Thursday, December 8, 2011

Not Time to Sleep on the Keystone XL

As 2011 comes to a close, we can look back at the deepening of the economic and ecological crises, and one of the most socially and politically explosive years in the history of humanity. Most will remember the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring as the defining moments of 2011, but lets take a moment to reflect on the first chapter of the saga that will occupy the attention of the Environmental Movement in the coming decade; the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In the last few months there has been a lot of activitiy surrounding the Keystone XL, a mega-extraction infrastructure project with invetsment slated to come from Transcanada corporation. The proposed 1,700 mile-long pipeline would transport Tar Sands oil from Northern Alberta to Texas refineries in the U.S, a distance that covers two-thirds of North America.

What the Tar Sands consists of is not conventional crude, but a thick, dense, and difficult to extract and process bitumen. The primary method of extraction for the Tar Sands known as SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) is extremely energy intensive, wastes 3 to 4 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil produced, and this extraction is devatsating the Athabasca River system, the third largest watershed in the world. The Tar Sands is the most environmentally destructive extraction project in the history of humanity.

Furthermore, the sheer size of the Tar Sands makes it the biggest carbon pool in the world, and James Hansen, the U.S` top climatologist at NASA, has stressed repeatedly that tapping the tar sands via this cross-continental pipeline to bring it to U.S markets, would effectively mean "game over for the climate."

An important aspect to note is that the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, as it was originally proposed, would cross through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, an ecologically sensitive area that supports the Ogallala Aquifer and water system for millions of people.

In late August, early September of this year, a campaign against the Keystone XL mobilized for two weeks in Washington, targeting the White House to put pressure on President Obama. Participation was high with a good turnout, siginificant numbers, and hundreds of arrests were made. Then, in early November, ten thousand people gathered to form a human chain, and encircled the White House several times over, again calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project. The action was very successful and drew impressively large numbers. This action came exactly a year before the 2012 U.S presidential elections, and the pipeline was shaping up to be a major political issue.

During this time, Obama announced that the final decision on the Keystone XL would no longer rest with him, but with the State Department instead, and then shortly thereafter reversed his position and said that the decision once again would be his to make. Most significant of all, about a week after the climate justice action that encircled the White House, President Obama made another important announcement in regards the Keystone XL pipeline; that there would be a new environmental review on the pipeline, and that the final decision would be postponed until at least 2013.

Some of the Environmental NGO reaction and narrative was as follows: Obama and the U.S administration have felt pressure due to the actions and campaigning to make a decision in favour of the environmental community. President Obama and the U.S government have postponed the decision in order to allow the environmental assessment to be done fairly and properly, and the delay will give the administration time to do it right. Surely, the delay will mean a more thorough scientific review and a truly public input process, free from oil company influence. This development sends a powerful message to the oil industry, and they now understand who they are up against. This is a tremendous victory, and we should all take a moment to applaud this decision and to send President Obama a letter thanking him for his leadership.

Technically, the Obama administration`s announcement was simply for a NEW environmental review of the Keystone XL, to reevaluate the ROUTE of the pipeline. Five days after the postponement was announced, TransCanada announced that it would agree to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills region of Nebraska. In response, Bill McKibben made a statement saying "we`re offly happy that the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be safe and the Sandhills, that only leaves the entire atmosphere of the planet to worry about." This perceived victory was predictably shortlived. Why were we being told to celebrate?

Putting too much faith in that the U.S government will make the right decision on an environmental matter, and being under the illusion that the decision will be subject to a thorough scientific review and a `truly public input process` would be a mistake. Celebrating a perceived victory which is actually closer to a setback is not a good idea. We have seen for decades with the U.S government, and especially in the last year and a half with the BP Oil Spill that this administration also is far more likely to side with industry than it is to side with people and the environment. And finally, the only reason why the Keystone XL decision has been postponed is because Obama and company don`t want it to be an issue come election time in 2012. It doesn`t matter if the decision is made in 2013, 14, or 15, it is the outcome that matters, and sure as the sun will set, this pipeline is coming.

Those from the ENGO community overeacting to the Keystone XL postponement as a victory, misinterpreting the situation, are actually doing the Climate Justice movement a considerable disservice. "Game over for the Climate", lights out for the planet, whatever you like to call it, this is THE environmental battle of the 21st Century, and way too important an issue to be off our guard, even for a moment.

Republished from, Dec.30th, 2011.

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