The Quest for Keystone

The Quest for Keystone
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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?


  1. Ricardo Bortolon

    It's interesting that moral repugnance to Keystone XL is seen as less rational than more conventional moral repugnance to things like restricting liquor or drug policy.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    You can't use science to justify a position and then ignore science when it flies in the face of that position.

  3. Dan

    I would like to think the American Left would put more faith in the science behind the five impact studies, but science still does not trump ideology, apparently.

  4. Colin Minich

    I think it's more that the American Left doesn't use religiosity as their means of spitting in the face of science, but rather what I'd like to call "the feels."

  5. Jack

    Hahahahaha, this is totally hilarious.

    It's also one of your best recent ones, drawing-wise. I really like the third panel.

    Cheers from Italy JJ!

  6. Jim Harris

    Keystone, Gitmo and Immigration. Just keep leading them by the nose ring, BO.

  7. Ashburner

    Considering Virginia is currently undergoing massive investigations regarding the chemical spills that tainted their water supply, which have already revealed that the company behind them had hidden ANOTHER recent spill from both the government and public, is it really that surprising that faith in private industry (in regards to accountability) is at an all time low? Especially when you consider we've already had a missive oil spill in the last ten years.

    I don't think the Left is primarily fighting this because they don't want anything to do with oil. They just don't want to risk another spill where the parties involved will be able to avoid responsibility like BP did in the Gulf.

  8. Sov

    This really marks my position as well, and its a total dealbreaker to building pipelines at all right now. We're in a particularly low point of history for both the US and Canadian governments playing its real role in regards to private industry, given its capability.

    The pipeline idea is a grandiose corporate make-money project, putting it categorically below even the controversial make-work projects that at least develop things that service average citizens and business at large (the actual backbone to a stable economy). It's an ongoing example of funneling debt-backed taxpayer money into private coffers with lucrative contracts and marginal kickbacks to weak politicians.

    Furthermore, there is no good reason to believes that the companies involved will do a safe and adequate job. The culture is just too corrupt right now. There's insufficient good-faith regulation, even less accountability, and of the watchdogs that do exist? Government oversight has be co-opted and gutted; they can't do their joba. And civil groups and NGOs don't have any physical access, so they can only campaign on ideology. I've heard promises from company representatives. But I've heard damning reports from veteran inspectors on site describing sub-standard installation and parts this early in the process.

    This is true of oil and gas across the US and Canada, and it's also true of many other big money/big power lobbies like pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and (especially) national defense.

    There are scenarios in which I could understand pipelines as being a good idea. But not with these players, and not for these reasons.

  9. Bill Stephens

    We on the left in the States also oppose the Keystone XL pipeline because it doesn't benefit the States at all. It just cuts across our land, threatening our environment, yet it doesn't supply us with a single drop of oil.

  10. Virgil

    Villains……Koch brothers…..Chinese government… this the first Conservative-Communist conspiracy known to man? The greatest hits of Dick Cheney and the Reds featuring Keystone?

    On a more serious note, great comic! I suspect the pipeline will eventually be authorized….though not until the last year of this Presidency or the beginning of the next…either through change of policy or less relevance of the base once we are in lame duck territory.

  11. Trenacker

    First, I’m curious when private industry has ever been held more accountable for outcomes than today. I think that many more Americans are simply beginning to question a paradigm that explicitly places profit ahead of other values, especially equality. If, in previous decades, there were fewer scandals about corporate transparency, then I suspect it was because of lack of knowledge by all parties involved, including the corporations.

    Second, in what way did BP avoid responsibility for the outcome in the Gulf?

    Third, I understand you correctly, you are asserting that the public is more concerned about the consequences of a potential oil spill than "ordinary" pollution arising from use of fossil fuels generally. If my understanding is correct, then I agree with you completely.

    Industrial accidents are scary, and we should not forget that this latest chemical spill dogs the heels of a fatal catastrophe in Quebec last year.

    I agree with J.J.'s analysis that the White House is stalling for political reasons, but would call attention less to the environmental dimensions of the problem per se than the human dimensions. I think that the opposition to Keystone is more out of concern that the pipeline could rupture rather than that it would encourage use of oil in the first place.

    Obama has worked hard to gut the coal industry, which was already suffering from the relative low in natural gas prices. To a great extent, Obama succeeded in the eastern United States, where most coal deposits were already exhausted. Accessing viable coal seams in that region is now much more expensive than strip-mining in the West. Ironically, American coal production is growing even as our use of coal for power generation is declining because of the high cost of regulation and operations.

  12. Sam


    It's opposed because the thing runs right across the Ogalla Aquifer, and we're not ruining the water supply for our food-producing regions just because Canadian oil companies want to see oil to China. Run the thing across British Columbia and build it yourselves.

  13. Les

    So, basically it's….

    "The chance of something bad happening is small…"

    "..buuuut, if something bad does happen it'll be Monumentally Horrendous."

    ..that about cover it?

  14. Sam

    Yep. After all, the chance of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was monumentally small.

  15. Jake_Ackers

    1) Build the pipeline with a catch system below it. And shut off valves every few miles.
    2) Build it around the Aquifer. IIRC isn't one of the best plans only a few miles of diversion?

    With all the tech in the world is it not possible to build a safe pipeline? It's not like you are sticking a mega-straw in the ground and hoping oil comes out. It's a such mega-tube that carries oil. Thus you control the entire process from beginning to end. Way safer than drilling is. What am I missing here?

  16. Rachel

    The last time I had read about this, it looked like they fixed the aquifer problem by changing it so that instead of being uphill from most of the aquifer, it would be downhill. Any contaminants would have to flow up to contaminate the rest of the aquifer (not happening). Supposing the pipeline did leak, there probably aren't many people living in the section of the aquifer that would be affected.

    Governments are way less smart about hydrogeology than you might think. After all, the West Virginia (coking) coal refinery was built uphill from the main water source. I think lack of trust in companies not to do a slapdash job again for a project this important is a legitimate issue. Still, it'd be better if attention were instead drawn to Republican attempts to remove most of the funding for Superfund, which holds companies that have created disaster areas responsible for environmental cleanup.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    Are you saying that the Reps want to slash the Superfund and in turn charge the companies more? Or charge the companies less bu slashing the budget of the Superfund?

    Wouldn't it work best if we just funded the Superfund but then charged the companies twice what it cost to clean up plus the economic damage to the locals?