Is the battle over Keystone XL actually over?

Jan 19, 2012

President Obama, denouncing a "rushed and arbitrary deadline" set by congressional Republicans, announced Wednesday that he was rejecting a Canadian firm's application for a permit to build and operate the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project that would have stretched from Canada's oil sands to refineries in Texas.

That doesn't mean the fight is over for climate change activists though. Bill McKibben, who was the major leader against the Keystone XL pipeline, chats with readers about what's next for climate change activists and if the battle against Keystone is actually over.

What's the next step for Keystone supporters? How does the "win" over Keystone XL pipeline fit into the larger picture for climate change activists? What will the next big issue be? Ask these questions and more, and tell Bill if and why you agree or disagree now!

I know it's not quite as exciting as Newt's open marriage, but yesterday's Keystone decision was pretty darned interesting, at least for those of us who've been embroiled in it for a long time.  So eager to discuss the implications!

How discouraging is it for climate change activists to hear so many presidential candidates state they do not believe climate change is real? I personally understand there is some disagreement amongst the scientific community as to how quickly and to what degree the climate is changing, but I have not seen any scientist (who is not a paid shill of a special interest in this debate) disagree that it is happening. Why isn't the science of this getting across to several of our leading political figures?

It's truly amazing. Newt said yesterday that Obama was like the president of Mars, but in fact, Obama is at least trying to be a resident of this planet, with its particular physics and chemistry. It's the GOP presidential hopefuls that seem embarked on a fantastic tour to some other corner of the universe with very different physical properties.

Where in the world are other examples of a pipeline damaging the environment?

Hmm, Keystone 1 leaked 12 times in a year. Check out the current situation in the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone rivers, two of the most recent bad pipeline spills (and both with tarsands oil!).

Isnt it impossible just to keep the needs of 7 billion people fed without destroying the planet?

Hard enough without raising the temperature, that's for sure.

Do you believe environmental concerns are more important than America not being dependent on energy from terrorist regimes?

We're going to be dependent on them as long as we're hooked on oil  because its price goes up and down globally. The only way not to worry about Iran is to not need oil, which we're capable of doing, but we'll never get to while Big Oil runs our political life.

Had the accelerated deadline not been in place and the environmental studies been conducted to find a suitable route for the pipeline, would you support the project?

The route is only one of the problems the admininstration has promised to study.  They've also promised to check out the climate implications. Since our most important climatologist, NASA's Jim Hansen, says the volume of carbon in the tarsands would if heavily tapped mean it's "game over for the climate,'" that's going to be a high bar to clear.

I thought they just "dropped=back" and are planning to submit a new plan/route.

Anyone can resubmit a plan any time, but they have to go back to the start and it will be an arduous process, hence the big drop in transcanada's share price yesterday. I'm no kneejerk partisan of the pres - I got arrested outside his house, for pete's sake - but in this case he stood up to a naked political threat from the American Petroleum Inst. (aka big oil) to exact "huge political consequences."  Not just the right decision, but a brave one.

Bill, Is it inevitable, no matter what the US does, that TransCanada will get the tar sands oil refined? Will British Columbia allow the pipeline to go through their province to the west coast or will they find someway to ship it no matter what we do? In other words, are we just slowing down the inevitable?

They're trying to put a pipeline to BC, but it's run into even more opposition than Keystone.  A record number of public comments, huge oppositioin from first nations peoples.  Ironically, the Canadian government just announced a one-year delay for their environmental review, exactly what Obama proposed until big oil's congressional harem forced his hand.

I agree wholeheartedly with your stance on the issue, and thank you for speaking out! One of the problems I see with this issue, that will most likely contribute to it resurfacing, is that most of the public is uniformed about the negative impact, they see only the positive, as presented by the media. We need to find a way to reach out to more people with the facts. I'm surprised how many people are unaware that there was no proposed alternate route, that these pipelines leak more often than is publicized, that a leak or spill in the aquifer would poison the water for the environment and communities, that the jobs would be fewer than is reported for Americans, and that most of the oil would be exported.

There's been too much stenography and too little reporting here, you're right. Exceptions include the Post's Eilperin and Mufson who have uncovered some important stuff, including last Sunday's story that Speaker Boehner has hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal investments in tarsands comapnies.

Who in Congress has helped to urge the president to reject this pipeline?

There's been very good support from some in Congress.  Can I give a special shout out to my VT congressional delegation?  Sanders has been all over this - also Peter Welch.  And Leahy.  Sheldown Whitehouse, Steve Cohen, Earl Blumenauer, and others. 

If Keystone XL construction is scrapped, a pipeline will almost certainly be built to a shipping terminal within Canada for export to Asia/Europe. The negative environmental consequences of this are far greater than Keystone XL. It is widely agreed that pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to move oil. Why can't most environmentalists (of which I am one) see the unintended consequences of their actions? Why can't we acknowledge that it is the insatiable US demand for petroleum that makes tar sands economically feasible? Why should we burden poor countries with the harms of oil extraction to satisfy our nasty habits? Our own apathy towards finding less petroleum intensive lifestyles is the problem not some pipeline. I suppose it is easier to blame somebody other than ourselves.

