Reading Diary: Keystone XL: Down the Line by Steven Mufson

What kind of place has Canada become?

The kind of place that closes world-class research facilities in the arctic and in lake country. (Thanks, Ontario!)

The kind of place where the government actively muzzles it's own scientists and librarians, the scientists for wanting to share their research and librarians who want to talk about the importance of preserving our heritage, scientific and cultural.

The kind of place where Environment Canada would take their own name off their weather service website. Really? Yeah, really.

The kind of place where the Federal Government slashes its own role in environmental reviews and downloads it onto the provinces.

And perhaps most significantly, it's become a place where the Minister of Natural Resources attacks respected climate scientists over their scientific views on the Keystone XL project (Apologies!).

Even when they set up an open data portal for oil sands information, it's hard for anyone to believe they aren't just greenwashing.

And that's why this whole Keystone XL pipeline debate in the US is so interesting to us Canadians. Our government is for it, but their record on anything even vaguely concerned with the environment is so abysmal that it's hard not to automatically oppose anything they support. They fact that south of the border, it's the cause of so much controversy and political and social wrangling seems almost quaint and irrelevant. We almost want to shout out, "No, you fools, don't do this! Can't you see it's a bad idea!"

I realize that there's lots of people against the project in the States: the EPA says it's a bad idea, Canadians are telling you the same story in your media, so are regular folk, environmental think tanks and fellow ScienceBloggers in a bunch of different places.

But there's a lot of support too, from industry shills, of course, but also quite a bit of political support on the Republican side. President Obama seems cautiously positive but undecided.

And that's sort of why I approach this new TED book, Keystone XL: Down the Line by Steven Mufson (Amazon Kindle), with some trepidation.

But I needn't have worried. Like the last TED book I reviewed, this one is actually pretty good. The premise is fairly standard: the author and his merry band of journalists go on a road trip from one geographic end of the Keystone XL story to the other. In other words, from Alberta to the US Gulf Coast. Along the way, they meet both ordinary folk and a few oddballs whose lives are bound by the future of the XL project. They also meet a bunch of oil biz big wigs who have huge stakes in what happens. Sprinkled in among all the local and international colour are in depth discussions of the history of the Keystone XL project in particular and the oil sands in general. The social, economic and environmental implications and controversies are also dealt with in quite a bit of detail, in a fairly standard more-or-less objective journalistic manner. Mufson doesn't explicitly take a stand on whether or not the pipeline should be built and he very clearly understands that you can't look at this one very specific issue out of the context of the worldwide supply and demand for energy. North Americans use an awful lot of oil and it has to come from somewhere.

Of course, at the end of the day the climate science isn't much in doubt, and the controversies are more manufactured than genuine. And this comes through very clearly. This is no climate denialist or industry apologist tract.

Overall, this is a solid, detailed exploration of the nature of the Keystone XL projects and the various issues surrounding it; there's enough colour and narrative to keep the info dumps and wonkish policy explanations moving. If you don't know much about the issue, there are worse ways to get up to speed. It's well worth what TED is charging.

What do I wish were a bit different?

First of all, the Canadian part of the road trip could have been a bit more central to the narrative, perhaps it could have started in the south and headed north. The intermixing of details and narrative also made both a bit fractured, something that would have been fixed by having a detailed chronology somewhere as part of the document. And speaking of the document, certainly this sort of ebook lends itself very easily to detailed citations of all the various facts and figures sprinkled throughout such a book. I really missed a bibliography. In particular, a book on such a contentious topic needs to show sources even more than most books. And I guess that's the key -- the TED Books need to feel more like books than extended newspaper pieces.

My final complaint is that the roadtrip/interviews/profiles/infodump template for this sort of story seems a bit too timeworn. The ebook format seems to present some possibilities to explore new ways to tell these sorts of stories and TED should be the place to explore those new ways.

But to end on a high note, here's a quote from the author giving a good sense of what the book is about and why it is such a solid read. It is from a recent interview on the TED site:

You say the pipeline is a Rorschach test of how Americans view energy issues. Can you elaborate?

For four decades, we have thought about oil as a scarce resource. We imported more and more at higher and higher prices and went to distant frontiers, whether onshore or offshore, to find oil and gas. The sheer scale of the oil sands in Alberta has been Exhibit A of those extremes. The Saudi oil minister has often said that prices had to stay above $60 a barrel to keep the Canadian oil sands economically viable. All of a sudden, the trends reversed and a slew of oil prospectors – like the North Dakota fracking pioneer Harold Hamm who is profiled in the book – and energy experts are talking about U.S. energy abundance. Imports have dropped nearly in half. U.S. oil output has climbed over 7 million barrels a day and the International Energy Agency has forecast that U.S. output will surpass Saudi Arabia’s by the mid-2020s. Canadian oil sands would compete for U.S. refinery space with Venezuela, and North Dakota, Louisiana and Texas shale oil has enabled the big refiner Valero to stop importing light, sweet crude oil.

It’s partly a matter of interpretation and partly a matter of outlook. There are the folks who worry about climate and make calculations about booming demand across the developing world. And then there are the optimists and industry people who see more opportunity – which in the case of prospectors and drillers translates into profitable opportunities.

So which is it? Are we energy rich or energy poor? The truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, the United States has surprising new resources at home, and U.S. consumption may have hit a plateau as fuel efficiency rises. This is a big benefit for the U.S. balance of trade and the domestic oil and gas industry. And while U.S. oil independence remains elusive, the Keystone XL pipeline would help make North American oil independence conceivable.

(Kindle version supplied by publisher. This version is missing all the audio/visual extras of the version sold through the TED Books app. But given my experience with the previous TED Book I reviewed, that's probably not too significant a factor for reviewing purposes.)

Mufson, Steve. Keystone XL: Down the Line. New York: TED Conferences, 2013.


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