Pushing through the pipeline

Nicole Colson and Brian Ward report on the future of the Keystone XL pipeline now that Republicans have taken control of Congress--and what's being done to stop them.

Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans endorse legislation sanctioning the Keystone XL pipelineMitch McConnell and Senate Republicans endorse legislation sanctioning the Keystone XL pipeline

THE NEW Republican Congress has taken office--and its first order of business is to try to ram through final approval of the environmentally devastating Keystone XL pipeline project.

As one of her first acts of the new term, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski--the new head of the Senate Energy Committee--introduced a bill that would bypass needed approval from the State Department, which has the authority over the Keystone project because the pipeline would cross an international border. If passed, the bill would grant immediate approval to TransCanada Corp. to "construct, connect, operate and maintain the pipeline"--taking away the decision-making power away from Barack Obama's executive branch.

Republicans are vowing that the Keystone bill will be the first measure that the new Congress sends to Obama. The House passed the bill on January 9 by a vote of 266 to 153, including 28 Democrats in favor. The Senate began debating the measure this week and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was threatening to keep the Senate in session all night as this article was being written. (The same bill failed to pass in the Senate under Democratic control by just one vote in November.)

The State Department has so far delayed a decision on the pipeline, pushing it off in order to give the Obama administration breathing room on the controversial issue until after the midterm elections. The decision process also had been held up by a lawsuit in Nebraska challenging the constitutionality of whether the state legislature could allow the governor to make decisions on the pipeline rather than the state's Public Utilities Commission. But that lawsuit was dismissed last week.

Obama had suggested that he could not issue final approval as long as the lawsuit was pending. Now that the courts have cleared the way, Republicans (and many Democrats) will step up the pressure on Obama to approve the pipeline.

The White House has said that Obama would veto the bill if it passes--and the GOP was still four votes short of a veto-proof majority in the Senate as of the second week in January. For Obama to veto the legislation would cause trouble within the ranks of his party, however, given that a chorus of Democratic politicians are strongly pro-pipeline, claiming--despite the evidence--that it will add permanent jobs to their congressional districts.

The State Department's own review "estimated that Keystone would support 42,000 temporary jobs over its two-year construction period--about 3,900 of them in construction, the rest in indirect support jobs, such as food service." Only 35 permanent jobs would be created.

As the New York Times noted, Obama's current veto threat is not a result of principled opposition to the pipeline itself, but the byproduct of a fight with Congress over who has the power to approve the project.

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THOUGH DEMOCRATS say they might have the necessary votes to uphold the veto, they are already laying the groundwork for a more "palatable" capitulation, if and when final approval of Keystone goes through. Sen. Chuck Schumer told CBS's Face the Nation that the Democrats are prepared to attach a series of amendments to any such "fast track" bill in order to make it "more of a jobs bill."

According to CBS, "The amendments his party might offer include requirements that the steel used in the pipeline be made in America and that the oil that is transported through it be used in America. They would also likely introduce an amendment to create clean energy jobs."

But there are no amendments that could turn the Keystone pipeline into a project that won't devastate the environment. If it becomes fully operational, the Keystone pipeline will carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast for refinement and shipping.

The process of extracting oil from tar sands is even more environmentally destructive than normal oil drilling because of the higher carbon emissions it produces. A State Department review, however, contradicted the mountain of evidence pointing to potentially disastrous environmental consequences if the pipeline were to proceed, concluding that it would not significantly increase the rate of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. That is utter fantasy, according to climate scientists.

As NASA scientist James Hansen wrote in a now famous 2012 op-ed article in the New York Times, the Keystone pipeline becoming operational will be "game over" for the climate:

Canada's tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet's species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

Environmental groups are viewing Obama's threat to veto any legislation passed by the Republicans as a positive sign. Peter Galvin, director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Common Dreams: "Keystone would be a disaster for our climate and wildlife, so here's hoping this is his first step toward killing this project once and for all...This is the moment where we need President Obama to stand strong and on the right side of history. Keystone and projects like it have driven us into the climate crisis. The first step toward getting us out of this hole is to stop digging deeper."

But Obama and the whole Democratic Party have shown time and again that they are willing to roll over for Big Oil when it comes to plunder of the environment. This is especially true at a time that nervous Democrats don't want to appear "obstructionist" with the new Republican-led Congress--and want to embrace the supposed jobs that the pipeline will create and reward their backers in Big Oil.

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WHETHER OBAMA ultimately holds to his word to stand firm and veto the project will depend on continuing opposition from the grassroots. The increasing urgency of protests over the past several years--including the massive People's Climate March in New York City in September--has been the major impediment so far to the pipeline moving forward.

First Nation and indigenous activists in the U.S. and Canada have been particularly vocal in challenging the pipeline route through Native lands, and in mobilizing direct action to stop the completion of various sections of the pipeline. They are vowing to continue this direct action in the wake of the new push to complete Keystone.

Despite a cold, rainy day about a hundred Native Americans and environmentalists demonstrated in front of the White House on January 3, calling on President Obama to veto any bill that would approve the pipeline. Activist performed a round dance in front of the White House chanting "NO KXL" with song and drums.

Native American activists, including members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, also led protests in early January in the South Dakota cities of Rapid City, Sioux Falls, and Pierre in protest of the pipeline's proposed route through the state. In Pierre, activists entered the Capitol building and dropped banners in the rotunda reading "Keystone XL" with an "X" through it.

All of western South Dakota is contested treaty land going back to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was signed between the Lakota and the United States in 1868. Still today about 20 percent of the population in Western South Dakota, spread across six reservations, are Native American. The treaty continues to be violated by the government, and activists have pointed out that government officials have never approached any Native nations to seek their opinion or approval on the Keystone pipeline.

"The movement to stop the Keystone pipeline is growing in South Dakota," Joye Braun, an activist and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe told the Hill. "We will continue in our efforts to build resistance to this project knowing that we will succeed."

The Democrats have proven all too often that they are equally as committed to Big Oil as the Republicans. The only way to protect the environment and force Obama to keep his promise to veto approval of Keystone will be to keep the pressure on in the days and weeks to come.