Keystone XL Isn't a Threat to the Environment; It's a Threat to Venezuela

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News filtered down this week that, to try to help hanging-by-a-thread Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, the outgoing Senate Democratic leadership may allow a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline during congress’s lame-duck session. This would give Landrieu one more chance to suck up to her voters by … once more screwing Venezuela.

The same Landrieu who killed the sanctions bill against Venezuelan officials known to have violated human rights is now actively scheming to secure a vote that could, over the longer term, do more damage to more Venezuelans than anything else on the U.S. political agenda right now.

What does this lady have against us, anyway?

Of course, President Obama could still veto the bill: he’s under intense pressure from environmentalists who, for some reason, have decided that this – Keystone XL – is the hill they will die on.

It’s really quite odd, Keystone XL. Think about drugs: educated people generally have no trouble seeing the hopelessness of a supply-interdiction strategy. People grasp that the War on Drugs can’t work: if you crack down on production in one place, you just fatten up the margins for producers in another. Crack down on trafficking here, and you create extra rents to trafficking over there. The “balloon theory” to explain the futility of supply-disruption policies is not in serious doubt.

And yet, suddenly, ask a gringo leftie about applying the same damn lesson to oil and everyone goes insane.

I like to think of it as Keystone XL Derrangement Syndrome: the way perfectly reasonable North American environmentalists take leave of their senses when this benighted pipeline is mentioned. Thinking that not building the pipeline will somehow decrease oil consumption makes no sense.

And yet, I really hope they succeed in stopping it: not because I think it’ll make the slightest bit of difference to Greenhouse Gas emissions – it won’t – but because deep down, beneath the sedimentary layers of cynicism, I’m still a Venezuelan patriot, and Keystone XL is a disaster for Venezuela.

The strategic picture gets blurred in all the derangement. But back to basics: Keystone XL is designed very specifically to elbow Venezuelan heavy crude out of the Gulf Coast refining market.

The whole idea that if you stop Keystone XL, somehow less oil is produced and consumed is infantile: the question isn’t “how much?” it’s “where from?” (And if you think exploiting the Orinoco Belt is less environmentally dicey than piping oil through Nebraska, there’s a mountain of coke in Jose I’d like to sell you.)

If the Venezuelan government had the bandwidth to think longer term – which it manifestly doesn’t – it would grasp Keystone XL as a key strategic threat. The main reason anyone would want to take Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast is because that’s where the refineries that can handle crappy, high-sulphur, high-tar content crude are. And the whole reason they’re got built there in the first place is to handle Venezuelan crude. This is why KeystoneXL is such an important piece of the North American Energy Independence puzzle: it’s what it takes to shut Venezuela out of the North American market.

Of course, a government that’s long made it positively a policy goal to shift Venezuelan production away from the U.S. may not be able to register that as a threat. Ideology is always going to prevail with them. But that’s only the umpteenth policy mistake the Venezuelan government made today before breakfast.

Even in a post-Keystone XL future where Venezuela doesn’t have access to North American energy buyers, Venezuela will find buyers for its oil, of course. It’s just that it will have to ship that oil further to get it to refineries that will need to be reconfigured (or built from scratch) to handle it, and each part of that costs money: money Venezuela could use for any of the thousand pressing and growing policy problems going unaddressed right now.

Listen, Venezuela wastes so much money in so many crazy ways right now, it’s easy to get blasé or, worse, to give in to the nihilism that says “well, it’s just money that would go to chavistas anyway, who cares?”

BS. This isn’t about chavistas or non-chavistas, this is about bedrock national interest. Stopping Keystone XL should be one of Venezuela’s top foreign policy priority regardless of who is in power.

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