Environmentalists regret blocking Keystone XL pipeline

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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After a summer of lackluster protests and the failure to gain wide-ranging public support for the campaign, prominent liberal columnist Jonathan Chait called the Keystone opposition a “huge environmentalist mistake,” arguing that the focus on the pipeline project came in 2011 after environmentalists had been dealt a defeat on cap-and-trade policies.

Chait criticizes environmentalist leader Bill McKibben and others for putting so much effort into fighting the pipeline that will do little to curb global warming. The real effort to cut carbon dioxide emissions, Chait writes, comes from the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions limits on power plants.

“Even slight gradations in the strength of possible EPA plans matter more than the whole fate of the Keystone pipeline,” Chait wrote last week. “And yet, McKibben and tens of thousands of his followers are obsessed with a program that amounts to a rounding error at the expense of a decision that really is the last chance to stop unrestrained global warming.”

Chait’s argument got some push back from environmentalists, but the liberal writer isn’t alone is venting frustration about the environmental movement’s Keystone campaign.

“Architecturally, a keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place,” wrote four environmental activists representing U.S. and Canadian groups. “Without the keystone, the building blocks of an archway will tumble and fall, with no support system for the weight of the arch. Much of the United States’ climate movement right now is structured like an archway, with all of its blocks resting on a keystone — President [Barack] Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.”

“This is a dangerous place to be,” the activists added. “Once Barack Obama makes his decision on the pipeline, be it approval or rejection, the keystone will disappear. Without this piece, we could see the weight of the arch tumble down, potentially losing throngs of newly inspired climate activists.”

Environmentalists have good reason to be worried about their stake in the Keystone XL decision. The summer saw sparsely attended protests against the pipeline. As the summer dragged on, the protests failed to draw out activists specifically opposed to the pipeline, and instead drew out more broadly anti-capitalist activists.

The disillusionment among environmentalists has been accompanied by polls that show strong public support for the pipeline, despite large sums of money spent on ad campaigns to vilify the project. The latest poll by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans favor building Keystone, while only 30 percent of the country opposed the project.

However, those who have been active in the anti-Keystone campaign argue that it’s not about the actual impacts of vetoing the pipeline: It’s a symbolic movement of standing up to the fossil-fuels industry.

“[I]n deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting,” writes McKibben, head of the environmental group 350.org, which has taken a lead role against the pipeline.

One writer for the liberal site ThinkProgress even went so far as to compare the anti-Keystone campaign with the civil rights movement.

“To make a sweeping analogy, dismissing the Keystone fight simply because stopping Keystone won’t save the climate by itself, would be like dismissing the civil rights movement’s use of protests or boycotts or civil disobedience. Each individual action failed to achieve civil rights and yet somehow the movement triumphed,” writes Joe Romm.

What’s Keystone’s status?

While liberals battled it out over the merits of opposing Keystone XL, TransCanada silently completed the southern leg of the pipeline project to bring oil from Cushing, Okla. to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

The southern leg of the pipeline, dubbed the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project, is slated to go into service in mid-to-late 2013 and will be able to transport 700,000 barrels of oil per day from the booming oil regions in America’s midwest.

“The Gulf Coast Pipeline Project is a critical infrastructure project for the energy security of the United States and the American economy,” says TransCanada. “U.S. crude oil production has been growing significantly in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Montana and Texas. Producers do not have access to enough pipeline capacity to move this production to the large refining market along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast Project will address this constraint, as will the Houston Lateral Project.”

The northern leg of the project, which would bring oil from tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada down through Cushing, is still waiting for approval, and it’s still unclear if the Obama administration intends to approve the pipeline.

Over the summer, Obama declared that he would oppose the pipeline project if it significantly added to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions — something the State Department said wouldn’t happen in a report earlier this year.

Obama then downplayed the economic benefits of the pipeline in an interview with The New York Times, and declared that there was more the Canadian government could do to lower carbon emissions from tar sands oil extraction.

“Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator,” Obama said. “There is no evidence that that’s true. The most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline, which might take a year or two, and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs in an economy of 150 million working people.”

However, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently indicated that the administration would approve the pipeline. A reporter with The Boston Globe tweeted out that McCarthy was skeptical of environmentalist arguments against the project, and made it seem like approval was likely:

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy didn’t buy the argument that blocking the Keystone pipeline would prevent the extraction of tar sands oil.

— David Abel (@davabel) November 4, 2013

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, at the Globe, sure made it seem likely that the Obama administration will approve the Keystone pipeline.

— David Abel (@davabel) November 4, 2013

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