Standing in the way of the pipeline

The fossil-fuel industry wants the Keystone pipeline built--but ecological activists are mobilizing a determined opposition to this planet-wrecking project.

Protesters marching in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline (John Duffy)Protesters marching in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline (John Duffy)

AN ENVIRONMENTAL impact statement released by the State Department could set the stage for the Obama administration to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline. But ecology and social justice activists are determined to oppose this environmentally destructive project and the threat it poses to our communities.

The mainstream media were nearly unanimous in reporting that the State Department was paving the way for Obama to give his approval for the project--though some environmental activists say the statement acknowledges the pipeline could have some potentially severe consequences, including making climate change worse.

The question now is whether the Obama administration, at the urging of big business, will defy the chorus of opposition demanding that the tar sands pipeline project be stopped.

No one should expect Obama to simply "do the right thing." He'll need some persuading--from the redoubled efforts of the movement against the pipeline that has blossomed over the past year.

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THE LONG-awaited environmental impact statement from the State Department was a major hurdle for the Keystone project--which is projected to pump some 830,000 barrels of crude every day from the oil sands of Alberta in Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Associated Press described the report as:

a serious blow to environmentalists' hopes that President Barack Obama will block the controversial project running more than 1,000 miles from Canada through the heart of the U.S. The State Department reported no major environmental objections to the proposed $7 billion pipeline, which has become a symbol of the political debate over climate change.

Still, some environmental commentators and activists emphasized that the report wasn't as definitively in favor of the project as many were expecting. For example, the State Department analysis does acknowledge that oil derived from the tar sands generates significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional crude. As 350.org's Bill McKibben stated at a press conference following the report's release:

The report concluded that in a scenario where we take climate change seriously and regulate climate pollution, this pipeline will indeed have a "significant impact" on climate change. So now we'll find out if that's the world Barack Obama and John Kerry want. This report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.

But while McKibbon is right that the report says the Keystone pipeline could have an impact on climate change, it also heavily qualifies such findings. While the State Department concedes that tar sands oil is a dirtier fuel, it also emphasizes that moving oil through the pipeline would produce fewer emissions than traditional methods of transportation.

The report explicitly claims that the Keystone pipeline won't "significantly impact" the climate crisis overall--and that potential pollution of the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains, a key concern of environmentalists and First Nations people, is supposedly unlikely.

In other words, on balance, the report downplays Keystone's negative consequences. The State Department's overarching logic seems to be that extracting, refining and transporting tar sands oil is inevitable--and given this, it would be best for the U.S. to get its share of the pie by building the northern end of the pipeline.

The impact statement also emphasizes a favorite argument of pipeline boosters: that the project will create 42,000 jobs over a two-year period. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO used this rationale to repeat its misguided support for the Keystone project. Federation President Richard Trumka told reporters in a recent conference call: "There's no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can't be done safely while at the same time creating jobs."

But the truth is that all but a few dozen of those jobs will be short-term construction jobs, over in six months. And the concern of environmentalists isn't only about the safety of constructing the pipeline, but the transportation and eventual burning of the tar sands oil that would flow through it--something that climate scientist James Hansen called "game over" for the hopes of slowing climate change.

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THE ENVIRONMENT impact report was a major hurdle for the project to clear, but the process isn't over.

Before Obama could put a final stamp of approval on the project, the State Department still must issue a "national interest determination" on the project--essentially, a report vetting that the project is in line with the national security interests of the U.S. During that period, other U.S. agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, will have the opportunity to weigh in, and the State Department is supposed to collect public comments about the project as well.

It's hard to imagine the Obama State Department not finding that the project dovetails with U.S. interests, given the lengths that the U.S. has gone in order to protect business interests at the expense of any meaningful progress on climate change. Recent revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, for example, show that the NSA spied on foreign governments before and during the 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen. As Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman:

[H]earing through the Snowden documents that NSA was spying on the countries and the negotiators kind of explains many things about why those talks collapsed, because it seems that the United States wasn't really interested in negotiating just like other countries should be.

Meanwhile, the State Department inspector general is currently investigating questions about the environmental impact statement--specifically, whether the primary contractor for the report, ERM Group, has financial ties to TransCanada Corp., the company seeking to build the Keystone pipeline.

What all this means is that while the fossil fuel industry and its political servants are using the State Department report to push their "drill baby drill"--and "build baby build"--line, activists have an opportunity to push back as hard as we can to protect our communities and the planet.

Thus, McKibben stressed that the decision about Keystone now falls squarely on Barack Obama--along with all the pressure that the movement has been able to mobilize. As 350.org said in a press release:

Don't let the convoluted process fool you. This is President Obama's decision and his alone–and he has all the information he needs to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The president has already laid out a climate test for Keystone XL, that it can't significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. It's clear that Keystone XL fails that test.

Meanwhile, First Nations groups and environmental organizations in communities where the pipeline would be built, are sending the message that they won't accept the Keystone pipeline quietly. A recent statement by the Oglala Lakota nation said:

Our inherent birthright is a spiritual and human right, and we have treaty rights. We do not want [the Keystone XL], we do not want tar sands in our lands. The tar sands must stay in the ground, the extraction and its aftermath is killing humans and all of life up there, and wasting precious water.

On February 3, three days after the State Department report's release, vigils called by a range of environmental and activists groups took place in dozens of cities across the U.S. While mostly modest in numbers, these events were meant to mark the beginning of a new period of resistance to the Keystone project.

That resistance has already developed into a formidable opposition. In February of last year, as many as 50,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., for a protest march past the White House against the Keystone project--one of the largest mobilizations of the climate justice movement.

Activists in Texas and other southern Great Plains organized to disrupt construction on the southern portion of the pipeline, sometimes heroically fighting to protect fragile lands that have been in their families for generations. Meanwhile, the associated fight against hydraulic fracturing has taken on a new importance, as communities become aware of the contaminated (sometimes flammable!) water and environmental degradation that results when energy companies grab what they can from our lands.

Before the last 12 months, the Keystone pipeline was assumed by many people to be a "done deal." Now, thanks to the determination of activists across the continent, everyone knows that Obama and his administration are under pressure from widespread and growing opposition.

At the same time, the environmental movement has grown in other ways--showing a commitment to not only challenging the tar sands and fracking bonanza, but questioning the priorities of a capitalist system where profits come before the future of the planet.

No doubt the Obama administration would like to dismiss this opposition. We have to make sure they can't ignore us.