The one issue that may determine if Keystone XL gets approved

keystone xl route
Map of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of the Washington Post).
keystone xl route

This map shows the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of The Washington Post).

The State Department released its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) regarding the Keystone XL pipeline this afternoon. I won’t write a full overview of the report – there are already several good ones available – but I’ll just make a few quick observations.

If you read the report, you’ll notice that the State Department’s entire assessment of the pipeline’s impact centers on whether or not the project is a literal “keystone” of the continued expansion of tar sands production (sorry for the terrible pun). According to the SEIS, the project holds almost no bearing on the overall tar sands industry, despite the fact that it could transfer 830,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) from Alberta to the Gulf Coast for refinement. The report bases this conclusion upon the fact that, in lieu of the pipeline, the industry will find alternatives for transport, particularly railways. As the chart below suggests, the amount of tar sands bitumen being transported by rail has spiked in the last few years.

tar sands by rail

The volume of tar sands bitumen shipped by rail from Western Canada since 2011 (courtesy of the State Department).

Accordingly, State concluded that

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

This assertion is highly debatable, and there is a multitude of evidence that challenges it. Industry representatives have consistently spoken about the importance of the pipeline, and a 2013 Reuters investigation stated that relying on rail for transport would halve the amount of oil extracted from the tar sands. Additionally, a report from the Pembina Institute demonstrated that pipelines like Keystone will be central in shaping the future development of tar sands.

Some of my fellow Keystone opponents have pointed out that the SEIS indicates the project will be responsible for releasing carbon emissions, which would exacerbate climate change. In his statement after the report’s release, Bill McKibben said “this report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”

The report is definitely stronger on this front than the draft SEIS. Rather than claiming Keystone would have “no significant environmental impact,” as the draft report did, the final SEIS notes

The total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.

While this is a positive development, the crux of the report still ends up being the market analysis which underlines the projected environmental impacts. Because the report assumes that the pipeline won’t affect overall tar sands production, the SEIS actually concludes that Keystone would be better for the climate and the environment, generally, than all alternatives considered, including the no build option.

keystone climate analysis

Comparison of the annual and lifecycle GHG emissions from Keystone XL and the alternative projects examined in the SEIS (courtesy of the State Department).

I certainly hope that President Obama sticks to the pledge he made this summer, when he stated that he would only approve the pipeline if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” But I remain concerned that the report may provide him enough clearance to approve the pipeline, given the underlying market analysis.

If I didn’t have a dog in this fight – which I clearly do – I might find it appealing to see a decision of such import resting on something as wonkish and esoteric as a study of energy market dynamics. Hell, I basically went to grad school because I want to work in that world. But there’s too much on the line here.

We just need to trust that the President understands the scope of his decision. We’ve drawn our line in the sand, and there’s no erasing it.

Comment to the State Department opposing Keystone XL

I have just (finally) submitted my comment to the State Department, urging it to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I encourage anyone reading this post to submit your own comment to the State Department by 5:00pm today. You can find more information and talking points from 350.org, which is pushing for 1,000,000 public comments. You can email comments to keystonecomments@state.gov.

Join the effort to submit 1,000,000 comments against Keystone XL (courtesy of 350.org).

Join the effort to submit 1,000,000 comments against Keystone XL (courtesy of 350.org).

Here is the text of my comment; feel free to borrow from it liberally:

State Department Office of Environmental Quality and Transboundary Issues:

I would like to make it clear that I firmly oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project and am certain that it does not fulfill a national interest. Moreover, the State Department’s own Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) undermines the case which you have made in favor of the pipeline. I would like to highlight just a few of the problematic claims which your office has made during this review process.

