Why the Keystone Pipeline Is a Bad Idea


The Keystone XL Pipeline is part of an ambitious plan to bring down from Alberta, Canada massive amounts of liquified tar to be refined into fuel to supply America’s appetite for energy. Like many Americans and Canadians, I am opposed to the Keystone Pipeline project. Like brushing your teeth with bleach, it is a bad idea.


Imagine you have a friend who has gotten into substance abuse. His lifestyle is unsustainable. You have agreed to drive him to rehab. On the way he begins to complain that he is finding this whole transitional experience quite stressful. He insists that first you drive him round by the liquor store to pick up a case of Jack Daniels. It’s the only way he can imagine getting to his destination in comfort.


What should you do?


Agreeing to the pipeline is rather like that. Back in the day, former television star Kirstie Alley ate a lot of food and enjoyed the comfort of it. When her obesity became dangerous, she and her doctors realized she had to change her consumption patterns. She did not need a more reliable home delivery supply-line of French fries and Mexican burritos. She needed to eat less. And to her credit she did.


America does not need to get its old economy—it’s old way of doing business—back on track. Like publishing hardbound sets of Encyclopedia Britannica, that old economy is no longer sustainable. If we keep it up, and China and India keep copying us (which they tend to do), it will be catastrophic—apocalyptic, really. America needs a new kind of sustainable economy. America has traditionally excelled at envisioning and creating new things; here’s the next great challenge right before us—another opportunity to demonstrate national greatness.  


At this very moment we have members of our military in harm’s way on the Straits of Hormuz, protecting with a brave, patriotic spirit the American appetite for old-fashioned oil. In the eyes of our government, the delivery of Saudi Arabian oil must be defended at all costs. The Straits symbolize our current national vulnerability. It would be much safer for America to be dependent upon a nearby friendly nation (like Canada) than upon these distant, volatile, and often hostile ones. I get that argument. We want our heroes back from deployment more than anyone. It’s definitely the lesser of these two evils to buy Canadian.


But here’s a third alternative: How about consuming less, so we don’t need to be dependent on anyone else? Perhaps the oil industry and their supporters don’t think America is up for any more new challenges. Perhaps they have written it off as a nation of obese couch potatoes, silly people of big girths and small brains. Maybe they think: America rallied after Pearl Harbor, but that was back when America still had character and a will to sacrifice for a greater good. Perhaps their only vision for the future is allowing greedy Americans to consume to excess.


Yet every week I meet young adults who are just waiting to be challenged by a truly great and demanding ideal. They are not afraid. Many of them love the great outdoors. They mourn our steady trashing of the environment. They backpack in Yosemite. They cultivate flower gardens on their apartment balconies. They bike places. They pick up bags of garbage from riverbeds.


This newer generation would gladly walk more and drive less. They are prepared for some serious belt-tightening in the short term, willing even to pay more for the energy they consume. All they want is real assurance that their efforts and their sacrifices will result in the preservation of the beauty of this great continent, the diversity of wildlife and insects, and the health of human generations to come.


The powers that be like to dismiss such idealists as naïve. But when did it become wrong to envision a positive future? When did it become un-American to live simply, act courageously, and remain hopeful? As John Muir once wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”


Many advocates of the pipeline argue that America just needs Canadian tar temporarily to help during its “bridge” to energy self-sufficiency. The flaw in that argument, of course, is that the shakers and movers of American industry have no intention of changing anything. The Keystone Pipeline project is merely phase one of an already-projected vast spider’s web of pipelines crisscrossing the North American continent. There is no race to self-sufficiency currently underway. There is no commitment to bridge to anything. The powers that be find the current arrangements exceedingly profitable. For obvious reasons they like things just the way they are.


But a discerning public knows better.


And there is at least one other consideration. The Canadians’ liquified tar is the dirtiest oil on earth. Getting it into liquid form in the first place, and then refining it into something useable, involves a vastly more polluting process in terms of emissions per barrel than any other significant source on earth. Quite frankly, it’s a nasty business. And most of that pollution is headed into American air, water and soil. The Canadians want it off their hands as quickly as possible.


There comes a point beyond which an economic issue becomes a moral one. We have arrived at that point. In the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the original name for human beings was earthlings. This planet is our home turf.  Jews and Christians know that as humans we are called to steward (use, enjoy, preserve and maintain) the earth on behalf of its creator and rightful owner. We also know that greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and that simplicity and contentment are virtues. We know that happiness is not attained by consumption, but that its root lies in the domain of the spirit. It is not hard to connect the dots from such a Christian way of seeing the world to the conclusion that the Keystone Pipeline is a bad idea.


One Response to Why the Keystone Pipeline Is a Bad Idea

  1. John Mustol March 27, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    I am interested in Christian eco-theology and eco-ethics. That is, I would like to know how we should understand, in terms of our biblical theology and ethics, our place within God’s creation, our relationship with the living and nonliving elements of it, and how we should live and act in relation to them? As the controversy over the Keystone Pipeline shows, these questions are relevant and of practical importance (or they should be). This is, perhaps, why Dr. Scorgie has posted a comment on it. As he has noted, Keystone is a manifestation of some of the economic aspects of our ecological life and relationships: a traditional fossil fuel based economy versus an economy based on renewable energy sources; an economy of growth and consumption versus an economy of limits and moderation; and how to manage resources. For example, does the mere existence of a profitable resource (Canadian oil sands) mean that it should be exploited or are there reasons to leave it in the ground?

    But it is probably the case that most Christians (probably almost all) do not think about the Keystone Pipeline (or other such ecological public issues) in terms of Christian theology and ethics. In fact, our attitudes toward Keystone, as well as toward other ecological issues, are generally determined by other factors: age and demographics as Dr. Scorgie has noted; cultural trends; social history and context, political loyalties, and, most importantly, economics. As a result, one can find Christians who hold a spectrum of views from strong support of Keystone to firm opposition. (This is also true of most other public issues, ecological or otherwise.)

    But we Christians have considerable biblical and theological resources to bring to bear on ecological issues like Keystone such as the following: (1) the doctrine of creation–the idea that God created the earth and its creatures (Ge 1) (2) God’s ownership of the earth and its resources (Ps 24:1) (3) stewardship–our divine commission to manage and care for God’s earth and his creatures (Ge 1:28; 2:15) (4) kenosis–the self-emptying love manifested in the incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us and for his creation (Phil 2) (5) voluntary self-limitation–a corollary of kenosis (6) Jesus’ critique of the pursuit of wealth in the gospels (7) virtues of generosity, moderation, and contentment articulated in the NT as part of Christian living (8) justice in the distribution and use of resources. I wonder how Christians might apply these theological/ethical ideas to the question of the Keystone Pipeline (and how Canadian Christians might apply them to the exploitation of the oil sands). Dr. Scorgie has alluded to voluntary self-limitation (consuming less), but how do, say, the doctrine of creation, stewardship, and justice relate, and how would they affect our ecological behavior in relation to the Keystone Pipeline, and to related ecological problems such as fossil fuel use and global climate change? We could discuss these biblical principles, but in the end, would it make a difference in how we actually live?

    Although I agree that the pipeline is a bad idea, and I have my reasons based on some of the above theological principles, I would like to hear what others think.