This is a guest post by economist James P. Barrett, Ph.D.
“Utterly Boneheaded.” That is how Joe Nocera, writing in The New York Times characterized James Hansen (head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies), Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) and other climate change activists opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.
If you haven’t been following it, the pipeline in question would bring something called bitumen, extracted from oil soaked sands in Canada, to U.S. refineries in Texas where they would turn it into oil products for sale on international markets.
If they stop the pipeline to Texas, activists will force oil companies to look at a more expensive plan to build a pipeline to British Columbia and ship the bitumen from there to refineries in China, an alternative that is facing its own opposition within Canada.
What Nocera thinks is boneheaded is not so much that activists want to reduce oil consumption and carbon emissions per se, but their strategy overall. As long as the demand for oil keeps going up, oil producers will keep developing unconventional oil reserves like the Canadian tar sands in question. In Nocera’s view, attacking the pipeline and the tar sands won’t help as long as the demand for oil is strong and growing. The problem, as he sees it is demand, not supply.
Nocera is right, but only to the extent that his point is meaningless.