Obama and the Tar Sands Pipeline
Some time in the very near future – perhaps as early as this fall – President Obama and administration insiders will approve the construction of the massive Keystone XL pipeline. With the stroke of that pen the gates will open to the flow of about 700,000 barrels of the most costly and toxic oil on earth from below the no longer quiet boreal forests of Alberta to Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico. He will make that decision on the back of pressure from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, personal pressure from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper whose home happens to be in Alberta, and under intense pressure from a coalition of republicans and democrats whose election campaigns have benefited from millions of dollars contributed by the oil and gas industry.
He will point willingly, and with relief I suspect, to “clearance” provided by what I think will be a “final” Environmental assessment (from the State Department and the EPA) that will attempt to clear away the political and public dissent, like the bulldozers that level the desert habitat of endangered tortoises in the name of solar energy; it will do so with conclusions that impacts will be incremental and “marginal” in scope, that there has been adequate study of the proposed Pipeline route and appropriate measures will be promised to prevent and detect a leak or spill, that technology will mitigate the ecological and Green House Gas (GHG) impacts of pipeline construction, that the massing impacts of Tarsands exploitation are “someone else’s problem” and that Americas future will not be “jeopardized”. It should not surprise Americans if significant and rapidly growing social and environmental debts, built and aggravated by unsustainable industrialization resulting from more subsidized fossil fuel being pumped into the region, are largely dismissed.
Obama will likely approve construction of the massive Keystone pipeline even though it will rip a 50 to 150 foot physical and ecological trough through public and private property and run roughshod over the legal right of thousands of public and private land owners to object to forced entry of their property. The corporate giant behind this proposal is a Canadian company (TransCanada Pipelines, although it pulls along an American partner, Conoco Phillips) that brings “expectations” of approval borne of a long pedigree of successfully operating in Canada’s virtually non existent regulatory environment.
Some TransCanada – Keystone Background
Few Americans, and very few Canadians, are aware of the anemic regulatory structure existing in Canada or its provinces, especially Alberta, where corporations, in this case the oil and gas industry, move largely unchallenged through the public and regulatory framework, like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Most people probably think that a company like TransCanada, proposing a massive project like Keystone XL, would face some stringent environmental and regulatory hoops in the process of getting pipeline approvals in Canada or Alberta.
But such an assumption would be erroneous. There are many, many examples of non function in the oil and gas “regulatory” world, but it’s worth a quick look at one that happens to contrast with the recent and ongoing American experience. Fracking of natural gas, coal bed methane and shale formations in the U.S. is a relatively recent threat to humans, land, water and biodiversity that is drawing legitimate resistance and scrutiny across the American landscape. I suspect only a handful of Americans (and for that matter, Canadians) are aware that fracking has been widespread in Alberta since at least the 1980s, but in spite of that, it has never been subjected to environmental or social impact assessment in Canada; further, as evidence of the close ties between the oil and gas industry and corporate media, it has never been questioned or exposed by the media as a destructive practice that invades public and private landscapes and lives with historical indifference.
The institutionalized bias in government regulatory “processes”, and the unquestioning acceptance of ghost regulations by Canadian mainstream media, is no more evident in any field of endeavor than the oil and gas industry. In spite of having grown to be North Americas most concentrated source of oil and gas Green House Gas emissions, the legal and regulatory process continues to endorse explosive development in Alberta’s Tarsands. How does something like this happen?
The recent defection of Member of Parliament Jim Prentice from the federal government (fall 2010 resignation) can be used to focus attention on the manipulation of public process and the often distorted regulatory role of elected members of Canadian government. Prentice, a Calgary lawyer with no science or environmental credentials, was appointed as Minister of Environment (from 23 Oct 2008 through November 2010) by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He came to the appointment with a long and deep philosophical affiliation with the oil and gas industry, whose corporate offices in Canada are largely in the city he practiced real estate law in. From a distance, it appears Prentice never smelled a corporate boardroom he wasn’t intoxicated by. He was perfectly suited, in the perverse sense of Canadian political appointments, to serve as Minister of Industry, which he did from August 2007 to October 2008. In a deliberate act of counter staffing – the process of appointing an official, such as a Minister of Environment or Secretary of Interior, with instructions to dismantle an agency and / or neutralize its capacity to regulate – Harper then appointed Prentice Minister of Environment not because Prentice had demonstrated a positive interest in public protection environmental regulatory affairs, but because environmental accountability and regulation have always been viewed by the oil and gas industry as a thorn in their side. The industry has traditionally dealt with this “thorn” by working the political scene to try to ensure that any person(s) appointed responsible for environmental “protection” and regulation are strong industry allies and can effectively neutralize the Office and Department of Environment. This explains why Jim Prentice was appointed Minister of Environment. He played, in overseeing the Canadian energy industry, the role equivalent to Dick Cheney’s role in the U.S.
It was under Prentices rule that the Department of the Environment signed on to collaborate, with Natural Resources Canada, in “an advocacy strategy in the United States to promote the oilsands and discourage environmental protection policies”. Part of the collaboration was a proactive outreach strategy “in partnership with other stakeholders, such as the oilsands industry and the Alberta government, which launched its own $35 million campaign in 2008”. This is the “regulatory” framework that Prentice was perfectly suited for, a role he relished and assumed with apparent gusto. As one media government admirer put it “the oil patch used to have a powerful, plugged-in ally at the government epicentre” before Prentice retired to jump back into the corporate revolving door.