I've answered this above. The problem with your question is "will almost certainly be built."  You're aware of the polling that shows most Canadians opposed to the gateway pipeline?

But I sure agree with you that we need to change our energy  habits.  It will be easier to do that if we don't hook ourselves up to the next source of supply.

Actually this is more of a statement then question. In Canada no matter how we disagree with President Obama's decision regarding the XL Pipeline, in the end we respect it. However we oppose any interference by U.S. environmentalists in our regulatory process when it comes to our Canada's national interests ie: Gateway Pipeline. Perhaps you can remind Kevin Bacon, Robert Redford and the rest of the jet-setting hypocrites that their opinions matter when it comes to something involving the U.S. NOT when it involves projects within Canada's own borders.

Well, since there's not a wall at the 49th parallel that keeps tarsands carbon separate from the rest of the planet, perhaps you won't mind a little kibbitzing? After all, your prime minister has been to Washington about a dozen times to push Keystone, and your diplomatic corps is all over Europe trying to force them to take tarsands oil. My trips to Canada have been really rewarding, especially up to Yellowknife last fall to see Bill Erasmus and the Dene.  What leaders your first nations are!

I have a hard time seeing this as any sort of win at all. I think Obama will approve the pipeline but wanted to put off the decision until after the election. The deadline gave him an excuse to reject it now and ask for another proposal which he'll approve after the election.

Anything's possible. There are no permanent environmental victories. I think it's dead certain Mitt Romney will build a hundred of these things if the Koch Bros. tell him to.

Where is the next battle?

We'll be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday--500 or so of us in referee's shirts. We're going to 'blow the whistle' on congressional collusion with oil money. Not just Keystone; we want to point out that these guys take money from companies they then send subsidies to. The game is rigged.  If it was the Superbowl we'd be up in arms. We should be here too. (Well, not arms, I guess. We're a non-violent bunch.)

Isn't this just a symptom of the disease? Shouldn't earth's citizen's reduce their dependance and consumption of oil, not squeeze production and risk causing socio-econmic difficulties? Couldn't there be a plan of action to wean everyone off the stuff? And please stop calling it tar sands, most of the oil production isn't mined sands it's SAGD-bitumen production!

Of course we should reduce our use. That's what we've been working on at for years now, in every country on earth. This is just a new front in that battle.

And tarsands is precisely what geologists always called the formation, until the PR guys decided "oil sands" sounded better.

Republicans running for office are going to charge the Administration with failing to help the job situation by rejecting the pipeline at this time. What is the most cogent way of combating that line? Long winded explanations will not fly in today's polluted political climate.

The only study not paid for by the oil company showed it would kill more jobs than it would create.

Obama press secretary referenced the need to move the pipeline away from Nebraska where the governor was not a supporter. Is there an alternative path with supportive governors and, if so, should individual state residents rally to shut down the path through their state?

They can't skip Nebraska entirely, I don't think, and residents of other states are waking up to the dangers too. 

The pipeline would have sixteen thousand sensors constantly measuring pressure. These sensors will be linked directly to satellites.
20,000 immediate jobs and an estimated 178,000 jobs by 2035 will be lost by Obama playing politics, if Canada sends the oil to China. - Post commenter BayouRod

These job figures have been shown to be baloney, mostly by The Washington Post.  Even the company only claims 6,000 temporary jobs, and somehow the pipeline they built last year managed to leak 12 times in its debut season. 

How does the cancellation of the XL pipeline reduce America's energy dependence on Arab and Venezuelan oil imports? 60% of US demand is already "imported". The main question is security of supply. The price of oil is only going to go up - why do we want to increase our support to countries that support terrorism and anti-American dictators like Chavez instead of a politically secure country like Canada?

The oil coming through this pipe is destined for export. It does nothing to change our energy security situation.  What will change it is the quick conversion to (unblockadable) sun and wind.

"Surely the Obama administration didn’t have to declare the whole project contrary to the national interest — that’s the standard State was supposed to apply — and force the company to start all over again." - Post editorial board
I have to agree with WaPo on this one. So there are environmental issues; work out a fix and lets get on with it. Why is this project taking this long, over three years, to obtain approval in the first place? This is totally unacceptable.  - Post commenter Djones121

Because it's linked to the second largest pool of carbon on earth and our foremost climatologist says if we heavily tap that pool it will be "game over for the climate?"  Maybe that's the reason?

Have you heard that Trans Canada's Rival Enbridge is planning a new pipeline named Flanagan South? It will parallel the existing Spearhead pipeline from Chicago to Cushing. The Spearhead pipline currently carries oil sand oil from Alberta. Won't this make the whole issue of Keystone mute?

Well, they need a border crossing to increase the amount of tarsands they can bring over from Canada, and they don't have a new one without Keystone XL. these other pipelines will let things slosh around the u.s. more easily, though.

