Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

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 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! 

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government: War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Comfortably Dumb
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Michael Munk
Getting Away With Terrorism in Oregon
T.J. Coles
Confronting China: an Interview with John Pilger
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Chris Zinda
The Bundy Acquittal: Tazing of #oregonstandoff
Norman Pollack
America at the Crossroads: Abrogation of Democracy
Bill Quigley
Six Gulf Protectors Arrested Challenging Gulf Oil Drilling
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Ira Helfand
Nukes and the UN: a Historic Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Sam Albert
Kids on Their Own in Calais: the Tip of an Iceberg-Cold World
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Uri Avnery
The Israeli Trumpess
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Dave Reilly
Complete the Sentence: an Exploration of Orin Langelle’s “If Voting Changed Things…”
Jonathan H. Martin
When Nobody Returns: Palestinians Show They are People, Too
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Simon Jones
The Human Lacunae in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
Charles R. Larson
Review: Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers”
David Yearsley
Bach on the Election