The response of the Premier of Alberta (Canadian provincial equivalent of a State Governor) to intensifying scrutiny and dissatisfaction with the Tarsands role in the meltdown of the earths life support systems, was uncharacteristic for the leader of a rabidly anti federal jurisdiction; he asked for federal inspection of Tarsands activities, wherein he “called in” the Department of Environment, the very people and organization campaigning for expanded oil sands activity, and who as an agency are denying the role of industrialization in global climate warming (disruption), and who are collaborating in media blitzes to defend the environmental “responsibility” of management of the greatest single point source of GHG emissions in North America.
Failing to quell the unrest about the explosive role of the Tarsands in a world reeling from the cascading environmental impacts, Premier Stelmach then struck the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel, which declared it was not aiming at regulating escalating Tarsands impacts, but intended instead to focus attention on the inadequacy of efforts to monitor impacts. In an incredible display of oblivion to widespread suspicion of non regulation of Tarsands impacts, he appointed the recently retired CEO of TransCanada as co-chairman. Just as startling, this oil industry insider claimed that Albertas Tarsands (he used oilsands) regulation / monitoring system “is better than most people believe” but that it is not “a credible program because much of it is run by industry, it’s not independent and it doesn’t have good scientific oversight”. If there ever was a reason to say No to Keystone XL for its singular role in fueling Tarsands expansion, what more need be said!
It would be fair to say one of the strongest crutches the oil and gas industry has constructed in its march to accelerate resource depletion is unrelenting adoration by Canadian mainstream media, a relationship it nurtures assiduously. Within this corporate structure decked out in the presumptuous robes of a “free press”, are a legion of loyal, extremely aggressive defenders (columnists and editors) of the “rights” of the oil and gas industry to privatize public resources and dominate the political process, all whilst that same media defends the industry “gates” against inquiry and dissent from “the great unwashed”, the masses of Canadians who are finding their lives increasingly manipulated by industry. No longer is Canadian media just a messenger. It has been nurtured to, and blossomed into seizing the role of major player. These are people that write hundreds of columns annually, many passed off as “news”, idolizing industry CEOs, their wealth and power, their corporate brilliance, and the “lavish” benefits that trickle down to the proclaimed fortunate people of Canada; in the course of doing so, the media generously buttresses the industries self anointed “entitlement” to self regulate their own activities and destiny regardless of the social, regulatory, environmental, or economic costs to Canada and Canadians. Some media personalities have been so generous with their praise that they are welcomed into the media / industry / government revolving door, moving on to become press agents and spokespersons for industry and government.
So entrenched is this conflicted relationship between media, government and the oil and gas industry that Canada’s media treats it as a legitimate part of Democratic government process. Unlike many Americans, who value free speech or at least claim to, Canada has not such constitutional guarantee. As Bill Moyers, Americans grand champion for democracy points out “the consensual seduction of the mainstream media by and with the government is one of the most dangerous toxins at work in America today”
It would be satisfying if progressive thinkers and informed citizens were able to convey to the majority of Americans that the message the advertising and lobbying campaign engaged in by Tarsands and pipeline corporations, the American Petroleum Institute and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and their big industrial funders, along with the Alberta and Canadian governments, is not about communicating. Communicating involves informed participation by all parties, particularly by citizens, and it requires that all options, including “no, do not build Keystone XL” be given full consideration as an alternative; it involves a deliberative process that has legal standing, as in public regulatory hearings, and it involves full disclosure of all the evidence. The ‘information’ campaign conducted by the Tarsands oil industry, its lobbyists, and its government allies can claim none of these prerequisites.
The campaign now descending on Americans – to paint the Tarsands and the Keystone XL pipeline as extremely rich, “clean” and “ethical” sources of energy with benign environmental and social impacts – is most certainly not about communicating, and it is not about educating or informing. In reality the campaign is strictly designed and applied to do exactly the opposite – it has been and will be a campaign of scientific and social misinformation, omissions and exaggerations, deception and possibly even false hoods, designed and delivered specifically to curtail and intercept informed communication and participation all the while urging immediate decision making. It is aimed to lull Americans into acceptance and circumvent their best interests by targeting closed door lobbying of political powers and the media, while aiding this stealth campaign by staging “grassroots” uprisings and endorsements for public effect.
What has led to this network of insider deals and preferential treatment by elected and regulatory government of special interests like the oil and gas industry, is a massive, virtually bullet proof shroud of secrecy and non disclosure. What the public sees is akin to the eyes of the crocodile breaking the surface of the back water – the real story lies below that surface, behind closed doors.
It would be naïve to label the owners, managers, and promoters of the oil and gas industry simply as opportunists, although they are that as well. These are smart people, and they know, and have known for decades, that the biggest pot of wealth remaining in the world today, not just in the Americas, but world wide, belongs to the people; this pot, consisting of natural resources inherited from geological and evolutionary processes centuries before industrial corporations began to feed on the earth, and/or government tax revenue (public money), a much more recent beast subject to much greater liquidity than resources, is virtually unprotected by a regulatory and ethical veneer that is easily penetrated.
Most citizens appear unconcerned about the reality that in todays world much control of their lives, their “economy” and the future of their children and their environment, has migrated outside the borders of their community and often outside their state borders; until, that is, something like Keystone XL lands in their lap. They then become aware they have become captive to decisions made in corporate board rooms hundreds of miles distant, often half way around the world. This reality has a long history of fracturing communities. Those that are the “willing victims” often aggressively defend their corporate dependency, much as did those thousands of workers who toil on the infrastructure of the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The gap between what they often naively consider to be their association with “local” industry and the reality that their future is decided daily virtually a world away, and without their input, seems unable to penetrate their thinking.
