I’ve always been surprised that so many environmentalists, typically found on the political left, are such stalwart believers in the conservative doctrine of supply-side economics.
For proof, just look at the various enviro-campaigns against the fossil fuel industry. Hoping to choke the coal industry, greens go after strip mines in Appalachia. Determined to address the risks from natural gas “fracking,” campaigners demand state-level moratoriums on the practice. The same thinking is at work in the fight against the Canadian tar sands. Convinced that they can slow the razing of the boreal forest if they can only plug the oil outflow, environmental groups in the US and Canada have set their sites on stopping the expansion of cross border pipelines, halting the retrofitting of American refineries, and preventing the shipment of mining technologies. The basic idea seems to be that by squeezing supply we can increase the price of fossil fuels – and discourage their use.
But trying to reduce US oil consumption by targeting the petroleum industry in northern Alberta makes about as much sense as trying to stop cocaine use in Los Angeles by eradicating coca plantations in Bolivia. Which is to say: It doesn’t. That’s because, in economist speak, oil demand is fairly “inelastic.” It doesn’t respond very easily to price increases. Why not? For the simple reason that we’re hooked.
Attempting to halt gas guzzling by plugging oil wells is intellectually dishonest and strategically lazy. From the tactical standpoint of a campaigner (even one who passed Keynes 101), I suppose it makes some sense. There is, after all, the fine tradition of monkeywrenching. Today’s green groups are more likely to rely on lawsuits and scathing op-eds than spend time pouring sand in the gas tanks of bulldozers, but the central goal is the same: to slow down destruction by making it hard to get the oil to market. And if you want to stretch the addiction metaphor, it is valuable from a harm-reduction standpoint. The caribou, moose, and fish living in Alberta’s Athabasca watershed benefit from any delay in tar sands mining. So do many of the First Nations peoples who are slowly being poisoned by the oil extraction and processing there.
There’s a big difference, though, between delaying destruction and stopping it altogether. To do that, going after the supply side of the equation is insufficient. As long as demand for oil continues, someone will take the liability risks, suffer the public embarrassment, and endure the legal assaults to do the dirty, and very lucrative, work. Oil – just like money, water, and illegal drugs – always finds a crack to flow through.
Environmental campaigners can do all the blaming and shaming of Canadian oil tycoons and financiers that they like. The fact is, there’s no way to halt the tar sands at the source. The only way to shut down the mines is to make them obsolete. And that will require finally getting over our addiction to oil. Given that more than half of the tar sands petroleum is consumed in the United States, the responsibility for the destruction up north lies with those of us who live south of the 49th parallel.
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