HOW DID the out-of-state activists protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline arrive at the North Dakota site? How were the sleeping bags they will use when the high plains winter arrives manufactured and shipped to the stores at which they were purchased? What are the plastics made of in the phones they have been using at Standing Rock, N.D.?
Many things make the global economy possible, but a major one, unfortunately, continues to be oil. The world is addicted to crude because it is energy dense and easy to transport. Practically nothing modern Americans do — including protesting an oil pipeline — would be possible without it. This inescapable fact means that demand for the stuff is huge. And if there is a market for a product, suppliers will attempt to meet that demand, in all sorts of ways. In and around North Dakota, that has meant sucking it from underground shale formations and transporting it out of the area by truck and train. Pipeline transport would make it safer.
A significant number of those protesting Dakota Access are doing so because they feel the project has infringed on the rights of local tribes. Federal courts and the Obama administration are in the process of sorting that out, though the fact that the pipeline would not be built on reservation land and follows the route of an existing gas line undercuts their case.
Even so, environmental activists have latched onto the cause, styling it “the new Keystone.” We do not fault anyone for objecting to global oil dependence. The world must burn continually less to combat climate change. But that transition should be orderly and predictable . If anti-pipeline activism has much impact on the global oil equation, it is to promote short-term volatility in the oil market, making it marginally more prone to temporary price shocks that hurt lower-income people the most.
In the long term, piecemeal pipeline activism accomplishes little, because it does not shift underlying demand for the fuel. As long as people demand oil, the incentive for someone, somewhere to meet that demand will compel entrepreneurial people to supply it. Doing so is not particularly hard: A massive global oil supply network already exists. Even in places environmentalists try to cordon off, they can be only partially successful: As environmentalists took down the Keystone XL pipeline, oil train and truck transport boomed, posing much more danger to the surrounding environment than that pipeline would have.
The activists are right about the danger of climate change. They could make a real impact if they channeled their energy into protecting and enhancing President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, which will cut U.S. gasoline demand over time by forcing cars and trucks to use less oil, and enacting a carbon tax that would make alternatives to coal and oil steadily more competitive.