There are technically smart people in the oil and gas industry but they are overshadowed by those with the political smarts; the latter are the people that clear the regulatory and political “debris”, as they see it, out of the way. They have perfected the relentless and unanimously endorsed practice of alternatively brow beating and stroking the political arm of government and its agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management or the former MMS (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management), to create a shell or pseudo regulatory environment that allows the industry to run with assurances of guaranteed access through public and private lands and waters, whether it be the Gulf of Mexico, the fields of Nebraska, or the hills of Wyoming. These are the people that work at, and pay lobbyists to work at, either eliminating regulations and laws that protect the public interest and public assets, otherwise known as the framework of democracy, or creating a framework of smoke and mirrors that imply regulation. They have successfully achieved a “regulatory” facade that has largely slammed the doors on scientific and evidence based analysis and public hearings, excluding by design the public and non agency, non industry scientists from participation.
The oil and gas industry is characterized by remarkable unanimity of ideological and operational causes; no or very low taxes, royalties or severance; unrestricted access and unquestionable right to transport acquired oil and gas reserves (regardless of who owns or thinks they control surface access) to wherever they can maximize profit; and isolation and insulation from public accountability. For those who may recall recent U.S. Senate Hearings into the price of gasoline you can picture the CEOs of the five largest petroleum product “producers” and sellers (Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and Conoco Phillips, which happens to hold a 50% interest in the proposed Keystone pipeline) in America facing the Senate hearing panel in May. The attitudes seemed cast from the same mold, and the responses taken from the same playbook; many Americans think genetically modified corn is a threat to their well being, and they can be forgiven if it appeared to them as though these ranking corporate chiefs were also programmed.
It is not the technically smart people that make today’s oil and gas industry so threatening to democracy or the earths living systems, although they are certainly part of the culture; the ones that inflict the major hits are senior management and ownership. It may have been the drilling engineers that failed for months to cap the BP Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico (and not coincidentally, let it get away), and it is the wellsite and field people that follow the road map for drilling thousands of wells and building thousands of miles of pipeline, but it is in the halls of Congress and the Senate in Washington and State (and Provincial) legislatures where the doors are pried open for mass assault on landscapes and oceans and subsequent depletion of publicly owned resources. What field people do is a lot like baking a cake – read the damn directions, and the odds are it will turn out reasonably well, at least well enough so that any damage can be “buried” figuratively or literally. Industry can hand these kinds of tasks off to the drilling foreman, or the ”push”. While these people are a formidable part of the overall army of the industry, the are not the ones responsible for inflicting the big picture damage; that responsibility lies with senior management, the Rex Tillersons (Exxon), Marvin Odums (Shell) and, yes, the Tony Haywards (BP). It was these men, and their cohorts and predecessors, that cranked open the door to leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, and they did that in Washington and Baton Rouge, knowing full well that the less evidence made public, and fewer the Americans that hear it, the more benefits are likely to accrue to them and their disciples. And it is people like Russ Girling (CEO of TransCanada) and those same companies active across North America that initiated and now relentlessly accelerate Tarsands depletion, a deadly strategy that counts heavily on being able to convince or force the President to approve Keystone XL.
These are the people that work diligently to “get government out of the way”, “eliminate burdensome environmental regulations”, “cut red tape”, and “create certainty”, pseudonyms for eliminating effective public regulation of industry, then privatizing the legal and regulatory tools every democracy depends on if government is to at least try and act in the public interest. The history of industry efforts has been one of ratcheting down regulatory effectiveness, each recent administration retreating, and each successive administration lacking the fortitude and vision to reclaim even the most recent losses of their regulatory authority. It is senior industry management and their lobbyist minions that produced the regulatory castration and ultimate acquiescence of the U.S. Minerals Management Service (the regulatory agency recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement), actions that led to establishing the Gulf of Mexico as one of the most dangerous industrial zones in America. The agency had been infiltrated by the oil and gas industry, another common strategy for capturing a regulator, to the extent that most of the inspectors it employed were former employees of the industry they were “inspecting”. MMS furthermore granted exemptions and categorical exclusions with impunity, not surprising to any reasonable observer, given that it regularly engaged in “revolving door management” exchanges with the industry it was charged with “regulating”. This kind of regulatory capture by industry is not restricted to the U.S., as I tried to point out above.
It should therefore surprise no one that the TransCanada/Conoco Phillips super corporation, now leaning heavily on American citizens along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, conducts itself like another chip off the old block. It isn’t accidental that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton preempted the regulatory process and the EPAs Environmental Assessment process by publicly announcing she favors approval (more recently, at a senate hearing, she chose to keep mum about her favoritism); one of her senior confidantes comes from TransCanada via the revolving door. We can only speculate at the millions or tens of millions of dollars being spent by TransCanada and Conoco Phillips lobbying Congress, the Senate, and select Agency decision makers. But this is not new to TransCanada; as it is for every other oil and gas company, it is standard practice for TC.
Most Americans are unaware of the shallowness and ineffectiveness of their regulatory defenses, and they are certainly unaware of how superficial these systems are in Canada. If the main Keystone XL line were confined only to Canada (the Canadian part of the line already has its approval in the bank), construction would already be well underway. There would be no agency or independent environmental impact statement (although TransCanada would present its version) as, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency will submit in the U.S., and there would be (and was) virtually no public comment period on TransCanada submissions. In Canada the “hearing” before the National Energy Board for the Canadian portion of the Keystone XL lasted all of 8 days (in June 2007)! It is an alarming fact that no members of the public or witnesses free of the oil and gas industry are entitled to be heard at hearings unless they can demonstrate “direct” impact. Labor and aboriginal interests were there; in the latter case, when aboriginal people raised issues they thought would be impacted by the pipeline, TransCanada’s lawyer objected to their presence and arguments and stated he “respectfully suggest that they should all be somewhere else”.
