What I am about to say may be considered blasphemy: I think the tar sands protests are misguided and will not (should not) achieve their stated goal. Before you grab your sustainably harvested bamboo pitchforks, I should say that I want the protests and arrests to continue, because there could be a much greater win, if we play it right.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is not the problem. Approval of the pipeline will not be “Game over for climate” anymore than the resurgence in Afghani poppy production is “Game over for heroin addicts.”  Like America’s misguided War on Drugs, the attack on the Keystone XL pipeline approval is confusing cause and effect, symptoms and disease.

After decades of fighting, it’s pretty clear that the War on Drugs has failed. The reason is that drugs are not the enemy; addiction is the enemy. Fighting the wrong enemy has wasted countless billions of dollars, imprisoned millions of our citizens, and given rise to vast empires of narco-traffickers, destabilized nations and allowed terrorist networks to thrive. However, it’s done little to reduce drug use, addiction, or any of the associated the problems.

Progressives, scientists, and others in the reality-based community view the “drug problem” not as a military challenge, but as an educational and public health challenge.  When drug addiction is viewed as a disease, we can fight the disease through prevention, education, and treatment. If we legalized some drugs, controlled them and taxed them to pay for treatment, education and abuse prevention, we could have a healthier, wealthier and wiser society. Why don’t we view oil addiction the same way as drug addiction?  

The cause of climate destabilization and ocean acidification is not oil, pipelines or tar sands, but the fact that our economy is built around fossil energy, and the climate impacts are not included in the financial cost. Shutting down the pipeline is like busting one drug cartel: the demand for oil doesn’t change, the supply is still there, and the problems associated with it don’t go away.  Rather than fight this battle and certainly lose it (yes, the pipeline will be approved eventually; the political and economic beneficiaries are too many and too powerful),  we need to redirect this massive income stream towards something that actually solves the problem.

Here’s a sample proposal: Tar sands oil will displace imported oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, but has a 40% higher enviromental impact. Let’s levy an fee to offset that difference as it crosses our nation.  Use this fund to offset carbon impacts by planting hundreds and thousands of acres of forests, funding research and adoption of renewable energy technology, and promoting green jobs and energy efficiency.  Let’s add a cleanup reserve for possible spills.  

In terms of political calculus, we need these protests to give the Obama administration cover to do the right thing.  We need more arrests, civil disobedience, outraged letters to Congress, so keep it up, all of you.   The President will compromise, that’s his specialty, and maybe we’ll get a carbon tax that only applies to tar sands oil, but it will be the first step in our long path out of addiction.