s principal international objectives were to withdraw from ground wars in the Middle East and refurbish the US image abroad. Energy played little role in this, except to burnish Obama’s status as an advocate for green technology. More recently, however, Obama has sought to counter the perceived decline in Washington’s global influence by any means available short of renewed military interventionism. An “all of the above” energy policy has come to be seen as a useful tool for this purpose. By procuring more of our energy from domestic and Canadian sources, the White House now says, the United States can free itself from dependence on Middle Eastern supplies and so exercise greater independence in its foreign policy.
This outlook has arisen in response to the application of advanced technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract natural gas and oil from previously impenetrable shale formations. Before Obama’s first term, it was widely assumed that domestic oil production would continue its precipitous decline as a result of diminishing output from existing fields. A 2006 report by the Energy Information Administration, for example, predicted that US crude oil output would drop from 5.9 million barrels a day in 2010 to 4.6 million barrels in 2030. But the surge in oil and gas extraction from shale has upended all such assumptions. In January, the EIA projected that domestic crude production would rise through 2030 by 0.8 million barrels a day—with most of the added output coming from shale oil.
At the same time, Canadian firms—with considerable foreign assistance—began to extract substantial amounts of synthetic crude from previously noncommercial bitumen deposits (“tar sands” or “oil sands”) in the Athabasca region of Alberta. According to the EIA, Canadian oil output will jump from 3.6 million barrels per day in 2010 to 6.6 million barrels in 2035. Combine this added Canadian output with rising US production, and it is possible to picture a not-too-distant time when the United States will be almost entirely free of reliance on Asian and African oil—something US strategists have dreamed of for decades.
There are obstacles, of course, to the realization of this dream. Because tar sands oil is so much richer in carbon than conventional petroleum and requires more energy to extract (thereby producing additional emissions), environmental groups like 350.org and Friends of the Earth are trying to block construction of pipelines like Keystone XL that would carry this dirty fuel into and across the United States. Also, the current boom in shale oil output could fade as the richest “plays” in Texas and North Dakota are exhausted. But all this is less important than the political implications of the boom—in particular, the emergence of a national discourse about the energy-fueled “revitalization” of America.