One way government in Parliamentary systems has of freeing industry from public “meddling” is to force citizens to qualify for legal “standing”. Government and industry have been able to do that as a matter of routine when, as is the case in Canada, there is no constitution that says “we the people”.
It is no surprise then that TransCanada comes to America with a pedigree of swagger! For over 40 years the oil and gas industry has moved through the legislatures and operated in regulatory processes in Canada and Alberta with impunity, having been anointed with status reserved for those who contribute so generously to election campaigns that at times they virtually prop up the ruling party. This kind of favoritism breeds an aggressive sense of entitlement, and that filters down to most people in the company (and industry). It creates a powerful corporate culture that usually demonizes or isolates those very few who dare to break rank. TransCanada comes to America expecting to get their own way, and they are no doubt thoroughly irritated that some Americans are providing resistance by questioning their motives and practices.
Few Americans or Canadians recognize the virtual stranglehold the oil and gas industry has on legislators and industry “regulation”. In the U.S. the “Halliburton loophole” is well known in oil and gas circles; it exempts the oil and gas industry from complying with critical aspects of Clean Water Legislation (Safe Drinking Water Act). Millions of Americans that suffer the effects of these exemptions can thank former Vice president Dick Cheney for clearing the road of what the industry views as democratic, scientific and regulatory “debris”, that is, Americans who see the world differently than the oil and gas industry.
Americans should be angry and distrustful that the pipeline industry controls research and monitoring of pipelines in the U.S., and through direct extension, controls pipeline safety standards. For example, “two-thirds of the 174 safety studies of land-based pipelines that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has started in the past decade were largely funded by pipeline operators or organizations they control” and “37 were directly managed by industry organizations”.
In Canada and Alberta in particular, the industry chokehold is even tighter. The oil and gas industry has written much of the legislation and regulations under which it operates, and it always has internal government access and final review “authority” of tax and regulatory rule making.
While the U.S. Supreme Court may be arrogant enough to treat global climate disruption as trivial – “after all, we each emit carbon dioxide merely by breathing” – it adds only to the reality that they are seriously uninformed and choose not to consult any of the Nations or worlds competent climate or ecological scientists. This nonchalance fails to recognize or address the reality that the green house gas emissions of every American are directly linked to the cascade of threats and impacts now descending on America (and the rest of the world). Furthermore, emissions increase with consumption, which is directly linked to income. It is no coincidence that people employed full time by the oil and gas industry earn three times the average worker’s salary and are thus responsible for emitting three times the carbon that your average North American emits. What a paradox – the very industry causing the most atmospheric ecological damage is leading the charge to accelerate the damage!
The emissions of each American (on average) have been linked to “the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people”, in other words, two future Americans (or Canadians) might not be born as a consequence. I suggest people around the world are already well “ahead” of the impact curve – they are already dying and failing to have children because of America’s consumption. This does not paint a pretty picture for those, with at least three times the ecological and atmospheric footprint of an average American, working in the oil and gas industry.
Needless to say, this is only part of the picture and downplays (as though that were possible) the impact of each Americans emissions on cumulative climate disruption and warming. Millions of Americans are today suffering the climate and resources consequences of overconsumption, having had their own lives already degraded by direct impact (ask those, for example, who suffered from tornadoes in 2011 in Mississippi and Alabama or are attempting to fight off rising sea levels in Norfolk, Virginia) and lost opportunity; but they are and will suffer additively because of the politics of funding diversion, which will rob support for legitimate social, environmental, regulatory and non growth economic causes to “feed” climate impact mitigation (real and other wise).
As Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency put it “Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”
Willing Victims and Forced Victims
How do we prevent harm to ourselves? Psychologist Dan Gilbert recently wrote that humans are hard wired to make poor choices about harm prevention. Many citizens are easily misled by attempts to misinform them or divert their attention away from the environmental, economic and social stress they now labor under thus allowing the industries responsible pretty much a free run through the worlds political and environmental landscape. People are inclined, wishfully, with optimism, to follow the pied piper, particularly as social, political and economic conditions worsen and hurt Americans, as is now more than ever the case. Amongst the formal “tools” employed to mislead citizens are concepts like discounting, risk analysis, and cost benefit analysis, all of which are weighted heavily in favor of those interests who conceived of and imposed these “tools” on Americans. Then there is the favorite; the promotion of skepticism by conservative thank tanks and corporations.
There exists an entire category of citizens – I call them Willing Victims – many of whom are imbued with a destructive almost revengeful streak that manifests itself in a deliberate rebellion against society, consisting of people who they often see as not being intelligent or strong willed enough to “understand” that they and the industry “know” what version of reason and science is good for people and the country. This is characteristic of strong and extreme conservatism, as Costa and Kahn have shown in their study of energy consumption and conservation. Many conservatives deliberately went out of their way to increase consumption when provided with a conservation message that carried a larger, more broad public well-being theme indicating “less use would be helpful”.