First, the SEIS claims that, in the absence of a the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands companies operating in Alberta will merely deliver the oil which they extract to or through the United States via other means, principally rail. However, the evidence clearly indicates that this alternative is neither economically nor logistically feasible. The SEIS assumes that it costs $15.50 per barrel to deliver tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico for refining; yet, the current price for delivering this double that estimate – $31 per barrel. This fact alone obviates your cost-benefit analysis. Additionally, the current rail infrastructure cannot support the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands industry that Keystone XL would facilitate. Less than 4% of Canadian oil entered the US on rail in 2011. I fail to understand how you project that the existing rail infrastructure – or that which may exist in the near future – can possibly pick up the slack to carry the remaining 96.7% of Canadian crude oil that needs refining.

Secondly, your study grievously downplays the threat that Keystone XL spills pose to the inland waterways. As recent spills in Minnesota (by rail, mind you), Arkansas, and Kalamazoo have demonstrated, tar sands present a clear and present danger to air and water quality throughout America. Two years after the largest inland oil spill in American history, the Kalamazoo River has not fully recovered. ExxonMobil has failed to adequately address the crisis its pipeline crated in Mayflower, Arkansas, and it has effectively taken control of this suburban town for its own devices. We already know that TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline has leaked at least 20 times since it began operating in 2011. Any one of these spills would become vastly more severe if it occurred from the proposed XL pipeline. Tar sands oil does not float, like normal crude. Instead, it sinks and becomes mixed with sediment, making it nearly impossible to clean up properly in the case of a spill. Furthermore, every time water or wind disrupts that sunken bitumen, it can release into the water, creating ever newer ecological disasters. The EPA recently noted that more than 50% of America’s waterways are in poor shape for human use. Keystone XL threatens to exacerbate this challenge further.

Thirdly, the SEIS makes the odd claim that Keystone XL is of little consequence for climate change. Yet, a comprehensive report released last week shows that the pipeline would carry 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, roughly equal to the carbon potential 51 coal-fired power plants. Imagine making the argument that building 51 new coal-fired power plants would be in the national interest. This statement is absurd on its face. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. US EPA that if the government determines carbon dioxide constitutes a hazardous material, it is obligated to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. I fail to see how building 51 new coal plants or approving a pipeline that meets the same end fits within the confines of this endangerment ruling.

Fourthly, the SEIS claims Keystone XL is in the national interest, as it reduces dependence on oil from Middle Eastern sources. Yet, the very market analysis included in your report suggests that most of the tar sands oil that would travel through the pipeline is destined for export to other countries, particularly the emerging economies of East Asia. How exactly does facilitating the export of oil from Canada to China, in order to benefit a handful of tar sands companies, benefit the American people?

Lastly, your SEIS began from the assumption that Keystone XL would secure approval, then justified its way to this predetermined outcome. This approach violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the National Environmental Protection Act. Your job, as a reviewing agency, is to weigh the benefits and costs of the proposed project and determine whether or not it is in the national interest. This review process failed to meet that essential criterion, undermining any findings which it may have produced. In addition, the State Department apparently tried to hide the fact that the consultants who completed the SEIS have business dealings with TransCanada and may have a financial interest in seeing this pipeline come to fruition, as a result.

Ultimately, the State Department’s own analysis belies the conclusion that Keystone XL stands in the national interest. If the US is committed to fighting the existential threat posed by climate change, as President Obama has eloquently stated, it must stop making decades-long investments in large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Now is the time to act on climate change, and rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline is a first step toward this end. I urge the State Department to reconsider its stance and recommend that President Obama reject the project. Twenty years from now, we will all be accountable for the consequences of our actions. It is time for the US government to stand on the right side of history and commit itself to tackling the climate crisis.

Sincerely,

Tim Kovach

MA Candidate, Global Environmental Policy

American University School of International Service

Concern trolls at the Washington Post bash environmentalists

The Washington Post editorial board habitually tries to cast itself as constituting the reasonable middle in major policy debates, including climate change. Over the past several months, the Post has made it clear that the only acceptable tactic to mitigate the carbon emissions driving global warming is a carbon tax. Sticking to this script, the board published a new editorial bashing the environmentalists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the Post:

The [State Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement] underscores the extent to which activists have trumped up a relatively mundane infrastructure issue into the premier environmental fight of this decade, leading to big marches and acts of civil disobedience to advance a cause that is worthy of neither. The activists ought to pick more important fights. Until they do, the president should ignore their pressure.

