The Climate in Emergency

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


Keystone Again

The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news.

For months, President Obama has been holding off making a decision about the pipeline, pending the results of a court case in Nebraska. A week and a half ago, that case was thrown out of court, ending one chapter of the story and beginning the next.

The case involved a state law that approved the pipeline route through the state and gave TransCanada the power of eminent domain. According to that law, if the pipeline corridor crosses your land in Nebraska, you can’t do anything about it. Three landowners fought back with a lawsuit claiming that such decisions should not be made by the legislature and governor but by the Public Service Commission. While a county court agreed with them, the state Supreme Court threw the case out because, somewhat bizarrely, the landowners don’t have standing to sue in this matter.

The new Republican-dominated Congress has meanwhile made it their first priority to pass a Federal law requiring approval of the pipeline at the Federal level. The House of Representatives has passed such a measure at least three times already, but it has always been defeated in the Senate. This time, with the same party in charge of both houses, the bill is likely to pass the Senate as well–not that it matters. To pass a bill requiring a President to do something he does not want to do is a bit silly, considering that the President has veto power.

The Senate is currently in the early stages of what will likely be a long, drawn out debate on the issue, with various individuals tacking various largely symbolic amendments on to the bill. Democrats have added an amendment that would acknowledge that climate change is real, a neat trick. Republicans have countered with an amendment that would prevent the EPA from considering climate in environmental impact assessments. If the Senate passes a bill that includes both these clauses, what kind of message will that send?

For so much time and effort to go into a bill that does not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto is bizarre. It isn’t, after all, as though Congress doesn’t have anything else to do. For Republicans, Keystone seems to have gained nearly the same symbolic weight as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Why?

The Republican version of the Keystone story is that the pipeline will lower American energy prices and provide a large number of much-needed jobs if only Mr. Obama will get out of the way.  The Party has a long history of public concern over the unemployment rate. But estimating the number of jobs a pipeline will create is notoriously difficult–even the number of short-term construction jobs could end up being much lower than proponents claim. The State Department estimates that only 35 permanent jobs will be created. It is even possible that the pipeline could ultimately increase regional unemployment, if large numbers of people move into the area to take temporary construction jobs and are then laid off.

As to energy prices, pipelines in general don’t stabilize prices, and Canadian oil flowing through pipes to Texas for export does not directly effect American energy availability anyway.

If global warming and the likelihood of oil spills were not factors, the Keystone XL pipeline might well be at least marginally good for the American economy, but not to the extent that would justify the priority Republicans have placed on it. And that other major Republican bastion, defense against government “meddling,” should be totally at odds with the prospect of eminent domain–the Governor of Nebraska has given a foreign-owned company permission to take people’s land, essentially for its own benefit. Why isn’t the radical right up in arms about this?

The cynical might guess that, once again the Republican Party is kowtowing to Big Business–that concern over jobs, energy, and regulatory relief are all thinly veiled code words for a basic corporate friendliness. The cynical may have a point. And yet, in this case the most obvious beneficiaries of building the pipeline would be the Canadian oil industry. Is this a case of Big Business transcending boarders?

It may be, but my guess is that this is about narrative.

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

It is true that much of the discussion around Keystone has been tangential to climate change, the main point of this blog. But within this one story are all the major sub-themes that govern what is going on in the atmosphere:

  • Who benefits from environmentally risky or destructive practices?
  • Who makes decisions about the use of land and other resources?
  • Who pays for environmental accidents when (not if) they occur?
  • What is the responsibility of those who use petroleum products, thereby creating demand?

And, perhaps most importantly,

  • Of all the things the United States has traditionally called its own, which are we willing to give up and why?