The Keystone Pipeline debate needs scenarios. In the 13 August issue of New Scientist (Surprise! Keystone XL will make climate change worse), Hal Hodson covers a new report on the Keystone pipeline that suggests it will result in lower fuel costs, and therefore encourage the use of fossil fuels, which will ultimately contribute to greenhouse gases (110 million tones of CO2 per year.) The U.S. Department of State see zero impact, because the output from the Alberta fields will reach American consumers regardless of how it gets here. The pipeline doesn’t stop production, it just provides an alternative route. And of course, many fear pipeline failure and the release of oil into the environment, a not unfounded fear given past experiences like the 2006 Prudhoe Bay oil spill. But even then, that quarter-inch gap prompted rapid repair and the introduction of new technology to hopefully avoid future leaks. Others hope for an economic boom related to the jobs required to build the pipeline.
The fact is, no one knows what will happen in the future. Keystone needs scenarios that looks a the proposal from a multi-varient perspective, one that include qualitative imaging as much as quantitative history (you can’t have quantitative futures because there is no data about the future). Factors in such a scenario set would include viability of alternative energies, stability of the land over which the pipeline flows, economics of the states (with both a big “S” and a small “s,” and the economic, political and social viability of Hydraulic fracturing, fracking. Another uncertainty comes from the fate of jobs and industries that are built around the pipeline. Do they, for instance, create strong economic centers that continue to thrive and contribute after the pipeline’s completion, or do they, like so many mining-related jobs, disappear, along with the towns that rise around them, after the job is done.
These and other uncertainties would be used to create a set of scenarios that look at both risk and reward related to the pipeline. I’ve seen plenty of discussion of pros and cons from different perspectives, even net neutral analysis, but I haven’t seen a comprehensive imaging of the pipeline’s economics and physics 30 or 50 years into the future that combines multiple possibilities into one cohesive set of analysis. Scenarios could help explore issues like: If we end up with a future served mostly by alternative energy, the pipeline would end up as much a historical remnant as the fossil fuels that flow through it. On the other hand, alternative fuels flounder, or new demands for fossil fuels occur (such as a hot war) then the US may well not just want, but need, oil from a friendly source. Advocates for any one uncertainty, jobs for instance, will fall prey to the confirmation bias and present plenty of data to demonstrate how the pipeline will create jobs. On the other hand, environmental activists will trot out data related to environmental disasters lying in wait. Both and neither may end up in Keystone’s future. The real future question that needs to be asked, is, after looking at a broad swath of what could be the result of building the pipeline, do enough positive argument emerge from that speculation to warrant the pipeline, or do negative factors and uncertainties overwhelm positive ideas to the point that the risk becomes clearly higher than the reward?
I’m not going to go through all the possible outcomes (unless one of the Keystone parities wants to engage in a workshop,) but I will reiterate that I think the current back-and-forth is under-informed and therefore not useful in decision making. We don’t know enough about how the future factors that influence the perceived and real economic value of a project like Keystone will play out. The only way to get close is to robustly imagine them using proven techniques that help people speculate about the future in a meaningful way. The Keystone pipeline needs scenarios. Any decision made without them will likely be a biased guess rather than a well-reasoned and dispassionate bet made after at least making an attempt to really understand the context.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.