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Clearing Our Heads About Keystone

(Photo: @p91fun / Flickr)

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On the last day of January, a quiet Friday afternoon, the US State Department released its final supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would enable tar-sands oil to be transported from the moonscape pits of western Canada to Nebraska, where it would connect to other pipelines leading to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The impact statement was intended to provide President Obama with the information he needs to resolve his hesitancy about the pipeline, which requires his permission. In the speech on climate change he gave last June, he made his decision contingent on the pipeline’s projected impact on carbon emissions:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

What Does the Report Recommend?

While considered final, the report is not free from a lurking ambiguity, illustrated by two statements in its Executive Summary. The first admits that tar-sands oils “emit an estimated 17 percent more GHGs [greenhouse gases] on a lifecycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States in 2005” (ES-15). This counts as a major strike against it – especially given that the pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of the viscous substance every day for refinement and eventual combustion. Thus, the president’s premise about “the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate” provides a solid reason to reject the project. When a climate under siege has already unleashed super hurricanes, mega-droughts, record floods and extended heat waves, we can’t be pumping the waste from 6 million more barrels of heavy oil every week into our carbon-saturated skies.

However, a few paragraphs further down in the executive summary, we read that “approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States” (ES-16). In plain English, this means that even if Obama rejects the pipeline, Canadian tar-sands oil is still going to be extracted, transported to refineries and burned in the same quantities. If it doesn’t move by pipe, it will be carried by rail and trucks. It therefore ultimately makes no difference to the climate whether he approves the project or rejects it; the consequences will be the same. Since, according to the report, the net impact on the climate turns out to be negligible, this provides what seems to be a pale, almost apologetic, justification for approving it.

Let’s Be Pragmatic

Despite the report’s apparent verdict that the pipeline won’t make much of a difference to the climate, it would be short-sighted to accept its assessment at face value. Reflection turns up several cogent reasons for denying the permit. Some are pragmatic, but others take us to a more systemic level.

Taking the pragmatic reasons first, two often-touted myths should at once be dispelled. One is that all the oil transported by the pipeline is going to be available for consumption in the United States. To the contrary, the oil will enter the global market and be sold wherever it fetches the best price. The second myth is that the project will create tens of thousands of good jobs. While the pipeline is being built, the report says, it will create 42,000 jobs, but these will last only during the year or two of construction. Once the pipeline goes into operation, the pipeline “would generate approximately 50 jobs” (ES-19; emphasis mine). Thus the real benefits of the pipeline accrue, not to the American people, but to the contractor, TransCanada, and to the fossil fuel corporations that will market the oil.

An increase in emissions is not the pipeline’s only environmental impact. The report also mentions the potential for oil spills. The Keystone pipeline would cross over a thousand bodies of surface water, including 56 perennial rivers and streams, 24 miles of floodplains, and the Ogallala and Great Plains Aquifers (ES-21), at the heartland of US agriculture. If a spill should reach flowing water, “the extent of the release could become very large, potentially affecting soil, wildlife and vegetation along miles of river and shoreline.” The heavy oil can sink to the bottom of streams and rivers and become an ongoing cause of toxicity (ES-19). Despite precautions, breaks can occur in the most carefully built pipes, as we’ve witnessed too often. A major spill from the Keystone pipeline would release streams of highly noxious substances across wide swaths of the route, poisoning soils and vital supplies of water used for drinking and agriculture. The pipeline is not worth endangering the populations along the route and jeopardizing the fertile American grain basket. In the scuffle to preserve the planet, Keystone XL has emerged as the battleground, the place where we draw a line in the sand, even if that sand is soaked with oil.

Thus, quite apart from carbon emissions, there are cogent reasons for rejecting the pipeline. But looking again at the question of carbon emissions opens up a more systemic issue. In its statement that approval or denial of any particular transport project is unlikely to impact the extraction and consumption of the tar sands, the impact report blithely ignores the incontrovertible fact that our economy operates in the confines of fixed laws of nature. These laws decree that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap solar radiation, heating up the atmosphere and oceans and altering the climate. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve raised the average global temperature by .8° C, instigating a series of weather disasters around the planet. We’re currently on track to push the temperature up by 4° C by the end of the present century. A rise in global temperature of more than 2° C is considered dangerous enough. A rise of 4° C would spell catastrophe, irreparably damaging many of the critical systems that sustain human life on earth.

