Fighting the pipeline menace

July 9, 2014

Despite the obvious dangers of climate change and the urgent need to shift away from fossil fuels, the Obama administration continues to push fracking and drilling at the expense of the environment. In an article based on his presentation at a session of the Socialism 2014 conference, Brian Ward discusses what it will take to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

EVER SINCE Barack Obama came into office, he has been pushing a campaign to "rebuild America's infrastructure."

But how are we rebuilding our infrastructure? Is he calling for green jobs and a transfer of our fossil-fuel based economy to a clean-energy future? No. Instead, the Obama administration has focused on an "all-of-the above" extraction policy--extracting oil from the tar sands and fracking for natural gas, while making token gestures toward the occasional wind farm.

We are building more highways, instead of building more trains. We are going into hyper-drive with fracking for natural gas and extraction of tar sands oil. Extraction of dirty fuel in this country and Canada is becoming more and more a driving force in the economy.

These fossil fuel-based ventures emphasize short-term gains of profit and the illusion of jobs without thought for the long-term ramifications on the future of human society. As the climate crisis grows worse, capitalism continues to show it is entirely inept at dealing with the crisis.

Participants in a national demonstration that brought tens of thousands to Washington, D.C.
Participants in a national demonstration that brought tens of thousands to Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes)

The Keystone XL pipeline is part of the Obama administration's "infrastructure" plan and has been the focus of much of the climate justice movement in the U.S. since it was proposed in 2008.

The proposed pipeline system includes over 2,000 miles of pipes running from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, through the continental U.S. to the Gulf Coast. Oil from the tar sands, also known as "oil sands," is the worst type of oil for the climate, producing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil because of the energy required to extract and process it.

In this article, I will examine the reasons why the ruling class is so invested in pushing the Keystone pipeline down our throats. I'll discuss what the fight against the pipeline has looked like so far, and the three major sectors that have been, or should be, on the front lines of the fight: students, American Indians and the potential that the labor movement has to stop the pipeline.

Why the Pipeline?

What are the reasons we're told that we need this pipeline?

The American ruling class has consistently labeled tar sands oil as "safe oil." This isn't because it's non-polluting oil, but rather because oil from tar sands extraction will allow the U.S. to be independent from foreign oil--in particular, oil from Middle Eastern countries.

Despite the Islamophobia behind this rationale, the completion of the Keystone pipeline will by no means keep the tar sands oil transported to and refined at the Gulf Coast in the U.S. Rather, the U.S. will become a net exporter of oil--and it will be auctioned off to the highest bidder on the global market.

We're continually fed propaganda saying that the choice to build the Keystone pipeline comes down to a debate between jobs and the environment. The promise of jobs from the Keystone, however, is a false one. The pipeline is estimated to create 42,000 jobs, almost all of which would be temporary construction jobs. However, if we instead invested in a green future with changes to our entire energy infrastructure, there would be plenty of long-term jobs created.

TransCanada Corp. is the owner of the pipeline and has been seeking full approval for the project from the State Department. To date, TransCanada has put $5.4 billions of its $49 billion in assets towards the project.

There are many misconceptions about the pipeline. For one, it needs to be made clear that much of the Keystone pipeline system has already been built. The pipeline has been divided into five phases, with four out of the five almost complete.

Phase 4, the Keystone XL portion ("XL" standing for "export limited"), has been the focus of much of the environmental resistance in this country. The proposed route is from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. This section of the pipeline goes through some contested treaty lands of American Indian nations and across the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the major source drinking water and crop water in the Great Plains. The Keystone XL is the biggest portion of larger pipeline, at 1,179 miles long.

One of the greatest fears about the pipeline system is leaks. Phase 1, which is already operational, had 12 leaks in the first year, with anywhere from a couple gallons to 500 barrels spilled in each instance. No matter how little the leaks are, even one leak is too much.

The Fightback Against Keystone

Before 2011, the pipeline looked like it was on the fast track to getting government approval. However, protests by environmental activists began in August 2011, with activists surrounding the White House for a week. More than 1,000 nonviolent protesters were arrested. This was about the same time that the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off, with its revival of a culture of protest.

In November that same year, activists came back to the White House repeating the August action. That was followed by the largest march against Keystone so far, on February 17, 2013, when 50,000 people marched on Washington against the pipeline.

About a year later, the State Department released its final environmental impact review of the Keystone pipeline. Incredibly, and against the warnings of climate scientists, the report claimed that the pipeline won't worsen climate change. With the release of the review, the State Department opened up a 90-day period for other federal agencies to weigh in on the project, as well as for public comment. After this period, the State Department will issue a National Interest Determination--an assessment of whether the constructed pipeline would be in U.S. interests.

Ultimately, Barack Obama will make the final decision.

It is worth noting that the process has moved forward despite an ongoing internal review by the State Department into the firm contracted to complete the environmental impact assessment--named Environmental Resources Management (ERM). This is because ERM was recently on the payroll of TransCanada, owner of the Keystone XL project--an obvious conflict of interest. The ERM website states that "a substantial portion of our annual revenue comes from projects with mining, oil and gas, and other energy companies."

In response to the report's release, about 400 young people participated in an act of civil disobedience in front of the White House on March 2, 2014, as part of a protest called XL Dissent. The action began with a march of about 3,000 students from Georgetown University condemning the pipeline.

A little under two months later, on April 22, 2014, 200 people from the Great Plains and Canada arrived in Washington, D.C., as part of the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" to send a message of resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline. The Alliance is a coalition of Native American communities, ranchers and farmers who are on the front lines along the proposed of the pipeline route, mainly in Nebraska and South Dakota. The week ended when thousands came to march in solidarity with the Alliance.

