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Climate column: Pipelines

So what do these pipelines have to do with climate change?

This seemingly obvious question is being debated everywhere. On the one hand, fossil fuel corporations that extract, transport and refine oil appear very determined! Surely this oil is coming, and our only job is to let it through our land the safest way possible. Right? So why are people making such a fuss?

The best thing that has come out of the fight about the pipelines has been the attention drawn to climate change. No matter how safely the oil comes through the pipeline, at what price it's sold and to whom, and who refines it, it's still being extracted, refined and burned.

The science is very clear — life on our planet as we know it will not sustain the temperature rise that will occur if tar sands oil is fully extracted. This will be true even if all the workers who build the pipeline are union workers, all the oil is burned domestically and all the steel used is American steel. Rep. Rick Nolan has advocated (unsuccessfully) for these things, but he needs to look at the heart of the issue — the burning of the oil itself. There is simply no answer to climate change other than to keep that sludge, which turns our air into a veritable sewer, polluting seven times more than regular oil, in the ground where it belongs.

This brings us back to the first question — is this oil coming through the U.S., regardless? Will TransCanada and Enbridge have the right to do their business regardless of its harm to all living things?

Thankfully, the answer to that is "no," and this truth is becoming more and more clear. In a recent analysis of our global energy market, The Economist endorsed eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies, writing "Last year, governments around the world threw $550 billion down that rathole." They also advocated putting a price on carbon.

Last week, I listened into an interview with a Shell Oil employee. Many fossil fuel corporations have begun factoring a carbon fee into their business plans and budgets and Shell is doing so publicly. Why? Because it believes that, given the warming of the planet, a price on carbon is inevitable. Its days of free polluting are almost over. Understandably, it wants to have input into what carbon pricing will look like, and it needs to be ahead of the curve so that its assets remain profitable.

So if the economists and the oil companies are saying, "Let's do this," what are we waiting for?

We have much to lose and little to gain by delaying. In this light, every decision like Keystone (or the Alberta Clipper, or the Sandpiper) represents a critical opportunity to begin a new way of making energy decisions. The current drop in gas prices makes this a "perfect storm" opportunity. With a clear market signal increasing the differential between clean and dirty energy prices, tar sands oil will be replaced with cleaner fuel — the same way natural gas has largely taken over coal.

How quickly? That's simple economics — it depends on how quickly the price increases. It's time to put the hard sell on our Republican-led Congress to come up with a pricing system that works for all, and I know of no better example than a revenue-neutral carbon fee that returns all fees to us, thus transforming the economy without growing government or emptying our wallets.