As 2011 comes to a close, we can look back at the deepening of economic and ecological crises, and one of the most socially and politically explosive years in the history of humanity. Most will remember the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring as the defining moments of 2011, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the first chapter of the saga that will occupy the attention of the environmental movement in the coming decade: the Keystone XL pipeline.
In the last few months there has been a lot of activity surrounding the Keystone XL, a mega-extraction infrastructure project with investment slated to come from TransCanada corporation. The proposed 1,700-mile-long pipeline would transport tar sands oil from northern Alberta to Texas refineries in the U.S., a distance that covers two-thirds of North America.
What tar sands oil consists of is not conventional crude, but a thick, dense, and difficult-to-extract and process bitumen. The primary method of extraction for tar sands oil, known as SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage), is extremely energy-intensive, wastes 3 to 4 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil produced, and is devastating the Athabasca River system, the third-largest watershed in the world. The tar sands is one of the most environmentally destructive extraction projects in the history of humanity.
Furthermore, the sheer size of the tar sands makes it the biggest carbon pool in the world, and James Hansen, the top U.S. climatologist at NASA, has stressed repeatedly that tapping the tar sands via this cross-continental pipeline to bring it to U.S. markets would effectively mean “game over for the climate.”
An important aspect to note is that the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, as it was originally proposed, would cross through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, an ecologically sensitive area that supports the Ogallala Aquifer and water system for millions of people.
In late August and early September of this year, a campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline was mobilized for two weeks in Washington, targeting the White House to put pressure on President Obama. Participation was high with a good turnout, and hundreds of arrests were made. Then, in early November, 10,000 people gathered to form a human chain, and encircled the White House several times over, again calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project. The action was very successful and drew impressively large numbers. This action came exactly a year before the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, and the pipeline was shaping up to be a major political issue.
During this time, Obama announced that the final decision on the pipeline would no longer rest with him, but with the State Department instead, and shortly thereafter reversed his position and said that the decision once again would be his to make. Most significant of all, about a week after the climate justice action that encircled the White House, President Obama made another important announcement in regard to the Keystone XL pipeline: that there would be a new environmental review on the pipeline, and that the final decision would be postponed until at least 2013.
Some of the environmental NGO reaction and narrative was as follows: Obama and the U.S. administration felt pressure to make a decision in favour of the environmental community, due to actions and campaigning. President Obama and the U.S. government postponed the decision in order to allow an environmental assessment to be done fairly and properly, and the delay will provide time to do it right. Surely, the delay will mean a more thorough scientific review and a truly public input process, free from oil company influence. This development sends a powerful message to the oil industry, and they now understand who they are up against. This is a tremendous victory, and we should all take a moment to applaud this decision and to send President Obama a letter thanking him for his leadership.
Technically, the Obama administration’s announcement was simply for a new environmental review to re-evaluate the route of the pipeline. Five days after the postponement was announced, TransCanada announced that it would agree to re-route the pipeline around the Sandhills region of Nebraska. In response, Bill McKibben made a statement saying “we’re awfully happy that the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be safe and the Sandhills; that only leaves the entire atmosphere of the planet to worry about.” This perceived victory was predictably short-lived. Why were we being told to celebrate?
Having too much faith that the U.S. government will make the right decision on an environmental matter, and being under the illusion that the decision will be subject to a thorough scientific review and “truly public input process” would be a mistake. Celebrating a perceived victory which is actually closer to a setback is not a good idea. We have seen for decades with the U.S. government, and especially in the last year and half with the BP oil spill, that this administration is far more likely to side with industry than it is to side with people and the environment. And finally, the only reason why the Keystone XL decision has been postponed is because Obama and company don’t want it to be an issue come election time in 2012. It doesn’t matter if the decision is made in 2013, 2014, or 2015 — it is the outcome that matters, and as sure as the sun will set, this pipeline is coming.
Those from the ENGO community overreacting to the Keystone XL postponement as a victory, misinterpreting the situation, are actually doing the climate justice movement a considerable disservice. “Game over for the climate,” light out for the planet; whatever you like to call it, this is the environmental battle of the 21st century, and way too important an issue to be off our guard, even for a moment.
Julien Lalonde is a writer and community organizer who focuses on Climate Justice, Food Sovereignty, and the People’s Assembly Movement.
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