Keystone XL: Pumping Environmentalists' Time and Effort

Archana Ramanujam

As the Sierra Club, one of the more conservative environmental groups in the country, gears up for civil disobedience (a big deal, I know) against the construction of Keystone XL, it does appear that ‘green’ America’s guns are out of the holsters and definitively blazing.

For the uninitiated, Keystone XL (KXL) is a proposed pipeline to transport tar sands crude oil (really dirty crude oil) from Alberta, Canada to southern Texas, motherland of oil refineries. TransCanada, a Canadian oil company, is behind this whole palaver. Part of the pipeline is already in existence, running from Alberta to Oklahoma and Illinois, but the extensions will add significant mileage.

The mere fact that this debate has been going on since 2008, when the pipeline extension was first proposed, has turned the elephant in the room into more of a whale. Why haven’t environmental groups, such as Bill McKibben’s 350, been able to silence TransCanada and their proposal yet, if it is supposedly pumping in this era’s apocalypse?

The answer to this question is obvious. There is much to be gained from the pipeline’s extension, including jobs, energy security and an ever-needed boost to the economy. Environmentalists often pooh-pooh these benefits, but these very benefits have succeeded in keeping those same environmentalists at bay, as well as maintaining sufficient confusion in Congress such that we are still discussing this issue in April of 2013. In short, the political salience of jobs, economic growth and energy security cannot be underestimated.

Paralyzed in the political gridlock of Keystone, there is an argument to be made that environmental groups staked too much on KXL, whilst other ‘green’ issues that could potentially have borne politically viable fruit in the meantime have been left fallow, starved of political capital.

If last month’s State Department report on KXL is to be believed, then yes, the ‘green’ players staked too much. According to the State Department, greenhouse gas emissions would not be heavily augmented by the expansion of the Keystone pipelines decision. There is also a touch of fatalism; if not by pipeline, then by train or barge, crude oil and diluted bitument (affectionately known as dilbit) will make its way into America, they reasoned. If inevitable, we ought to do it in the most sustainable way possible, right?

There are others that argue for pushing alternatives, such as stricter emissions standards for power plants, that may have the same impact if not even greater in terms of reducing CO2 emissions than refusing the extension of KXL. It is also more implementable in the sense that it does not provoke quite the same partisan divisions in Congress as the pipeline, meaning this effectively could have happened years ago.

Obama, too, in recent times, seems to be leaning towards approving the pipeline. The politics of the environment are a tough sell when many Americans are struggling in a crippled economy; he may feel that the economic benefits and increased employment are worth the temperature rising a few degrees.

All in all, this paints a grim picture of the choice environmentalists have made in making Keystone the cornerstone of their latest campaign and the recipient of their collective political capital. That being said, the large benefits of doing so, as well as the ramifications of losing, cannot be overlooked.

The tar-sands crude oil that will be flowing in these pipelines is substantially dirtier than regular oil, producing roughly 17% more greenhouse gas emissions. Many environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have argued that the effects of KXL on greenhouse gas emissions are up to six times the amount the State Department estimates. 6 x negligible is not quite as negligible, whatever you say. Add in that 17%, do some funny algorithms, and voila; -- the environmentalists’ case seems a little sturdier.

While a risky bet, the campaign does not qualify as an outright failure. TransCanada actually made two separate proposals for this pipeline; the first one in 2008 was more extensive in its reach than the current one under consideration. Needless to say, the first one proposal for the pipeline was denied. While the credit cannot go entirely to environmental groups, they most definitely tipped the scale.

The pipeline has now become a monolithic rallying point in the anti-fossil fuels movement; a universal villain for Greenpeace, 350 and the Sierra Club alike. The significance and power of KXL as a symbol cannot be underestimated; an environmental cause has not created such passionate, salient unity since the Clean Air and Water Acts passed in the 1970s. Its reach extends across the Atlantic, at the very least; there were KXL protesters outside the G8 summit last week in London. Comrades in arms.

KXL’s effects have been felt here at Dartmouth, too. The divestment campaigns that have taken hold on college campuses nationwide are a product of the hullabaloo raised around KXL and fossil fuels. These campaigns brought much-needed attention to the fact that colleges, such as Dartmouth, rely on such investments and that college students, for once, can actually affect change. It remains to be seen whether the administration at Dartmouth will bend to the students (as it so rarely does) and actually release information about its vague ‘Natural Resources’ investments. Whether a critical mass of divestment can be reached to actually make a difference is also a good question, though I remain optimistic.

It remains to be said that the ‘fossil-fuel’ angle from which environmentalists have been approaching KXL is not necessarily going to win this battle, as the past 5 years have shown. Nevertheless, help may be at hand. Exxon-Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which runs from Patoka, Illinois, to Nederland, Texas, made the news just last week as it spilled barrel upon barrel of oil in Arkansas. Pegasus carries roughly 90,000 barrels per day. KXL has the potential to carry 830,000.

There have been an increasing number of doubting Thomases in the news since this most recent spill. They aren’t the Bill McKibbens of the world, but rather Texan farmers worried about their land. A minor leak would constitute a major leak if you had 830,000 barrels worth of tar-sands oil pumping through a leaky pipe.

The optimist in me wants to believe that protests against KXL were and will be well-worth environmentalists’ time and effort. However, I have a sneaking suspicion, that I’d rather not acknowledge, that it won’t be. For now, though, the jury is still out.