Perils of the Keystone XL Pipeline Confront Obama


Bill McKibben, a prolific writer and organizer on global warming and climate change, has had a busy year teaching environmentalists not to despair and will soon be learning some lessons himself.

In August 2011, he organized an unprecedented demonstration in front of the White House urging President Obama to deny a permit for the giant Keystone XL pipeline that would haul very dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada down to Texas refineries, largely to be exported. More than 1200 people were arrested over the course of the month to protest the construction of the pipeline. This could be the largest mass arrest before the White House in decades. Kudos to Bill and his associates.

On February 17, 2013, 48 people, including McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., were arrested for open, non-violent civil disobedience mostly for refusing U.S. Park Police orders to keep moving on the White House’s sidewalk (with some protestors actually attaching themselves to the fence in front of the White House).

This past weekend, McKibben was back at the White House with more than 40,000 anti-Keystone XL protestors along with demands for Obama to act on broader climate issues. Protestors included leaders of Native American tribes, some legislators, corporate executives, farmers, students, workers and other Americans who think saving the planet from a huge rush of carbon dioxide and expanding the very large toxic region of Alberta, was worth some of their direct effort.

President Obama has twice postponed his decision on the XL pipeline, much to the relief of Hillary Clinton, whose State Department would have been blamed for approving the pipeline, much to the detriment of her future political aspirations. Now Secretary of State John Kerry has said a decision is coming “near term.”

The Keystone XL pipeline’s owner is TransCanada, which is busily buying rights of way through the western U.S., and calling on states to use their eminent domain powers when ranchers and farmers resist. Giant pipes have already been shipped to various locations along the way. Actual construction has been underway in Texas. The governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, dropped his objection once the pipeline’s route was alerted to go around the state’s environmentally vulnerable Sand Hills area.

Since fracking is spreading rapidly in many states to increase U.S. oil production, not to mention burgeoning natural gas fracking extractions, why would President Obama want to approve Keystone XL? What about his State of the Union warnings regarding global warming and its terrible costs in lives, property and money?

Notwithstanding the absence of the need for oil from Canada and Mr. Obama’s stated concerns about global warming, TransCanada, backed to the hilt by Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is confident that it will receive a permit from Obama.

First, the pipeline has been promoted as a significant job creator. In reality, building a pipeline in these days of automation requires a few short-term workers. The exporting refineries are even more automated. But with the AFL-CIO and the construction unions combined with the American Petroleum Institute’s lobbying forces in Washington, a majority of members of Congress have signed on.

Second, even without the pipeline, TransCanada can still ship tar sands oil to the U.S. via rail, barge, truck and other existing pipelines. Or the company, with Canadian government backing, can decide to build a pipeline westward through British Columbia for shipment to oil-hungry China.

Those options set up the argument that Alberta tar sands oil will be burned on the planet anyhow so why not have it go through a more efficient pipeline than with railcars and ships.

Third, the “sleeper” argument on Obama’s desk is that TransCanada, having already invested big money in the U.S., can invoke Chapter 11 of the NAFTA trade agreement and sue the U.S. government for big damages if its permit is denied. Incredible as it may seem, the notorious Chapter 11 has been used by numerous companies to seek billions of dollars in damages from governmental official decisions in either Mexico, the U.S. or Canada. Companies have succeeded in obtaining settlements totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Paid for by the taxpayers, of course.

McKibben and associates know the odds of stopping the Keystone Pipeline are heavily against them. Obama can issue his approval and counteract its impact with intensified White House efforts to reduce the carbon/methane footprint. Obama could, to the delight of conservative and liberal economists, come out for a carbon tax. Obama should be a leader on environmental issues. His environmental supporters voted for him and declined to criticize him prior to the election. The letdown from the high expectation levels built on the many protests would be devastating to the morale and energy of the movement.

McKibben, however, hopes that the struggles’ collateral benefit will be a rise in public consciousness and a recharged Obama Administration to hoist renewable energy and conservation to the top of the President’s expedient “all of the above” policy (coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar and greater efficiency).

McKibben’s army has thrown its non-violent troops against the Keystone XL Pipeline and tar sands exploitation that will devastate an area in Alberta the size of Florida. This project has been called a massive body blow to the Planet Earth by NASA’s climate scientist James Hansen, who has been arrested several times in the protests.

Obama approving the pipeline makes it happen. While promising collateral offsets by Obama is nothing more than the Obamamania of hope. We know how far hope traveled since Obama became president and never had to worry about political competitors on the ballot, including third parties, attracting votes to environmental and other progressive causes. There are lessons that McKibben may have to explain to his 350.org followers.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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