The Tar Sands Pipeline Is Off the Table for Now, But False Promises Remain
Talk in the politically active wings of the environmental movement is all about President Obama’s decision last week to reject a plan by TransCanada to build a massive oil pipeline from Canadia’s tar sands to refineries in Texas—a plan that would open the floodgates of the carbon-emitting energy industry just far enough to merit what many climate scientists fear would be the utter failure of any efforts to mitigate global climate change.
The president rightfully blamed Republicans in Congress, who gave him an arbitrary window to make his decision on the project that did not allow for proper environmental assessments to be made or concerns about the pipeline’s route to be addressed. But Obama’s decision leaves TransCanada with the option to apply again, and the significant backing for the Keystone XL pipeline among labor unions and other traditionally Democratic groups places him once more in a difficult political bind; environmentalists win this round, but this project and many others that pose threats to global climate, human and ecological communities and overall human health are not going away.
The problem is that supporters of Keystone XL and other polluting resource extraction initiatives have effectively framed the debate for voters and politicians alike around jobs and short-term economic gains instead of long-term damage to the planet and profiting off of technological stagnation or rampant consumerism. When Americans see a blueprint for an oil pipeline, they see energy and infrastructure progress. And when they see the president denying a permit for such a plan, no matter what the context, they often fall for the right-wing squawking (this time from GOP presidential hopefuls) about liberals being destructive to the economy and catering to extremist environmental groups.
So what can we environmentalists do to change the way this debate is unfolding within the chaotic presidential race? I propose that we would do well to stick to our guns on the most potent weapon in our arsenal: scientific and demonstrable truth. Not only are the details surrounding Obama’s decision important—he was legally bound to ensure the appropriate impact assessments were undergone and was pressured by Canadian officials to ignore environmental impacts they de facto acknowledged–but the details about the pipeline itself must be cleared up.
Keystone, if built, would indeed create several thousand construction jobs. But these jobs would only be temporary, and estimates by the State Department place the number of permanent American jobs created by this gargantuan project at about 20. That’s right. Twenty. With regards to energy production, most of the oil extracted at a high environmental cost from Canadian tar sands would be exported to China. And, further exposing the Keystone scam, the pipeline would not necessarily increase the amount of oil we import from Canada at all or solidify our so-called energy security; Canada’s crude export pipelines currently only run at about half capacity.
When voters and activists concerned with environmental and human health, as well as the nation’s long-term domestic energy production, message in opposition to Keystone’s industry supporters and their Republican allies we must be very clear: Keystone XL is the same old wolf in the same old sheep’s clothing. Oil companies are constantly trying to convince the American public that we must pave the way for their tremendous profits if our economy is to thrive or our light bulbs are to glow. But these companies use highly visible plans such as Keystone as nothing more than political blackmail; if lawmakers and voters don’t follow the wishes of Big Oil, they are labeled as undermining the American economy and American jobs.
This argument is as ancient as the industries themselves, a fact that underscores what is really at stake in this debate. Oil companies and the politicians they purchase are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of American voters, and “radical” environmentalists become a perfect scapegoat for any accurate information that does not follow their narrative. Moreover, they are trying—mostly successfully—to stall the global economy within an outdated and unsustainable energy paradigm. In order to win this fight, we must cast ourselves on the side of a sustainable and technologically progressive future. Environmental activists must represent an alternative economy of localized energy production with renewable, clean sources instead of temporary jobs building a temporary project that attempts to ignore the realities of climate change and peak oil.
The debate over Keystone XL and energy security has, for too long, been dominated by an assumption that we must rely on fuel sources that will not only disappear but will ruin our planet’s climate and the health of millions in the process. If President Obama and other sympathetic politicians (or even industries) are to be pushed to fundamentally transform this economic paradigm, environmentalists will be increasingly responsible for providing the American electorate with a clear, rational and economically feasible alternative.