On the evening of February 3, three days after the US State Department released yet another report vouching for the viability of the proposed Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, activists in nearly 300 cities across the United States held candlelit vigils in protest. It was the latest show of grassroots muscle in the ever-escalating tensions between the Obama White House and the American left on environmental issues, a strident battle of wills and ideology in which Canada is caught in the middle.
Keystone, of course, is a proposed, 1,300-mile pipe that would pump crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Gulf Coast, partially for domestic use, partially for export. Approval of the project lies solely with the president, as is customary with international infrastructure projects of this sort, but this particular president has proven himself in no great hurry to make a decision. Since the project was first proposed by the TransCanada energy corp. in the fall of 2008, the Obama White House has commissioned no less than five separate studies on the feasibility of the thing, with particular focus on its environmental impact.
In April of 2010, the Clinton State Department released what’s known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Keystone. It concluded that the pipeline’s environmental consequences would be minimal. A year later, State commissioned a “supplementary” study to cover for some of the original’s shortcomings. It concluded that the pipeline’s environmental consequences would be minimal. A few months after that, these findings were consolidated into a “final” EIS report, which, as you might expect, concluded that the pipeline’s environmental consequences would be minimal. But then in 2013 State decided that needed a supplementary top-off, too. The report released last Friday was thus a final-final-supplement-to-the-supplement. It concluded that the pipeline’s environmental consequences would be minimal.
Okay, so I guess that concludes the State Department phase of the process, said President Obama’s chief of staff the other day. Time to let the executive branch’s other “expert agencies… look at this and make their determinations.” You know, the EPA, the Department of Energy, the Surgeon General, Coast Guard, whatever.
The understood motives of such chronic delays are purely partisan. 54% of self-identifying “liberal Democrats” oppose the pipeline, a significant chunk of the party’s base. And with the President already under fire from progressives on a broad range of issues where the White House has shown little interest for compromise — drone strikes, NSA spying, Edward Snowden, Gitmo — the administration likely feels there’s little to be gained by poking one more stick in their eye. Particularly not with midterms just around the corner.
Why left-wing American environmentalists remain so transfixed on Keystone is unclear. As the State Department has stated so loudly and often, there’s no evidence not building the pipe will actually do anything to curb greenhouse gas emissions, since most Keystone-related pollution will come from extraction, not transportation, and the Canadians are going to continue extracting for their own selfish reasons regardless of what America does. But even in the absolute worst case scenario — ie; Keystone is built and pumps its maximum annual load into the States, all of which is immediately burned — the pollution generated from increasing American oil consumption by the pipeline’s estimated 830,000 barrels a day would raise global greenhouse emissions by a mere 0.4%, at least according to this column from the American Enterprise Institute.
Indeed, as was pointed out recently in The New Republic, environmentalists’ fetishization of Keystone may actually be profoundly counter-productive to the green movement, encouraging, as it does, all attention to be focused on a single totemic villain, as opposed to the larger, more engrained and systemic sources of pollution in American society — namely automobiles and coal (which Americans burn more of than any other industrialized nation).
But single-villain narratives are way more fun, and Keystone is certainly bound up with a lot of them. The Koch brothers are heavily invested in Keystone, for instance. As is the Chinese government (though not nearly to the extent some have claimed). Prime Minister Harper’s an enormous booster, so if you’re one of those American liberals who think he’s a monster turning sweet, cuddly Canada into a “jingoistic petro-state,” there’s that too. And of course, at its core, this entire project is dreamed up by the dreaded oil companies. Really, all that’s missing is Dick Cheney.
In fairness, it has to be said that the case for Keystone, from an American perspective (as opposed to merely the case against its opponents), could probably stand to be made in a bit more compelling terms. At a time when America is already producing record high quantities of oil on its own, there are legitimate questions to be asked about the country’s need for petroleum imports, period, even from friendly ol’ Canada. The jobs argument in favor of the thing, likewise, centers around numbers that continue to be exceedingly disputed — the range is quite literally said to be somewhere between half a million and 35.
In that sense, the strongest argument in favor may simply be strategic and diplomatic. As many have quipped, “Canada’s got to sell all their oil to someone,” and presumably America has a self-interest in ensuring that someone isn’t a rising geopolitical opponent like China. Similarly, given the dire predictions of damage some fear a rejection of Keystone could inflict upon US-Canadian relations, halting promising gains on everything from border co-operation to agricultural tariffs to Afghanistan, it may be worth remembering why close allies do each other favors from time to time. It’s not just niceness in the short term that matters, after all, but a guarantee of goodwill in the long.
Someday, Canada will learn what Obama considers its friendship worth. Will the price be paid in politics?