The End Game Approaches on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Anti-pipeline protesters are urging President Obama not to light the fuse on the so-called 'carbon bomb.' Will he listen?

Demonstrators call for the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline during a rally in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 2011. Protesters are unhappy about TransCanada Corp's plan to build the massive pipeline to transport crude from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Apr 19, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Tick tock, tick tock.

While a decision on the contentious Keystone XL pipeline is said to be coming in the next few months, the deadline for public comments is Monday, April 22, 2013. Ostensibly, it’s a State Department choice, since the pipeline crosses international boundaries, but most political observers agree that it will be one of President Obama’s signature decisions.

"From farmers to ranchers to students to grandparents, the hundreds testifying against the pipeline overwhelmed the couple dozen pro-pipeline speakers who stayed only through lunch, having been paid for by big oil and their friends."

The pipeline will carry diluted bitumen from the Canadian tarsands fields, through six Midwestern states, to the refineries of the Gulf of Mexico. Its proponents, including the Canadian government and most Republicans in Congress, contend that Canadian oil is preferable to Middle Eastern oil, that the oil will get here regardless of whether shipped by pipeline or rail, that the pipeline will create thousands of temporary construction jobs, and will lower American gasoline prices. A recent State Department report downplayed the climate impacts. But every claim made about the pipeline is quickly debunked.

The pipeline’s opponents contend that the tar sands are “game over for the planet,” as scientist James Hansen has famously put it. And their research shows that the State Department has minimized the climate impacts. A recent scientific report, Cooking the Books, compares the climate impacts per year of Keystone XL to those of 51 coal plants, or 37.7 million cars—more cars than are currently registered on the entire West Coast (California, Washington, and Oregon), plus Florida, Michigan, and New York—combined.

The pipeline’s proponents contend that American activists can’t stop Canadians from extracting their own oil, that if Keystone XL is not built, the same amount of oil will arrive by train, and trains run derailment risks. But that myth evaporates along with the “thousands of jobs” claim. Analysis by Reuters shows that the tar sands simply can’t get into the United States by rail alone. The Keystone pipeline is designed to carry 830,000 barrels per day. The State Department report claimed that rail could carry up to 250,000 barrels per day in a best case scenario, but that included rail going anywhere, not just Gulf Coast-bound. Shipments of oil from Canada to the Gulf have never exceeded 30,000 barrels per day, or less than four percent of the pipeline’s capacity. In other words, without Keystone XL, the tar sands face an uncertain market.

And a recent Public Citizen report contends that Keystone won’t lower American gas prices: Average U.S. gasoline prices over the past year would have been as much as 3.5 percent lower, or 8 to 12 cents per gallon, had there not been any exports of oil. The pipeline is designed to get Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico refineries, where it can be sold on a global market, not reserved for American motorists.

Perhaps the oddest myth pushed by the pro-Keystone forces is its popularity, as evidenced by Thursday’s public hearing in Grand Island, Nebraska. People lined up for hours in the snow just to get in. Orange-clad pro-pipeline supporters were greatly outnumbered by those opposing the project.

David Turnbull, campaign director for Oil Change International, tells TakePart: “Yesterday's hearing in Nebraska was an epic display of the diversity and passion of citizens opposing to the Keystone XL pipeline. From farmers to ranchers to students to grandparents, the hundreds testifying against the pipeline overwhelmed the couple dozen pro-pipeline speakers who stayed only through lunch, having been paid for by Big Oil and their friends. It's hard to imagine anyone who could still support the pipeline after watching the hearing in Nebraska yesterday.”

Although a recent poll had 66 percent of Americans supporting the project, that support is soft. There have been no vocal pro-Keystone rallies. People opposing it marched, 40,000 strong, in near-freezing temperatures in Washington, in a February “Forward on Climate” rally.

The pipeline has become the symbol of a climate movement in the way that earnest cap-and-trade policy papers haven’t. It’s effectively put a political price on carbon: If Obama approves this project, he’ll pay a terrible political price with a young, committed, usually fiercely Democratic constituency.

“Any objective analysis of the impact of building Keystone shows that it would be a climate catastrophe,” says Ross Hammond, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “Instead, the State Department seems ready to buy into the pipeline propaganda of an army of lobbyists who are trading on their ties to Secretary Kerry and President Obama to taint the decision. The president must act in the national interest, not the interests of Big Oil, and reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”

RL Miller is a climate blogger; on the executive board of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus; editor of twitter-based policy news feeds for House Progressive Caucus and others, @PCNEnvironment and @PCNNatRes; speaker at Netroots Nation; and, in spare time, a practitioner of law and keeper of chickens.