The battle the oil and gas industry wages against rural citizens and private land is a classic case of (organized) conservatives exploiting conservatives. Having the trust of “your own kind” makes exploitation relatively easy. Rural living Americans tend strongly to be conservative, just as are the vast majority of those who make a living from the oil and gas industry. The industry is well aware of this common denominator, and exploits it aggressively. Adding to this vulnerability, conservative rural residents are often “Just Society” believers, that is, they believe (quite a different process from thinking) that no matter what happens to them, their land, their pocket book, or the environment, “things” will “work out” and in the end all will be well – I refer to this as a belief in “spontaneous happening”. These beliefs make them extremely vulnerable to the oil and gas industry and its merchants who often callously exploit these feelings in order to extract agreements, frequently under direct or veiled threat, for pipeline rights of way, drilling leases, road access, water withdrawal, toxic disposal (as in methane “production” water and chemical and hydro fracking), dust and noise pollution, and disruption of daily routines as construction and service equipment rumbles freely through the landscape. People with conservative beliefs become the equivalent of “low hanging fruit” when the oil and gas solicitors come calling for signatures. They readily succumb to the myth of consensus – “all you neighbors are signing up” – on the one hand, but on the other hand, are relatively easily encouraged to disengage their decisions from any moral standards that may exist; in this distorted world, the argument suddenly becomes “this is about you” and not about your neighbors.
When it comes to public land, the way is even more clear, as public servants, whose personal welfare seems detached from that of the “commons”, issue permits for industrial access with apparent abandon, and far too often, do so with categorical exclusions that relieve industry of accountability. Recent glaring examples of this is the former Minerals Management Service and its unabashed endorsement of off shore drilling, based on a combination of exclusions and mass produced environmental applications.
It is probable that state and federal agencies along the pipeline route states are at a 50 year low as measured by capacity to protect the public and private interests of citizens. Budgets and staff have been squeezed to the bone, and the recent financial meltdown has severely aggravated the attack on regulatory agencies (See Cooper 2011, end note 9). After half a century of conservative ideological wear and tear, many of the formerly functional regulatory agencies no longer have either 1) a clear mandate to protect public resources like clean water, clean air, and wildlife and fish. In a sense, they have been terrorized by decades of constant propaganda to leave regulation up to the private sector, represented by interests such as TransCanada Pipelines, and 2) no longer have the staff, skills or funds to protect the public.
The people employed in the oil and gas industry are initially indistinguishable from any other American, but they often become immersed in a culture of entitlement, endless consumption and excess born of an industry that has a very long history of successfully externalizing costs (off loading them on to the shoulders of taxpayers) and evading paying its fair share for resource depletion. On a collective and individual basis for people in the industry it is difficult not to be affected by the “group think” associated with disproportionate wealth accumulation and political and social influence. Defense of and perpetuation of these group characteristics is strong and creates an “us against them” atmosphere that binds, in particular, middle and upper management in a very cohesive cohort.
Against this united, well financed, and organized industrial “machine”, todays remnant regulatory systems and agencies are almost disabled.
For many years, half a century by most measures, rural communities and rural living have been defined by a relatively stable social hierarchy amongst those “on the land” and the small towns and villages that they traded with. There has always been some wealth disparity, but it was largely predictable and stable; merchants, suppliers, a hand full of professionals. Until, that is, the oil and gas industry comes along, with dollar bills poking conspicuously out of their shirt pockets, actively seeking vulnerability and division, demanding commitment without contemplation, as they try to lure the signatures of private land owners whose property this wish to intrude upon, while “guaranteeing” the rest of the people (those who have nothing to “give”, save for clean water, clear air, a soundscape free of industrial noise, and/or a peaceful view, just for some examples) – the people I refer to as Forced Victims – that they will be just fine. The time frames involved are compact, just as they will be with Keystone XL Pipeline construction. In very short order, cash finds it way to a chosen few, always going first to those willing to comply with the industry agenda; some of these people slip into the role of Judas. And in surprisingly short order as well, even generation-long social stability is tipped on its head. Allegiance too often abandons communities and neighbors and flees, for the foreseeable future, to the industry and its schmooze artists, who ply the landscape selectively with cash until legal rights to land, space, time, and water, are “locked up”. In just a few months, the stresses and characteristics that define urbanicity – city folks and “their” problems – land squarely on the shoulders and in the lives of “local folks”, people who in some cases have successfully avoided those pressures for a lifetime, and many who have deliberately choosing their rural space just to avoid being urbanized – they become the forced victims. A classic example of corporate conservatives victimizing rural conservatives!
The oil and gas industry, in this case the pipeline branch of the industry, always brings a little bit of the city, specifically social stress, to country living. Those who buy into or are indifferent to having industrialization imposed on them may suffer less (they will not, however, be stress free, although they may not concede or recognize it; stress, after all, is not known as the silent killer for no reason) than those who are “left out” or strong armed – these are the people given no choice – into living with the industrial behavior associated with pipeline presence; the ever new pickups emblazoned with the corporate symbol rolling with a sense of impunity past their breakfast window and through their yards and fields, day after day, for the next two decades, the carpets of weeds that contaminate crops, gardens, lawns and waterways, escalating prices at the grocery store, transient faces on the street and a spike in anti social behavior!
The Ever Elusive Carrot
The oil and gas industry excels, perhaps more than any industrial group, at leading and prodding political and media “lemmings” over the proverbial cliff. It is prone to gross exaggeration that appeals to hopeful and wishful believers, and to prodding people with innuendo and threats. Take, for example, the American Petroleum Institutes promise of 340,000 jobs materializing if the Keystone Pipeline is built (see Newmyer, T. 2011. End note 8). Big Oils strategy has always been to push the carrot further out front of the horse and cart, and make it as big, fat and (dollar) green as they dare, knowing that far too many politicians, industrialists, merchants, and tradespeople will whip the political and media horse as viciously as the jockey works over the second place horse on the final stretch at the Belmont. Like a horse with blinders the public, media and politicians rarely care to fact check, and academics have failed to provide evidence that inflated promises have come true, or that they never materialize; consequently Big Oil keeps pumping out obese promises.