As I explained in a previous post, it’s certainly fair to claim that the Keystone XL pipeline is far from the central battle in the fight climate change. Instead, I argued that Keystone was a smart fight, because it was “a tangible target,” and a fight in which we stand “at least a decent chance of winning.” But I digress. In its conclusion, the editorial board argues:

Instead of indulging in distractions, Mr. Obama and his friends in the environmental movement should push for policies that could make a significant difference by cutting demand for carbon-intensive fuels. As we argued Sunday, a carbon tax is a cause that really is worth fighting for.

WaPo claims that a carbon tax is the only cause worth fighting for. Yet, like other pieces attacking Keystone opponents, the editors cram their policy prescription into one sentence, providing no explanation on how we are supposed to secure their mythical carbon tax. If WaPo has a secret strategy that no one else has proposed on how to get to this point, I think that I can speak for the environmental movement by saying, “we’re all ears.”

But the editors have nothing to contribute on this front. They ignore the fact that increasing partisanship in recent years has largely been one sided. Rather than acknowledging the clear evidence for this asymmetrical polarization – which shows that the GOP has become vastly more conservative than Democrats have become liberal – WaPo opts to lob cheap shots at environmentalists. Rather than making reference to conservatives like Norman Ornstein, who have noted on the op-ed page of the Washington Post no less, that “the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party,” the editorial board publishes this piece.

I could reference the fact that the Washington Post continues to publish the wanton climate denialism of George Will. Rather than acknowledging Will’s continued falsehoods and inaccuracies, the Post‘s editors have defended him, claiming they have “a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible,” and that they “have plenty of references that support” Will’s claims.

Additionally, I could note – as Mike Grunwald at TIME has already pointed out – that the Post trumpets the carbon tax while heralding Virginia’s terrible new transportation plan as a “signal achievement” that will make Bob McDonnell’s term as governor “a long-term success.”

But, even more than that, I want to point out the fact that the Post chides silly environmentalists for not supporting its beloved carbon tax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the Post could run a Google search to confirm that fact that the vast majority of environmentalists concerned about climate change do in fact support putting a price on carbon. Take Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org and a leader of the fight against Keystone, for instance. I managed to pull the following articles in which McKibben expressed support for a carbon tax and/or placing a price on carbon:

  • From the San Francisco Gate: “A version of the “fee and dividend” idea is a favorite of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.”
  • From Oilprice.com“Oilprice.com: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do? Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.”
  • From Yale E360: “The only way that it works fast enough to make a difference is if the carbon carries a cost. That’s been the problem all along. Carbon didn’t carry a cost, hence we are in the trouble we are in. The question is how do you do that in a way that doesn’t bankrupt everybody and that lets you do it politically…So the soundest proposal, probably, is to take that money, and write a check to everybody in the country every six months.”
  • From Orion Magazine: “But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon.”
  • From The New Republic: “Or, we could limit government’s role to simply imposing a price on fossil fuel that reflects the damage it does. This wouldn’t even need to be a traditional tax: One proposal gaining ground is to take every dollar produced by such a levy and rebate it to each citizen, using government as a kind of pass-through.”

The whole exercise above took me about five minutes to piece together. Yes, Washington Post editorial board, a carbon tax (in some form) is, in fact, a good idea. It’s an idea that enjoys nearly universal support among environmentalists. But those of us fighting the pipeline also understand that we can’t just wave a magic wand to place a price on carbon. Cap-and-trade failed in the Senate because the conservative opposition to the bill was far more organized, vocal, and aggressive than the environmentalist movement on its behalf.  The movement against the Keystone XL pipeline is an effort to counter this, to level the playing field. If the Washington Post’s editorial board really wants to see a carbon tax enacted, it would be far better off getting out of the way of the activists trying to make it happen.

