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.

5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.

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.”