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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/12/15

Jon Stewart's False Equivalence

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At our house we Tivo our television shows and so often don't see them right away. I was catching up on Jon Stewart on the day before he announced his departure from the Daily Show.

In a January 15, 2015 episode, Stewart humorously cast the debate about whether or not to let the Keystone XL pipeline cross the US from Canada on its way to coastal endpoints as the right's desire to improve infrastructure so as to keep us safe from the threat of terrorism versus the left's fear that billowing black clouds, presumably of particulates, will contaminate our children. In doing so he follows in the journalistic tradition of airing both sides of an argument, if fatuously, while leavening it with comedy. But look closer and you see imbalance.

Can tar sands, the filthiest of oils, be allowed to come through the US, asks Stewart? Why not, he answers himself; the US is already crisscrossed by dirty pipelines. When Congress was asked to permit the provenance of those earlier pipelines there was no problem. Keystone XL caused such a commotion only because, in 2011, environmentalists decided to embrace that cause. Before environmental activists got involved, pipeline permissions were a given. Now, with activists fanning the flames, both sides dig in with their most persuasive rhetoric.

The camera closes in on Stewart as he settles the question. The truth, he tells us, is that the US already has Mario-brothers levels of pipelines; adding the XL would be like farting in a manure factory. Even in a relatively zero-sum fight, he says, if you can tap into our country's vast outrage reserves, you can take a fight that should have lasted just one day and stretch it out to several hundred. You can't quench the US' thirst for dirty oil, he concludes, but at least you might bring it in some safer way.

Stewart hasn't distilled the problem; he's distorted it.

The Athabasca oil sands in Alberta hold large amounts of bitumen, an unconventional petroleum. Each grain of oil sand is double-coated with a layer of water wrapped by a layer of bitumen. Much heavier than other crude oils, bitumen stains the tar sands black and makes them viscous. Bitumen does not gush; it must be scraped out by strip or open-pit mining, or liquefied with steam injected deeply. Once extracted, at room temperature crude bitumen flows like cold molasses. To make it flow at all it must be heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. Making one barrel of oil from bitumen takes about two tons of tar sands. When this oil is burned, its emissions exceed those of conventional oil by 12 percent.

The energy it takes to produce conventional oil, the average 'energy return on investment' or EROI, is about 25 to 1--for every one unit of energy used to extract conventional oil, 25 units of oil-based energy obtain. For tar sands secured by surface mining, the EROI is about 5 to 1, while tar sands extracted more deeply through steam injection obtain a maximum average ratio of about 2.9 to 1.

Because of these conditions, oil sands were never considered part of the oil reserves. But now our nets are cast more broadly. With the climate already spiraling into an unwholesome new normal, a state of disruption induced by man, we double down, wringing beads of prolifically filthy petroleum from tons of boreal-forest soil. Not just from there, of course; from previously frozen tundra, from ocean depths, from anywhere that we can wrest it.

So-called environmental activists who oppose Keystone XL count these factors and more in their opposition. And my guess is that Jon knows it.

Some people, especially among the young, mistrust the flawless porcelain visages of corporate anchors and get much or all of their perspective on political life from alternatives such as the Daily Show. Stewart reveals hypocrisy in political figures with an unblinking comedic eye, an eye he sometimes turns disarmingly on himself. He has done a lot to drop the scales, but ascertains they don't drop far. Remember it was Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert whose Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear poked fun at attempts to change politics through public protest. Now Stewart reduces the left's position on Keystone XL to a petulant tap into outrage reserves.

It has justifiably been said that satire can be more persuasive than pompous displays of righteousness. But satire can also be used to drain and enervate. Jon Stewart would never have occupied the place he did for 17 years had he truly been a thorn in the side of the Establishment. In fact, with his habit of pulling punches, maybe he performed a service.

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Schooled in psychology and biomedical illustration, of course I became a medical writer!

In 2014 my husband and I and our kitty moved from Colorado, where Jerry had been born, to Canada, where I had been. (Born.)
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