What Keystone XL and Nuclear Power Say About Environmentalists

The release last week of the State Department’s environmental impact analysis for the Keystone XL pipeline prompted a post from Jon Chait in which he writes:

The analysis is key because President Obama announced last summer he would not approve the pipeline unless it was found to have no significant impact on climate change. And that’s what the analysis finds. It argues, as many other analysts have concluded, that if we block the pipeline, Canada will just ship the oil out by rail. So, what public policy reason is there to block the pipeline? There really isn’t one.

This seems right. And it also hints at the myopia of the environmental movement. The crucial phrase is, “Canada will just ship the oil out by rail”. Here’s a nice graphic of crude oil spills on U.S. railroads; McClatchy estimates they totaled 1.15 million gallons (~36,000 barrels, if Google is to be trusted) in 2013. By comparison, through 2006 the Trans-Alaska pipeline (operating in extremely harsh conditions) only once spilled more than ~16,000 barrels. I get that climate change poses a much greater long-term threat to the future stability of civilization as we know it than a few thousand barrels of oil scattered about the fly-over states.* But how can environmentalists call themselves serious advocates for the environment while supporting policies that measurably increase the likelihood of oil spills?

Annoyingly, this isn’t the only area where environmentalists’ climate policy preferences maintain only a tenuous link with reality; nuclear energy is another.** There just isn’t a feasible way to meet the energy needs of an industrial or post-industrial economy without nuclear power plants. But somehow the examples of Chernobyl (run by the Soviets) and Fukushima (built in an active seismic zone) have convinced people that all nuclear power plants are radiation disasters waiting to happen. Never mind that this ignores the fact that the United States is not the Soviet Union and much of the country is not situated on or near an active fault line.***

To be fair, even a nuclear power plant without any direct problems of its own still leaves you with the more general problem of doing something with its nuclear waste. But the issues there seem more political than technical; nobody wants the stuff near them. Between Keystone XL and nuclear energy, it’s almost like the environmentalism which drives public debate is more of a weird amalgamation of NIMBYism, anti-modern fear, and blithe pastoralism than it is a coherently argued plan for reducing carbon emissions and preserving human life as we know it.

*And again see Jon Chait for why, given that fact, opposition to Keystone XL on a carbon emissions basis was hopelessly misguided
**Probably it is unfair to refer to “environmentalists” as a unified, coherent, singular entity; I’m sure there are quite sincere environmentalists who favor Keystone XL and nuclear power. But they don’t seem to get a lot of air time
***Fine, we won’t put any more nuclear plants in California. You know, because its got earthquakes and it’s full of Commies