 

What can social movement theory teach us about the Keystone XL fight?

keystone xl protest

I was going to do a full-blown piece on my thoughts about the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, but I have decided to scale it down. Suffice it to say, I am opposed to the pipeline; I have been at each of the 4 large-scale public rallies against KXL in DC, and I have friends and colleagues who were arrested during the initial civil disobedience in August 2011. For two excellent primers on the arguments against the pipeline, check out this post from David Roberts at Grist, and KC Golden’s piece on the Keystone Principle (i.e. first, do no harm).

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

That said, I do want to explore what social movement theory can inform us regarding two components of this issue: the symbolism of the pipeline and the composition of the movement against it. While I know that some commentators do not agree that constructing a social movement is the right strategy for the fight against climate change, I respectfully disagree. I fail to see how we can pressure the White House and Congress to enact policy tackling climate change without apply concerted, continual pressure to that end.

First, on the symbolism of the pipeline. We know that in order to build a broad social movement, we need to choose a rallying point around which people can organize. This rallying point should be a microcosm of the larger issue, a tangible target (something that people can see, touch, and understand), and a fight in which activists have at least a decent chance of winning. Civil rights activists didn’t start their fight by pushing for the Civil Rights or Voting Rights Acts in Congress. They staged sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

The fight against Keystone XL is in this same vein. The pipeline is a microcosm of the larger fight against climate change. It is being pushed by a powerful fossil fuel company – the primary source of greenhouse gases – and will create a 1,700-mile gash across the face of the United States. It will promote the expansion of the Canadian tar sands industry, which clear cuts Alberta’s carbon-fixing boreal forests and is currently poisoning the air, water, and soil of the region’s First Nations, leading to severe cancer clusters against Canada’s indigenous peoples. The tailings from tar sands are so toxic that mining companies have had to install air cannons in tailings ponds, because birds can die from simply landing on the surface of these ponds. Additionally, while some may dispute about the concrete impacts of the pipeline on the climate, we know that producing bitumen from tar sands generates around 20% more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. As renowned climate scientist James Hansen has noted, Keystone XL could spell “game over” for our Holocene climate.

Even from a linguistic standpoint, Keystone XL presents a good target for a budding social movement. “Keystone” hints at the notion that this pipeline lies at the heart of the Canadian tar sands industry; if we can beat this project, it could help bring down the whole house of cards. The “XL” portion carries a few implications. It signifies both the scale of the fight we have taken on – the habitability of our Earth is ultimately at risk – and the size of the opponent we have engaged – the fossil fuel industry is the largest, most well-financed industry in history. As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, Exxon has made more money than any entity “in the history of money.”

Secondly – and contrary to those who have argued the fight has somehow distracted from more productive action on climate change – the ongoing action against KXL has helped to coalesce a broader coalition on climate change and helps to enhance the breadth and scope of the environmental movement. As I have noted in several conversations and debates with fellow greens (including Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who is always good natured & engaging), the 40-50,000 of us who marched against the pipeline on February 17 broaden the green tent and create space for those of us fighting from the inside.

Furthermore, all of the post-mortems on the Senate cap & trade bill (including the controversial Climate Shift report from AU professor Matthew Nisbet) criticized climate activists for placing all their eggs in one basket. The Keystone fight is part of a broader, more diversified strategy to fight climate change on multiple fronts. Whether its direct action against the Southern leg of KXL, efforts to stop coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, or the commitment of mayors to make their cities more resilient in the face of climatic change. In the face of a massive opponent like a changing climate, there is no virtue in being big and consolidated. We need to diversify, decentralize, and go to ground; this is at the heart ofthe KXL fight and the larger strategy being employed by 350.org.

As Bill McKibben wrote in Eaarth, “The wind has begun to blow harder, and hence we need to lower our wind resistance. The sun has begun to burn more brightly, and hence like other animals we need to reduce our size.”