The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Keystone

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The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news this week.

A district court has struck down a state law that would have allowed the Governor of Nebraska to take private land for the pipeline by eminent domain. This might be a good time to explore why this proposed pipeline is such a big deal.

This pipeline would extend the existing Keystone Pipeline system to make it easier to ship Canadian bitumen crude oil to refineries and ports along the American Gulf Coast. Because the proposed extension crosses a national boundary, its builder, TransCanada, needs permission from the U.S. State Department. So far it has not been about to get that permission, in part because of massive protest on the subject.

So what is all the protest about?

In brief, the issues are pollution, Native sovereignty (the pipeline route passes through culturally sensitive lands in the U.S. and the tar sands mining that would feed the pipeline has been very bad for several Canadian First Nations), and global warming.

Both the State Department and TransCanada have responded to these concerns. The proposed route has been changed. The changes do not go far enough, however, and there have been serious allegations of corruption within the review process.

There are a number of arguments within the larger argument about the Keystone Pipeline. For example, constructing the pipeline would likely create over a thousand temporary construction jobs, plus a few dozen long-term jobs. So one of the arguments within Keystone is the old debate about whether the promise of jobs can and should trump other concerns. But one of the most interesting concerns climate change and pollution.

Pretty clearly, mining the Alberta Tar Sands is a bad idea. The mining process itself is incredibly destructive and the bitumen crude that results is extremely toxic so spills are very dangerous. Tar Sands mining has a huge carbon footprint, so this oil is actually worse for the planet even that other forms of petroleum. And there is a huge amount of oil in those sands, so much that petroleum might become too cheap for renewable energy to compete against. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has become a full-time activist, has said that fully exploiting the Tar Sands would be “game over” for climate change.

The U.S. State Department does not dispute any of this, nor does it dispute that all these issues are important.

No, the argument that the State Department has offered in favor of approving the pipeline is that Canada is going to exploit the Tar Sands anyway. Since the United States can’t keep Canadian oil in the ground, they claim building the pipeline doesn’t actually make climate change any worse. And this way, we get jobs!

“I’m sorry, officer; he said he was going to rob the bank anyway, so I didn’t think it would matter if I drove the get-away car. And I really needed the money, since the economy’s been bad, you know? I got kids to support!”

But the United States might not even have the power to stop bitumen crude from crossing our lands. Several recent crashes and explosions involving oil trains make that point very graphically. A lot of people are starting to think that maybe allowing the pipeline would be a step in the right direction, that if we can’t stop the oil from flowing, at least we can get it out of railway cars.

This is an understandable conclusion, but it’s wrong.

First, there is no guarantee that oil companies will stop using trains if they get the pipeline extension. They might just use both forms of transportation, especially if production ends up being higher than even the pipeline’s massive capacity. History is full of people announcing that a given resource or a given technology could provide more than anyone could ever use only to be proven wrong very quickly.

Second, there is such a thing as social momentum. If we can stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, then maybe we can stop the oil trains. Maybe, with U.S. and Canadian activists working together, we can stop Tar Sands extraction entirely. Success makes a movement more successful.

To some extent, the Keystone Pipeline has become a symbol, a battle that stands in for the entire war, both with respect to climate change and with respect to the sovereignty of the First Nations. For people who worry if perhaps the rhetoric is becoming a bit over-blown, we should note that drawing a line in the sand is always a somewhat arbitrary act. But lines in the sand are not about location; they are about shifting the momentum of battle. And sometimes, drawing a line in the sand works.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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