The fuss about the Keystone XL pipeline

Kevin Hengehold June 11, 2013 0

fuss_proposed_routeOn Sunday approximately fifty people were in attendance at the Valley Unitarian Universalist church in Chandler to educate themselves on the risks and rewards of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Larky Hodges, a lifelong storyteller and veteran climate activist, took the stage to inform the eager crowd what’s happened so far and what may yet unfold.

The struggle over the Keystone pipeline has gone on for years. Designed to ship the Alberta tar sands to the gulf coast of Texas for refinement and export, it was originally proposed in July of 2005 by TransCanada, the owner/operator of the pipeline. It worked its way through Canadian bureaucracy until July 2010, when the EPA declared the draft environmental impact study to be “unduly narrow” for failing to look at the greenhouse gas impact the pipeline would have.

Since then, the pipeline has become a “line in the sand” for the climate justice movement. The fervor was fueled primarily by the analysis of James Hansen, legendary climate scientist, who said that pursuing this pipeline would be “game over” for the climate.

Thousands responded to his warnings. In the final two weeks of August 2011, over 1,200 activists travelled to Washington DC to take arrest in protest of the pipeline’s approval. Less than two months later, in November, between 6,000 and 12,000 demonstrators returned, encircling the white house with their protest against tar sands oil. On President’s Day 40,000-50,000 protesters returned to DC to march against the pipeline.

Why do they keep doing it? (Full disclosure: I was one of the 40,000-50,000). The reasons are numerous, but they boil down to two main issues:
1. Climate change. The Alberta Tar Sands represent the largest untapped pool of carbon on the planet. According to the University of Oxford, we can afford to put one trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere before 2050 if we have any hope of keeping the average temperature increase below 2oC. To date, we’ve burned enough fossil fuels to put 570 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. The tar sands contain 240 billion metric tons of carbon, or more than half of our available carbon budget. Because the tar sands are essentially solid in the ground, they require an immense amount of processing, fueled by natural gas. This means that a tar sands barrel of oil is 30% more carbon intensive than the average barrel of oil. Clearly, any effort to curb our addiction to oil and stem the rising sea levels would be moot if the tar sands are developed.
2. Safety. As the slogan goes, “All pipelines leak.” Tar sands are acidic, diluted in abrasive materials like quartz and pyrite, and extremely viscous, which means tar sands pipelines operate at higher pressure than conventional pipelines. We’ve already seen the results of these risky practices. In July 2010, a tar sands pipeline in Kalamazoo, Michigan, burst open, spewing tar sands oil into an open field and eventually the Talmadge Creek, whereupon it travelled into the Kalamazoo River and a nearby lake. Tar sands oils are heavier than conventional crude, meaning that they sink in water, making them nearly impossible to remove. Several years later, the river remains contaminated. A similar story is currently unfolding in Mayflower, Arkansas. In case you were curious, the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to go over the Ogallala Aquifer, the main water source for the nation’s bread belt. Maybe the tar sands will add a certain spice to your cereal; try it, you’ll like it…

The reasons in favor of construction fall apart upon any inspection. The clarion call of the pro-pipeline population has been “jobs, jobs, jobs.” In our dismal economy, how dare these activists deny Americans the chance to earn an honest day’s wage?

Well, it turns out TransCanda was using some… creative methods to arrive at its job estimates. In fact, the State Department concluded that the pipeline will only generate 35 permanent jobs. And a Cornell study found that the pipeline may ultimately destroy more jobs than it creates.

It has also been said that the pipeline provides energy security – why not avoid “conflict oil” from the Middle East or South America? Except this is an export pipeline, headed straight to the Gulf of Mexico. China alone has invested $10 Billion in Canada’s tar sands. Clearly they are expecting a large return on their investment. Similarly, the argument that this will decrease gas prices doesn’t hold water; due to an oversupply of gas in the Midwest, prices remain low. The pipeline would allow that supply to seek greater profits elsewhere, driving up prices in several Midwestern states.

So then, what is to be done?

This pipeline, if it will be built, requires the approval of the State Department and the President himself. You can call the State Department at 202-261-8081, and the phone number for the White House is 202-456-1111.
Moreover, the pipeline is a capitalist enterprise, which means it needs investors. If those investors can be persuaded to divest from the project, if the contractors are convinced to build something else, then it can’t continue. Get creative.

Indeed, now is the time to exercise our financial muscles. Although the Alberta Tar Sands represent a majority of our remaining carbon budget, they are not the only carbon reserves we have. In fact, it’s been calculate that the world’s proven carbon reserves, already owned and controlled by extractive industries, add up to four times the present carbon budget. These companies need to be defunded so they can’t inflict the planetary damage their shareholders expect.

You, dear reader, who attends a school with an endowment, lives in a city/county/state with an investment portfolio, or contributes to a favorite Big Green NGO playing the market, you have influence over a great amount of capital currently funding the coming climate calamity. Make it known that these organizations you associate with won’t ruin the planet, not in your name. Check out to find a campaign going on in your community or to start your own.

The crisis of climate change is multifaceted; energy, transportation, and food are a few of the sectors of the economy that need to be reformed to adjust to the realities of our changing climate. For better or worse, these areas are all subject to the pressures of the capitalist economic system that bore them; it is time to use the tools of that system against the industries and organizations that would profit from ruining our planet and our future.