Promises of great wealth and vast public benefits generously spread through the streets and into the domiciles of each and every resident are standard for the oil and gas industry when it is trying to wedge a massive new project, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, into the political and physical landscape. For those who have lived long enough to have heard the thunder many times, you may recall the lavish guarantees made to Alaskans (and Americans generally) by corporations including BP, Exxon and ConocoPhilips, if only they would be given approval to build the TransAlaska Pipeline (TAPS).
Thirty years have now passed, and how does Alaska stack up? Gasoline there averaged $4.09 a gallon (on 06 July2011), but Texans and Nebraskans paid $3.43 and $3.60 per gal, respectively. In Alberta, home of the incessantly praised Tarsands, drivers fork over about $ 4.18 a gallon!
The trickle down model of economics in which the oil and gas industry specializes virtually guarantees the trickle of wealth will dwindle to a seep that does not or barely reaches large number of citizens and avoids select areas of public services. Alaska for example, in spite of all the promises of financial independence made by Big Oil, spends a very stingy 10% of its budget on K-12 education, well below the average for all states of 26%. Yet it continues to rank first or second in the number of Federal tax dollars that gush into the state; in 2009 the federal government pumped $20,351 per person into Alaska. How do Nebraska, or Kansas, measure up? $9,198 and $12,312 per person, respectively. The promised benefits rarely stack up to reality! Next time someone from Wasilla winks at Alaskans and promises to “get the feds off our backs”, Alaskans had better grab their wallets and lock they bank accounts. Many will be in the soup line if Americans tax dollars dry up.
How about per capita annual income? Alaska does edge out the “pipeline” states in this respect, but that difference (about $4000) cannot be traced to oil or gas “wealth”; it can, however, be tracked to a large federal government presence and federal salaries and benefits pull the average above that of people in the American interior states (U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, 2009). For a state that has shipped between 13 and 15 billion barrels of oil through TAPS and out of state, oil valued conservatively at 330 billion dollars (using $26.00 per barrel average x 13 billion bbls), or roughly $550,000 per Alaska resident (using 600,000 people average for the calculation), these numbers indicate there’s a powerful odor associated with the “you’ll all get rich claims” of the industry and its trade boosters.
These are not arguments that an oil and gas industry is inherently “bad” or “good”; few would be naïve enough to claim we did not accrue some benefit from the early years of the oil and gas industry. The argument, however, is that we don’t “need”, can no longer afford, and cannot in fact survive, the oil and gas industry we are now burdened with.
What the Alaska example does is provide clear evidence that discredits claims by the industry and its boosters that wealth is shared evenly by everyone for a long time when the oil and gas industry comes to town. Alaskans, apparently, have not yet realized that pipelines inherently export wealth and jobs! Nor were they astute enough to insist that a wealth export benefit be paid to the state for each barrel of oil exported. We can be assured that the oil and gas industry lobby has worked feverishly to eliminate prospects that any of the pipeline states, whether it be Montana or Nebraska, will enact a wealth passage benefit on the Keystone XL Pipeline payable to the people of the state; a $1.00, or 50 cents, or even 10 cents per barrel payment for the jobs and wealth being shipped through the state by corporations profiting mightily from those shipments would pay to the state $50,00 to $ 500,000 daily to compensate a states residents for the disruption and destruction associated with pipeline upheaval.
The industry has always been prone to exaggeration, partly because exaggeration has “worked” on politicians and partly because industry has never been held to account for their claims. Just as the shale craze sweeping America regularly employs distortion and misrepresentation (see Urbina, I., 2011, end note 2) to lead gullible politicians, media and some members of the public to a trough that will never be as full as industry argues it will be, the Keystone XL project resembles the Jolly Giant packing a fluffed punch. Not only has the “pork” never been slopped into the trough, as they might say in Washington, and as Alaska has demonstrated, but until 10 years ago the world was largely unaware that something as ominous as global climate disruption was eating away at the so called benefits, dramatically narrowing the gap between “benefit” and cost. As of this century, growth in oil and gas consumption and the cash that flows to selected benefactors can no longer be placed in societies credits column.
When exaggeration becomes a matter of routine, it works both ways; not only pumping up benefits but also deflating costs (environmental, social and economic). One example is TransCanadas suggestion that over the 50 year life of Keystone the line will suffer only 11 major spills, yet a recent independent analysis indicates a more realistic assessment would be 91 major spills. The consequences for local and regional water supply are monumental; water is a big deal in this part of the Great Plains (it is everywhere) and the cascade of impacts for residents, agriculture, fish and wildlife, and vegetation will be more than serious.
Everything to Gain by saying NO!
The six states that Keystone will cut a swath through form the conservative heartland of America. This is Republican territory; 5 of 6 governors, 10 of 12 Senators, and 36 of 46 Congressional members, are unrelenting conservatives; and obviously, many local citizens are of the same mind, producing a blue block that showed near unanimous support for McCain in 2008. If Obama needed political neutrality to make the right decision, even though a good leader does not need such a state of affairs, the pipeline proposal stands as a perfect opportunity to reject the corporate “business as usual” Keystone XL Pipeline with confidence. Not only would the President be doing the right thing for America and all Americans, but he will pay no political price from the regional power structure along the pipeline route for doing so. He stands to gain no functional support here, nor will he gain influence in the Senate or House; nor does he stand to lose votes, or seats. He has a free pass to make the correct decision here, starting America on its way to energy and environmental recovery. And, of course, he has to think of this part of America as only part of a greater America. Whether the people of Nebraska and Kansas care or not, they will suffer as much as the rest of America if the President makes a bad decision, and they will gain as much as their fellow Americans if he wisely decides not to issue a presidential permit.