Though the protest was already planned, right before the Alliance came to town, the Obama administration announced that it was once again pushing back a decision on final approval for the Keystone pipeline--though Obama has still refused to deny the permit to TransCanada to construct the pipeline.

The biggest takeaway from the fight against Keystone is that the movement so far has put the Obama White House under pressure. As commented in an editorial, "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."

These by no means were the only protests. The Keystone pipeline has been protested every step of the way on the front lines of the proposed route. People have chained themselves to the pipeline in Texas, and blockades are already being set up in the Great Plains, ready if the pipeline is approved.

What Does the Fight Mean?

What have been the politics of the environment movement regarding the Keystone pipeline so far?

Barack Obama came to office offering a sense of hope to many people. Though many people--socialists in particular--had no illusions in what Obama would represent, it was clear that the tide of votes for Obama were a demand for a change from the Bush administration--which infamously continued to deny that man-made climate change was even real.

Young people have been some of the leading activists saying no to the pipeline. Some of them are the same people who voted for Obama. As the movement has pushed forward, we have seen a radicalization of many people who have started to question both the capitalist system that puts profits before the environment and the Democratic Party, which has done basically nothing to stop the pipeline. The movement has started to be more aggressive toward Obama, and new organizations like the ecosocialist coalition System Change Not Climate Change have risen out of this shift.

The cry for more radical politics in the environmental movement is loud and clear. Just the idea that people are starting to call it a "climate justice movement" rather than an "environmental movement" is huge. You can't talk about the climate now without talking about racism, colonialism and the intersectionality of various other issues with the climate movement. One of the biggest sections of the movement making it more radical is the American Indian rights movement, which has connected the fight for historic land rights and the fight for environmental protection.

Such connections force people to start to question the very foundations of this country and why the U.S. has abandoned so many treaty rights.

American Indians Fight Back Against Keystone

The fight for American Indian rights has long been on the frontlines of this and other climate justice struggles. In their book Ecocide of Native America, Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen described the historical displacement of Native Americans connected to the commoditization of our society for short-term gain:

The displacement of Native peoples has not only harmed their societies and impaired their spirituality, but also has been used as a rationalization for the exploitation of the earth for short-term gain. It is common knowledge these days that an emphasis on short-term gain, through industrial mechanisms like the commodification of resources, is leading the earth--and that means all of us, and generations to come--toward long-term climate change.

That displacement is still going on today in the name of profit, with no thought of long-term planning for our planet. But much like in the past, there is resistance. The Lakota in South Dakota, for example, have led the way in the fight against the Keystone pipeline, which is slated to pass through treaty land and sacred ground. Teach-ins and physical blockades have been happening all over the Great Plains.

In Canada, we have seen the rise of the Idle No More movement, which was ignited by a budget bill attacking First Nations rights and the environment. Idle No More has created a multiracial space that defends both Native land and the environment, and it has also pulled in unions and workers to fight alongside it.

Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said, "If President Obama signs the Keystone XL, it's a death warrant." Spiritual camps have been set up along the planned route of the pipeline--they will be centers of resistance if the project is given the green light. Even if the pipeline is ultimately approved, activists are making sure that the fight is far from over.

Obama recently visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota. It was his first time to American Indian country during his presidency, and he is only the fourth sitting president to do so. His visit sparked protests, and he refused to give any additional information about the proposed pipeline.

For many Natives, the Keystone XL is a continuation of past injustices on their land, when railroads and trails were set up through their land with promises, later broken, that they would be left alone. Natives today, just as in the past, are saying no and fighting back.

The Potential of Labor

Clayton Thomas Mueller, an Idle No More activist in Canada, said, "Imagine if the workers and First Nations actually joined forces in a meaningful coalition--the rightful owners of the land, side by side with the people working the mines and pipelines, coming together to demand another economic model."

These are truly inspirational words that show where the movement needs to head. Mueller is especially right to bring up the question of labor, and how it is both the lynchpin and the greatest weakness of the climate justice movement right now.

Author Naomi Klein addressed the role of labor and the climate crisis during the founding convention of the Canadian union UNIFOR:

Climate change is a tool. Pick it up and use it. Use it to demand the supposedly impossible. It's not a threat to your jobs, it's the key to liberation from a logic that is already waging a war on the entire concept of dignified work. So all we need is the political power to make this vision a reality. And that power can be built on the urgency and science of the climate crisis.

If we stay true to a clear vision that these changes are what is required to stave off an ecological collapse, then we will change the conversation. We'll escape from the clutches of narrow free-market economics, where we are constantly told to ask for less and expect less and we will find ourselves in a conversation about morality--about what kind of people we want to be, about what kind of world we want for ourselves and our kids.

She went on to discuss the union's fight for climate justice by highlighting how the unions in Canada fought for the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s and against the environmental destruction of free trade deals. Dave Coles, the former president of the Canadian Energy and Paper Workers, was even arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If we are to going to stop the Keystone XL and other forms of environmental destruction, we must organize alongside and within the labor movement. The workers in the tar sands and various pipeline projects are the agents of change and can not only shut down this type of destruction at the point of production, but also call for real green jobs.

Creating blockades and continuing protests against the pipeline must continue, but if we cannot win over the labor movement, we will not be able to transform our society. It will be the workers that transform our economy and actually put the planet and human life before profits. It will be the workers who can call for and create real green jobs. It will be the workers that can push the global justice movement forward and put an end to environmental racism and the continued colonial project.

It will no doubt be an uphill struggle, but only the unification of the left fighting for workers' rights, students' rights, Native rights and the rights of all oppressed groups will be able to stop this pipeline--and put the movement on the offense to demand the world we want to live in.

Further Reading

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