There is a fixed ceiling to the quantity of carbon we can release into the atmosphere without setting off irreversible changes that will transform the face of the planet and prove inhospitable to human life. We’re rapidly approaching that limit, drawing ever closer as newly industrialized countries try to stake out more prominent roles in the global market economy. If we’re to avoid catastrophe, we’ve got to know where to stop and when to stop, and then we’ve got to make the firm decision to actually stop our self-destructive behavior. In the scuffle to preserve the planet, Keystone XL has emerged as the battleground, the place where we draw a line in the sand, even if that sand is soaked with oil.

For historical reasons, it’s up to the United States to draw the line and say we won’t cross it. The impact statement, however, seems to treat the government, including the president, as a mere passive observer being pushed along by the irresistible tide of economic necessity. But while our government officials often act like passive pawns, they always retain the power to make decisions, and these decisions have far-reaching consequences.

Changing Our Diets

One can always argue of any project designed to exploit reserves of fossil fuels that if one country or company does not take it up, some other country or company will do so; if one means of transporting the crude substance to refineries is not used, another method will be adopted. Roughly four-fifths of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – are still buried beneath the ground. If we are going to extract them and consume them simply because they are there, just to provide a potent source of energy, in no long time we will create climate chaos and bring civilization crashing down upon itself. The first big challenge in breaking a self-destructive habit is always to take the first step; the second is to stand firm against the temptation to relapse.

Our present situation might be compared to a house of people who are all high-risk medical cases. Despite warnings from their doctor, they go on eating sausages, pizza and milk shakes. If a visitor brings them a chocolate cake, the residents might reflect that since the cake is on the table, they may as well eat it and adopt a healthy diet later, next month or next year. However, junk food will always be available. If they eat the cake, this will encourage their visitors to bring more. The residents must recognize that they shouldn’t postpone a change of diet, even if that means leaving the cake in the fridge. But a strong will is needed to implement such a decision, and naturally, everyone will expect the most influential resident in the house to take the first step.

Our position is exactly analogous to this, and the burden of resisting the cake has fallen to the United States. Other world leaders are waiting for the United States, historically the world’s largest carbon polluter, to make the decision that will break our global addiction to fossil fuels. By default, that responsibility rests with the president, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the fulcrum on which we must turn around.

A Choice between Two Destinies

If the United States continues to exploit, consume and sell fossil fuels, whether conventional or unconventional, the rest of the world will see that as a signal to pursue whatever sources of energy they can get their hands on, no matter how polluting. Conferences on tackling climate change will remain just forums for pretty talk. But there is an escape route. Instead of submitting blandly to the decree that the exploitation of Canada’s tar-sands oil is inevitable, the president could heed the obligation to do what is necessary to safeguard the human population. He could and should do what is morally and pragmatically right. He could and should step forward and say, “We’re not going to do this; the risk is just too great. It is a dangerous act that is in the interest neither of our nation nor the world.” And not only must he say this, but he must also explain clearly why he has made that decision, propose viable and safe alternatives, and invite other world leaders to join him in the critical project of jointly undertaking a global transformation from the carbon age toward a post-carbon economy.

If he makes the right decision, fossil fuel executives will sputter with rage and politicians eager to score points will raise a ruckus, but people throughout the world, including the leaders of other industrial nations, will certainly applaud such a decision. They will surely extend their hands to make it a shared endeavor. Thus the decision on the Keystone XL, instead of being one more occasion to submit to the corporate imperative to extract more fossil fuels, can become the keystone of a new economic and social order. It can emerge as the pivotal event that shifts us away from our carbon-based industrial economy, one based on the mirage of unlimited growth, toward a new socio-economic model – an organic model marked by a healthy respect for nature and a compassionate concern for human beings and other life forms clear across the planet. By accelerating efforts everywhere to change over to clean and renewable sources of energy, such a move will inspire a new commitment to protect and enhance human life on earth for generations to come.

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