At a time when the Environmental Protection Agency has finally issued a rule compelling power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to reduce smokestack emissions, the Obama administration may well fumble an opportunity to limit and regulate an equally destructive source of atmospheric toxins – GHG emissions from the mindless upward spiral in petroleum and natural gas consumption.
I suspect the vast majority of the people in the pipeline states care little, or perhaps don’t know, that 97% of the worlds most prominent climate scientists recognize that human and industrial activity is responsible for global climate disruption. Its possible they may not care that, should the President approve the pipeline, the (promised) almost 7-800,000 barrels of oil that could flow through it daily will force Canadians to import, in the future, a half million barrels of oil a day to partly replace the oil TransCanada, Exxon, and Shell (I make this distinction to separate what these corporations want from what Canadians want) want to ship to America. They may not be aware that the Alaska Gas Pipeline project, and the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, each as physically long and as ecologically, economically and socially disruptive as Keystone XL, may be built largely to fuel tarsands oil extraction. While this absurdity – shunting oil and gas around the world for corporate profits – will be hugely costly to all North Americans, I suspect most Americans are also unaware that a portion of the Keystone oil will be exported from America to any part of the world prepared to pay a premium for Tarsands oil, presently the world’s most expensive oil; in other words, Nebraskans and Kansans will not be amongst the bidders!
It is troublesome that many of the people of South Dakota, for example, may be unaware or don’t particularly care that the Keystone Pipeline will be directly linked to the fast looming extinction of woodland caribou in Alberta, or that Tarsands oil produces emissions as much as 30% greater than the conventional oil extracted, for example, from the Williston Basin. They should, however, care that the massive shift in resources that will be consumed by the pipeline – electrical power, for example – will drive up costs for everyday living for millions of people as the pipeline sucks energy away from residences, schools and hospitals.
It is not likely that residents of the pipeline states know, or even care, that twice as many Canadians (80% in February, 2011) as Americans think there is solid evidence for global climate disruption, given that perhaps as few as 41% of conservative residents in the pipeline states feel the same way. They should, however, care that the big multinational (Korean, Chinese, French, Scandinavian and American) Corporations that control the Tarsands industry in Canada, have been busy trying to take down Americas environmental protection regulations and legislation, buying diplomats and lobbyists to undermine the protection Americans have worked hard to build over 30 years so that “the oil keeps a-flowing”.
The President, and regulators like the EPA on the other hand, have a legal and moral obligation to know these realities. He and they have an obligation to make a decision not for corporate benefactors, or the Oklahoma land owner that is willing to accept cash that might pay his/her way for one or two months, but for the many Americans who have been and will increasingly suffer from escalating green house gas emissions, industry political interference, and the severe hardships and psychological deflation associated with false promises that they will all realize the “American dream” if only “Americans” let TransCanada build the pipeline.
The pipeline decision is not a case of starting with a clean slate. The scientific, environmental, social and economic impacts of over dependence on fossil fuels are already substantial; they are hurting American now – today! Yet TransCanada and ConocoPhillips are asking people, like the President and the residents along the pipeline route, to play dumb and ignore this high base load of impacts. The President often talks about “making the tough choices”. Now he has a chance to walk the talk, and say NO to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
My read on the Obama Administration, and particularly the executive office, is that is getting very poor scientific advice, and in some areas, such as the natural and conservation sciences, almost no advice. It appears outwardly that Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu is more of a techno addict than a visionary and reasoned social thinker, someone more inclined to propose that if America could just dig deeper and faster with the right technological tools, it would work its way out of the climate disruption / ecological collapse hole.
Given the Administrations track record, facilitated by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, of virtually rubber stamping an escalating number of major industrial projects from more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the hills of Wyoming to massive landscape flattening solar projects and wind turbine ghettoes, their grasp of the climate and consumption crisis facing America and the world resembles a strategy of “turn on all the taps, we’ll just guarantee loans for, or directly fund, or provide massive tax breaks, for more innovation and technologically advance mops”. The inescapable conclusion is that Americas capacity, and will, to govern and regulate for the overriding good of the people, has been severely crippled (see Cooper, P.J., 2011, end note 8, for example) by almost half a century of continuous and damaging attacks from extreme corporate funded conservatives; and Chu and Salazar have not shown the grit necessary to help reform Americas energy agenda.
Recognizing that there are other grinding pressures distorting civilization in America, the reality is that the ecological and atmospheric order of the country within which Americans, their parents, and their grandparents lived and worked is in rapid decline. It will not be mended or regained by technological means, no matter how strenuously Energy Secretary Chu, the geo-engineering crowd and their Chamber of commerce backers, insist it will be if we just redirect greater and greater sacks of taxpayer money to corporations and business so they can “win the future” through innovation and growth.
In the very near future, I suspect, President Obama, will approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; He will do so in the face of overwhelming evidence that this is exactly what he ought not to do.
There is an important, fundamental principle about change that appears to have completely escaped President Obama and his inner circle and no where is it more critical, and yet more conspicuously absent, than in Americas apparent race to produce ever skyrocketing emissions of GHG. That principle, that fundamental law of nature and human and corporate behavior, is that change requires resistance. Bringing about – how nice a saying is that – change is about instigating and implementing economic, political, regulatory and social resistance to the status quo. It is about resistance to “business as usual”, about placing people from outside the inner “trained” circle into positions of influence, about trumpeting to the people that change is good, change is essential, and change is coming; it is about resistance to corporate freewheeling and corporate excess and greed. In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, it means resisting the lobbying to load it on to an already obese consumption of energy. Changing the direction in which America is racing requires Resistance to those who ideologically and seemingly mindlessly promote “more growth”, and in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, change for the better of America means saying no, and saying it emphatically.
