“Understanding the Keystone decision”

by Alan Burns

A stunning victory for those opposed to the pipeline. The decision, coming just four days after 10,000 activists surrounded the White House to reinforce the message that the proposed pipeline which would have passed over the aquifer in Nebraska, was a surprise. While we’d learned on November 1st that President Obama had taken the decision away from the State Department, everyone expected his pronouncement later in the year or even perhaps next January.

So, yes, this signals a stunning victory for those opposed to the pipeline. Credit is due to Bill McKibben of 350.org for harnessing the full weight of the environmental community to rally around this project and focus on the extremely significant impact on climate change that would ensue. But while a huge victory in the battle, it does not win the war against the power of the oil companies. There is still much to be done to hold President Obama to his election promise that “we must be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil”. Everyone concerned about the health and future of the planet needs to stay vigilant because it’s a given that the oil elite have lots at stake and aren’t simply going away because of this one loss.

What went wrong? The State Department flunked its job. Probably the expectation of business as usual – the corporate world usually gets what it wants – lulled them into complacency. But hiring a firm, Cardno Entrix, which had very close ties to TransCanada, the firm wanting to build the pipeline, to conduct the environmental impact study was a huge error which finally brought not only accusations of incompetence from the EPA, but demands for an inquiry in Congress led by Senator Bernie Sanders. This threw the ball into Obama’s court. He came late in the day to the issue forced by the actions up to Labor Day when 1253 people were arrested in a 2-week protest outside the White House, followed by Keystone demonstrations nationwide wherever he ventured. Letters and visits to Obama offices only added weight to the outcry. Ultimately the people spoke and he listened.

What happens next? All is uncertain. TransCanada intends to continue their commitment should the pipeline win approval after 2013. The delay is costly. I have no idea if the contracts for land use from the Canadian border through to Texas are a loss for them if their plans die. It is a big embarrassment for the Canadian government who pressured the White House and Nebraska politicians to allow the pipeline to proceed, calling it a ‘no-brainer’. There are other options. TransCanada raised the threat of sending the tar sands oil to Canada’s west coast and shipping to Asia; China would want it if we don’t was their threat, and we’d be stuck relying on Middle-east oil when we could have gotten it from a friendly neighbor. But oil refineries are expensive to build, which is why Texas was appealing. As far as I know, the Chinese would be ten years off building such facilities to accept tar sands oil, and if it were financially feasible, I would imagine Canada would have refined it themselves. A major problem ahead for TransCanada should they pursue a pipeline across to Kitmat on British Columbia’s coast, is the likely First Nation opposition along with other environmental groups. This Northern Gateway pipeline is already witnessing opposition in the continuing struggle to halt development of tar sands oil – (hundreds protest Enbridge). Following the success of the protest here in the U.S. could bolster Canadian opposition.

Possible problem ahead. Enbridge enters the scene. Another pipeline firm in Canada has plans to construct pipelines to Texas to carry tar sands oil. Approval came on August 20, 2009, when the U.S. State Department approved documents permitting the pipeline to cross the border at Neche, North Dakota. One major strike against Enbridge is that 16 months ago they were responsible for a spill of 840,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River; that is still not cleaned up entirely and has cost billions.

The Alberta tar sands emblematic of a new era.  In 2002 Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen suggested at the British Geosociety that somewhere around 1800 we had moved on from the Holocene age which had lasted over 500 million years to a new epoch – the Anthropocene Age – an age where the global environment was affected by human activity. The Geological Society of London is acknowledged as the authority to define Earth’s eras, and a new era is the result of fossil fuel pollution. How can we expect the public in a 24-hour news media cycle to get their heads around the next few million years that we’ve brought on by our expectation of cheap energy exhausting earth’s resources?

The fight goes on. We can savor a major victory because of Obama’s decision on November 10th. But environmentalists cannot rest, and I’m certain those leading the fight against Keystone will be vigilant. The struggle primarily is to stop the tar sands being exploited altogether. It is a carbon bomb. Estimates that it would ultimately add 200 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere is the crux of the issue when we are well past the 350 ppm mark that is considered the safety level for an acceptably inhabitable planet. It cannot be allowed – it would be planetary suicide. President Obama should be kept on notice through 2012 that he is still accountable. Delaying the decision was a political one for re-election purposes. He elected to neither anger the environmental movement nor the unions, both of whom he needs for reelection. We need to remind him, constantly, that he has to step up his game; it would be a serious error to sit back and believe we’ve won the war against polluting oil. We’ve won an important round, and we are now in a much stronger position to show that finally, environmental considerations become business as usual, not fossil fuel dominance as heretofore. The days of corporate dominance and greed, those assumed norms of doing business to benefit the rich, are what is under attack by the Occupy movement.

Activist leaders explain how they beat the Keystone XL pipeline – link