The Keystone XL pipeline is extremely important.
It is also a lose-lose situation.
I am talking about the small piece of the Keystone XL pipeline that is still being debated by the federal government. Already the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is built through Kansas and Oklahoma and Texas, pumping 500,000 barrels of thick tar sands every day to refineries on the Gulf Coast that poison the communities around them.
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In 2012, Barack Obama approved this portion of the pipeline relatively quietly. In a speech delivered in Cushing, OK, Obama said “Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years …And today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done.”
For months afterwards activists collaborated with southern landowners to slow the construction of the pipeline, building a tree-sit in Texas that received international support and successfully costing TransCanada millions of dollars. Now the country’s attention has turned to the northern segment of the proposed Keystone project, a pipeline which would bypass the small and indirect pipelines that currently ship tar sands and connect the southern portion directly to Hardisty, Alberta, crossing through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. This would increase shipment by 300,000 barrels of tar sands per day.
In each of these states, activists have set up sophisticated blockades to stop the pipeline from running through their backyards. In South Dakota, a group of Lakota people have set up a spiritual blockade camp, and others have promised that they will lay down their lives before letting the pipeline pass through their land. In Nebraska, organizers have built a self-sustaining solar barn that serves as a community organizing hub on farmland that is threatened by the pipeline.
And yet, for some reason, the major conversation happening in the media is whether or not Obama is going to veto the Keystone XL pipeline.
This is why I said we have a lose-lose situation on our hands.
If Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, the plentiful Ogallala aquifer, indigenous sovereignty, the climate, and refinery communities will suffer. Everyone opposed to the pipeline sees that this is a loss.
But, if Obama rejects the Keystone XL pipeline, it might still be a loss. If the pipeline is rejected in Washington, DC, it will be portrayed as a victory for Barack Obama and electoral politics. For years now activists have risked their lives and given their time to bringing the Keystone XL pipeline into the international discourse, showing up for city council meetings, writing op-eds, building blockades, doing jail support for arrested allies, building relationships with each other.
At the same time, Obama’s administration has, as Obama himself said in his speech at Cushing, pushed to “open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore… We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.” Obama’s administration has exacerbated the urgent climate problems we were facing when he took office.
What is painfully clear, coming up on the end of this president’s administration, is that neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to take a firm stand against increased fossil fuel extraction and shipment. When oil and gas companies are huge contributors to politicians on “either side of the aisle”, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise (nor should it shock anyone that the senators voting to approve the Keystone XL pipeline took in six times more oil and gas contributions than those voting against it). The only reason the pipeline might fail in DC is that activists all around the country have used direct action to push the issue, and now the whole world really is watching.
If this is portrayed as an electoral victory, we will have lost.
Instead, the Keystone XL pipeline could be a win-win for us.
If the Keystone XL pipeline is rejected, it will be thanks to the bravery and persistence of social justice and environmental activists, many of whom have dedicated the last few years of their lives to fighting every inch of pipeline.
Right now in South Dakota, a small circle of tipis rests on a slight hill, miles of fields stretching to the horizon. Hay bales are stacked around the camp to shield campers from the wind, and also as a buffer against gunfire, in case the camp is attacked. Each morning, campers greet the sun with prayer and each evening a sweat lodge is held to offer prayers to stop the pipeline.
Leota Iron Cloud is a Lakota grandmother; when she found out about the Spirit Camp she hitchhiked out to contribute her prayers. She describes herself as a “behind the scenes person” but she seems to hold the place together, refilling the water jugs, sweeping corn husks from the kitchen, preparing food.
“As soon as I heard about this camp I felt like I had to go there,” Iron Cloud said. “I don’t have a voice in DC or nothing but at least I can go there and pray. And prayers do help and so I’m here to make a difference for my people, the farmers, everybody.”
Right now, the prayer camp is quiet and peaceful, but campers say they will do whatever it takes to stop the pipeline, and won’t leave until their land is safe.
The tactics that have been used in this movement have escalated dramatically. People are realizing that, while important, petitioning, marching, and quietly sitting in are not enough to stop those who stand to gain billions of dollars building this pipeline. They have chosen also to be confrontational with the corporate powers and the government, building blockades, infiltrating segments of the pipeline, disrupting meetings.
In Nebraska, lawyer David Domina has fought in court to stall construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, giving activists more time to plan. They hope that the legal challenge will stop the permitting for good, but if not they have a permanent energy barn built on the proposed route that that will need to be torn down before plans can go ahead. And many Nebraskans intend to do whatever they can to stop construction.
“When we’re talking about TransCanada and the development of the KXL pipelines, wherever they may be,” said Tom Genung, a Nebraska farmer working with BOLD Nebraska, “ I think any kind of protest is appropriate, whether it be violent or nonviolent.”
This is the narrative that should emerge if the pipeline is rejected.
It is hard to look at the potential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and see a victory. The construction of such a toxic project will be a concrete loss for thousands of people. But we can look at every situation and try to find the best that can come of it.
If the Keystone pipeline is approved, we can still win. If it is approved, that is a call to action. A call to war, as some have said.
If the Keystone pipeline is approved, organizers from all across the world will mobilize their allies to take direct action to support those risking their lives on the front lines. Whether that means locking yourself to the gates of the refinery in your backyard, standing in the way of Megaload shipments of equipment up to Alberta, blockading the construction of the pipeline, stopping an oil train, sitting in at a corporate office, copwatching to keep people safe, donating money to bail people out of jail, publishing your own media, or talking to your family about racist environmental policies, we all need to support direct action against tar sands shipment.
If the Keystone pipeline is rejected, it is just one more confirmation that our electoral system does not work for the people, and that we have to work for ourselves.
If the Keystone pipeline is approved, we can still find victory.