Only free market ideologists can justify their almost unconscious acceptance that “more” is always better. It is an attitude that relegates 305 million Americans and 35 million Canadians to guinea pig status, even when some of them recognize and accept, in some cases willingly and in others reticently, that personal limits and government regulatory and policy resistance is essential if America is to avert financial, social and environmental chaos.
Americans have every right to, and I believe should, be thoroughly disconcerted by the presidents apparent unwillingness to, if not embrace evidence and science, at least openly declare an understanding that it should be the basis of good decision making; this does not bode well for America. While his actions reflect retreat before the anti science extremism of the new GOP, Americans I believe, thought they were electing a president that had an edge and determination to fight for a new direction in America that would at least incorporate some of the physical and natural science evidence needed to slow or avert the biodiversity and climate crisis. Few expected him to capitulate so completely to the forces that have driven America away from its former greatness to its present stance of promoting fairy tales about the American economic and consumption dream. At the very least many Americans expected him to show the fight and feistiness that he demonstrated when battling Hilary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, but in his presidency that has rarely materialized. And in terms of protecting himself and all Americans from the all inclusive damage of global climate disruption and degrading ecosystem services, any willingness to at least speak up for science and reason has dissipated. Many Americans at least hoped for and thought he would not abandon the vision for a greater America even if, or as, he was being battered by a radical offensive congress and radical senate.
He has at this disposal the ability to initiate incremental actions, take small steps, that would reflect his sense of what is right or not right, that would indicate to the American people that he has not been overwhelmed by the Political Right. He can reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, showing that he and his advisors, like the American scientific community has attempted to do, are able to link action with consequences. Disappearance of half of the worlds permafrost in only decades, severe droughts over vast parts of the American southwest, intense pressure on humans to migrate within the country, unmanageable water shortages, and escalating health care costs are just a few of the dozens of major issues that can be and have been reliably linked to failure to speak to, enable and implement scientifically sound regulatory governance. Surely, we would hope, the president would at least speak out about the critical nature of these serious threats, threats that make issues like international terrorism pale into virtual irrelevance.
If President Obama and his inner cabinet approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, they are doing exactly what corporate America wants them to do, and that is allow this industry to “self regulate”, much like the financial industry succeeded in doing in the 80’s and 90’s run up to the financial collapse of 2008.
If the President makes the wrong Keystone decision and approves the XL line, in the false assumption that it will grant him political amnesty from industry, GOP and Chamber of Commerce scorn, he will, within his lifetime, wreak havoc on American and the world – his mistake will displace millions of Americans, disrupt the lives of millions more, cost governments, taxpayers, and insurers billions of dollars, divert immense and increasingly rare resources away from critical problems like environmental protection and social and medical safety nets, further aggravate social and wage disparity in the workforce, intensify the biodiversity extinction debt already rearing its ugly head, increase the occurrence and severity of devastating drought and storms, embolden the oil and gas elite to demand ever more concessions, and make a mockery of an already crippled environmental assessment and regulatory system.
He will demonstrate that he has succumbed to the constant barrage of propaganda that preaches that incremental decisions and their consequences are insignificant. And he will have fallen for the slick campaigns of corporate America that have succeeded in separating incremental decisions from the massive base load of damages and harm already imposed by the fossil fuel industry on our landscapes, aquatic ecosystems, economic and regulatory systems, and our atmosphere.
That we charged by sustainable atmospheric carbon concentrations over 20 years ago, when the world already annually consumed about 700 years of stored / processed sunlight, will deliberately escape him, his science advisors, and the coterie of good old boys this self proclaimed “President of Change” appears to have surrounded himself with. He cannot, under these circumstances, lay claim to the mantle of leader.
He will not only practically violate the rights of tens of millions of American to depend on and expect clear air, clear water, and food at reasonable cost, but he will morally violate their legitimate expectation to live a decent life largely free of extreme hardship and continuous conflict and stress. He will, if he approves the Keystone XL pipeline, appeal to selfish special interests and the lowest common political, social and economic denominator.
He will, apparently willingly, aggravate the extreme bias in wealth and consumption now evident in American between those on the upper rungs of the income and consumption ladder, which disproportionately includes people in the oil and gas industry, and the vast majority of Americans. If he approves the Keystone XL pipeline, he will reinforce those at the income top and further commit those in the middle to decline and those at the bottom to prolonged disadvantage. This, I suggest, directly violates his ”win the future” agenda, assuming he intended it to benefit the 80% of Americans in the middle and less advantaged economic classes.
Dress this up however the President may, and he most certainly will pull over its head the “Jobs” and “economic growth” frock, but he will never honestly be able to call it “winning the future”.
Todays regulators, whether it be the Bureau of Land management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Forest Service, or the Environmental Protection Agency, along with the even lesser state regulators, have revealed they are simply no match for the astonishing cohesiveness and organization of todays oil and gas industry, its significant financial might, and its deep entrenchment in the political hierarchy. They have demonstrated individually and collectively, time and time again, that they cannot protect the public, atmospheric integrity, biodiversity and services dependent on healthy ecosystems encompassing public and private landscapes, or even their own regulatory structure, from the exceptional determination of the corporations that exploit petroleum and natural gas resources.
It remains to be seen whether this President, armed with the moral influence and legal authority of his office, can and will do better.
Brian L. Horejsi is an ecologist living in Canada.