No Keystone Pipeline.
No drilling in the Gulf of Mexico
No drilling in Alaska
No drilling off of the coast of California.
Yucca Mountain nuclear Storage facility is closed, so no new nuclear plants.
Is Obama trying to make us dependent on Saudi Arabian oil?? - Post commenter GrantPaten

Actually, I think Obama has increased domestic energy production by large amounts. I'm opposed to much of that, but it's the truth. 

Meanwhile, you think dependence on Saudi Arabia is...something new?

You wrote "...the volume of carbon in the tarsands would if heavily tapped mean it's 'game over for the climate.." But with or without the pipeline isn't it likely or almost certain that this oil product will be tapped, refined and used? By cancelling the pipeline it will just be used and transported less safely and efficiently - correct?

Without a pipeline, it stays in the ground. The premir of Alberta said that without Keystone he'd be "landlocked in Bitumen."  Sure, we're just buying time, but if in five or 10 years the planet hasn't decided that climate change fears preclude this kind of development, the queston will be largely moot anyway.

I'm pretty sensitive to environmental issues, but I can't really get too up in arms about this decision, either way. It's not as if we're going to go off of oil anytime soon, and we might as well get it from somewhere close by. In the meantime, Obama has done more for alternative energy than any previous POTUS, although much more work of course needs to be done. Even if he had approved the pipeline, his record would be pretty good.
Of course, on the other hand, the project won't create a significant number of jobs, nor will it provide a significant source of oil, and odds are, TransCanada will reapply and get their way next year, and if Obama approved the pipeline, he would look weaker politically, so what does he have to lose by rejecting it? - Post commenter joshlct

He'll face a barrage of ads from the chamber of commerce and big oil. So, give him some credit for courage here. 

Where do we find the study showing that the Keystone pipeline would kill more jobs than it would create?

Google "Cornell Keystone pipeline jobs" and it should give you a pdf of the study.

It seems that the media and many congressional representatives, most of the time, do the following; - repeat inflated jobs numbers for the Keystone XL - ignore the fact that much of this oil will be shipped out of the US anyway - do not mention the fact that the Enbridge pipeline to BC (and a route for the oil to China) is far from a done deal. Canada's threat to ship oil to China through BC is far from reality. - do not mention problems with the existing Keystone (first pipeline ever to be shut down as new pipeline due to leaks) ANYWAY, I think messaging is very important...and needs communicators far more skilled than me to provide it. I live in Colorado, and Sen Mark Udall (D) yesterday responded to questions about KXL at a town hall (prior to the news about the permit denial). Generally, the comments he made were favorable toward KXL - and to sourcing oil within North America - which appalls me. I have to believe that Senator Udall has not been fully briefed on all the issues related to KXL. Should a focus moving forward be on increasing opposition to the project through reaching out to senators and representatives who should be voicing strong opposition? If we have not persuaded people like Mark Udall, we are in big trouble!

It is hard to push against the huge advantage that money gives big oil. That's why we need to find other currencies to work in--and this fall and winter we managed to. Passion, spirit, creativity, and sometimes our bodies.

Until someone comes up with realistic, energy-dense alternatives to oil, it is going to be extracted, delivered and sold. The Canadians will simply build a pipeline to the west coast instead, and welders, fitters and engineers in my home state of South Dakota will lose out on some good experience and income. Keystone probably would have been very useful for pulling oil out of the Bakken formation in North Dakota and delivering that oil to market also, which no one seems to think is important, despite our recent Middle East foreign policy foibles. I am happy the pipeline will stay away from the Sand Hills, more from a selfish perspective than anything: I love the 57 mile stretch of road going south out of Gordon. I don't like the idea of global warming, but I don't have any confidence that the world will get organized enough to do anything about it, frankly.

People keep saying that Canada will "simply build a pipeline to the west." Have you read my comments in this thread, not to mention the polling data provided by other commenters? If you start with a false presumption, you go astray.

Mike Klink, an engineer that worked for Bechtel on the first Keystone pipeline charged that Chinese steel used in the pipeline was shoddy. Can't we also say that the pipeline would produce more jobs in China making steel than in the US?

They've sourced much of the steel abroad, and that klink deposition really was damaging--it's no wonder the first pipeline has leaked like a sieve.

This is more of a comment in response to the Canadian citizen who said Canadians don't agree with Obama's decision: a recent poll indicates that more Canadians oppose both KXL and the Northern Gateway pipeline to B.C. Perhaps Canadians are more familiar with the downsides of developing the tarsands than Americans... Here's a link - read the numbers for yourself.

Thanks for that link. I found it fascinating. The Canadian government is very out of tune with many Canadians on this one. (even quite a few in Alberta!)

Many many thanks for good questions, and enjoy watching the Newt and Mitt show, with the existential question: What's worse, an open marriage or a Caymans Island bank account?

In This Chat
Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him 'the planet's best green journalist' and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was 'probably the country's most important environmentalist.' Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, he holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges, including the Universities of Massachusetts and Maine, the State University of New York, and Whittier and Colgate Colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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