Infrastructure, Pipelines, and the Moral Dilemma of Sustainability Transitions

If you follow American politics at all, you’ve by now probably heard the phrase “America’s crumbling infrastructure” many times. American politicians, including President Obama, are beginning to latch onto the issue, and propose programs to address it. Internet Comedian/investigative journalist John Oliver recently devoted an episode to the issue:

The consensus seems pretty clear: The American government needs find a few billion dollars lying around and use it to make some very substantial repairs. Certainly it’s an appealing political program: Put a bunch of people to work creating shiny new infrastructures that will make people’s everyday lives easier and safer. The only problem is getting the politicians to agree on where to find the money.

That’s the popular narrative, anyway. I, however, have a quibble: Some of America’s transportation infrastructure is bad. Not just in the sense that it’s falling apart, but in the sense that even when functioning perfectly, it does bad things. I want to talk about highways in particular. The American highway infrastructure perpetuates a transportation system that killed over 30,000 people in 2013, wastes billions of person-hours in traffic jams, leads to dependence on increasingly scarce and dangerous oil supplies, and of course contributes to pollution and climate change. If Americans go on driving as much as they do, then every single one of these problems will get worse. The problem is that an infrastructural system, such as the United States’ highway network, is a bit like a muscle: by repairing it, you strengthen it. If the US Federal Government invests in another round of highway building, then the new and refurbished highways will be built a little bit bigger and a little bit better in order to accommodate future anticipated traffic. That will just lead to more cars on the road, and more resources being devoted to supporting them. So what if, instead of repairing all the highways, the Americans only repaired the most essential highways, and put much more money into effective regional rail and public transit systems?

I know what you’re thinking, and no, they probably can’t do both. It’s hard enough to make a big fiscal commitment to one major national infrastructural project; doing two at once would require the government to walk a fiscal and political tightrope. People will inevitably think that their local highway improvement project is inadequate, and will complain when they see money going to trains that they believe they will not use. That means that the government has to take a fairly brave stand against highway interests in order to stat to change the transportation system towards something a bit safer and more sustainable. To encourage a transition, you have to nurture alternatives, but you also have to put pressure on the existing system.

There is, of course, a glaringly obvious problem with my logic that I have ignored up until now. While the perpetuation of the car system threatens lives, economies, and the very planet in the long-term, the abysmal state of American highways threatens lives now. Many Americans, regardless of their views on the matter, have little choice but to drive on the highways if they want to be able to do things like go to work and buy groceries. A failure of the American highway system, such as a major bridge collapse, would endanger a lot of people. That makes a very compelling case for investing in highways, regardless of what the sustainability implications would be.

This problem was also illustrated in Vice News’ recent mini-documentary. Pipeline Nation. It’s pretty chilling stuff, illustrating the  If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, scroll to TIME, when an EPA administrator spells out an environmental case for new pipeline construction, at about the five-minute mark.

“If I were king of the world, I would be replacing pipelines, and if I was king of the EPA, I would be helping people replace pipelines…The biggest factor for risk is the age of the pipelines…From my standpoint as a spill responder, I would like to see lots more newer pipelines. I drove to get up here. You drove to get out here to come talk to me.  We need the oil, and as long as we do, I would like to see safer infrastructure.”

My proposal about highways above might have seemed very radical, but it is basically the same thing that climate activists, including Naomi Klein, are proposing about pipelines. Their strategy is to strangle the oil industry by impeding its ability to get its product to market, thereby helping to keep the oil in the ground. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but the spill responder quoted above lays out a pretty good case against it: As long as no new pipelines are built, the existing pipelines will be used, and they will cause spills. To make matters worse, when oil companies can’t use a pipeline, they put the oil on trains. This can be extremely dangerous: In 2013, one such train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, devastating the town and killing 47 people.

If the Energy East pipeline had existed in 2013, then the Lac Mégantic disaster would not have occurred. And if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, then it is a safe bet the absolute rate of spillage of southbound tar sands oil will go down. But at what cost? These projects will reinforce the oil extraction industry, making it that much harder to transition away from it and leave the oil in the ground. If we can’t manage to leave the oil in the ground, then climate change will cause a lot more devastation down the road than one train explosion ever could.

Lest any fossil fuel lobbyists stumble across this post, I should say that I absolutely do not support the construction of the Keystone XL, Energy East, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, or any other major oil export project. We need to be phasing out fossil fuels, not expanding the infrastructure used to extract and burn them. But there’s a moral dilemma here that the climate movement has not adequately addressed. What, exactly, are we going to say to the people who are put at risk when we block unsustainable infrastructure? How many additional car accident deaths are acceptable in the process of adjusting our infrastructure to create a car-free transportation system? How many oil spills and train explosions are we willing to accept as the cost of strangling the oil sands and other major oil extraction projects? There is no easy answer to this question, which is why we need to start thinking very hard about it.

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