The Keystone sideshow

By pushing to win Keystone battle, environmentalists could lose the war on climate change

by Tamsin McMahon

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

News that TransCanada Corp. planned to build a $7-billion pipeline to haul more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to Texas first began appearing in local papers in McCone County, Montana, in the spring of 2008. At the time it stirred little debate. Then-governor Brian Schweitzer called the project “a big dog” that would boost local property tax revenue by nearly $60 million a year. Locals mused about how it could bring 30 new jobs and enough money to pay for a new elevator in the local courthouse. They compared it to the last time TransCanada built a pipeline through the area, the Northern Border natural gas line that went online with little fanfare in 1982. “The odds are extraordinarily high that this will come to fruition,” Evan Barrett, Montana’s director of economic development told reporters in 2008. “We don’t see any speed bumps.”

These days, calling the intensely politicized debate over the Keystone XL a speed bump would be a gross understatement. It held centre stage in the last presidential election and has become the pet cause of celebrity environmentalists, who have joined protestors to form human chains around the White House. A Duke University graduate walked the length of the proposed pipeline route from Fort McMurray, Alta., to Port Arthur, Tex., and now has a book deal. The latest high-profile activist to join the anti-pipeline movement is California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who this month said he would fund an anti-pipeline candidate for John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts.

For the environmental movement, particularly in the U.S., the Keystone XL has become a potent and unifying symbol in the war against climate change: a foreign company slicing a 1,900-km scar through America’s heartland to export its oil to other foreign governments. “Environmentalists clamour and pray for issues as symbolic as this pipeline,” wrote John Coggin, editor of International Policy Digest.

The problem is, as a growing number of scientists and environmentalists are pointing out, the benefits to the environment of cancelling the pipeline are themselves largely symbolic and that by pushing to win the battle over Keystone, environmentalists could help lose the war over climate change.

In an editorial in January, the scientific journal Nature urged President Barack Obama to approve the pipeline, arguing that cancelling the project won’t stop the oil sands from being developed and that some oil produced in California was more damaging to the environment than the Alberta bitumen, a fact ignored by activists. “It’s a shame that a one-metre-in-diameter pipe is suddenly having to wear all of the sins of the carbon economy,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told Reuters. “You know, it’s not clubbing seals with child labour.”

Despite the extended delay in approving the pipeline, Alberta’s oil sands have continued to develop, causing a stockpile of crude inventories at the storage hub in Cushing, Okla., and pushing down the price of Canadian oil. U.S. refineries have benefited from the steep discount. Valero Energy Corp., which operates more than a dozen refineries, has seen its stock price nearly double over the past year thanks in part to surging profits from discounted Canadian crude.

Meanwhile, rail traffic carrying crude shot up nearly 50 per cent in 2012 even as analysts warned that rail was a far more dangerous method of transportation than pipeline. The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, calculated that transporting oil by rail was 34 times more likely to cause a spill compared to shipping it the same distance by pipeline. Irving Oil’s refinery in Saint John, N.B., the second largest in North America, imported more than five million barrels of crude from the U.S. last year by train. Earlier this month, a train carrying 96 carloads of North Dakota crude to Saint John derailed into the Penobscot River in eastern Maine.

“The Keystone pipeline is not the sine qua non of environmental protection,” says Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant and a former White House climate aide to the Clinton administration. If President Obama wanted to dramatically cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, Bledsoe says, he would approve the pipeline and, at the same time, announce new environmental regulations for coal-fired power plants, which are far more polluting than the oil sands. “The emission reductions you gain from regulating existing power plants are many times greater than those that might accrue from the [denial] of the Keystone pipeline,” he says. “Orders of magnitude more.”

Power plants account for roughly 67 per cent of U.S. pollution (compared to about 14 per cent in Canada). Two coal-fired power plants owned by a regional utility in Georgia emit nearly as much pollution as the entire Alberta oil sands, according to figures from environmental agencies in Canada and the U.S. And in Canada, Saskatchewan had the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any province last year thanks in part to its dependence on coal. Meanwhile, the country’s top polluter, TransAlta’s 1970s-era coal-fired Sundance power plant near Edmonton, emits the pollution equivalent to about a third of the existing oil sands operations—but that plant receives scant attention from environmental protesters.

With the world’s largest coal reserves, the U.S. will remain a major player in the global coal trade. The industry is proposing to build six new coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists largely credit coal with killing proposed cap-and-trade regulations during Obama’s first term, says Mary Anne Hitt, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. The legislation found stiff opposition from Democrats in traditional coal-mining areas along with the railway industry, which traditionally makes half its profits from coal, and coal-hungry utilities in the southeast. “Most of the postmortem analysis on the climate bill was that it was because of the coal lobby,” she says.

The problem with focusing solely on Keystone XL is that it does nothing to deter demand for fossil fuels like coal and oil, say industry experts. Nor will blocking Keystone stop oil sands development. “It will increase costs a bit, so maybe a little more oil stays in the ground,” says Andrew Holland, a senior fellow for energy and climate with the American Security Project. “But it will be at the margins.” If activists were serious about finding the most effective way to combat climate change, say several environmental analysts, they would push for a price on carbon, developed jointly between Canada and the U.S., that would put a premium on all carbon-intensive fuels, not just oil sands crude.

Despite Keystone’s role as a flashpoint for the discussion over climate change, its true appeal among environmentalists is as a political tool, says Holland. In pushing Obama to veto the pipeline, activists have found one of the few environmental issues that can successfully make an end run around America’s often slow-moving political system. “It’s arbitrary that we’re choosing to go after the tar sands versus the Venezuelan heavy oil area,” he says. “For the environmentalists this is about the fact that you don’t have to convince a majority of 435 members of the House and 100 senators. You don’t have to convince the American people or the Canadian government. You just have to convince the President.”

That may be the real symbolism of the pipeline: For an environmental movement desperately in need of a victory, Keystone represents an easy win—even if it’s a loss for the environment.




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The Keystone sideshow

  1. Right now Obamas biggest obstacle to actually get something done are his own supporters by choosing to die on their swords on this file they are knee capping him – should the yankees tell us so sorry we won’t let you get world price they basically guarantee harper ammunion to use this as leverage to go east, west and north as fast as he wants to right now and not dance anymore – so the results is more oil coming out of the sands faster and gives ammmunition for harper to batter his opponents even more increasing the likelihood of his getting another majority because all it would take is one pipeline to get world price and we would be sitting in catbird seat – what a lot of people don’t realize becuase of their ignorance of our history is that it has been official american policy to prevent canada from exploiting our resoucres globally bypassing the yanks – ever since 1812they want to control the flowe and in fact was one of the reason for them invading us to begin with manifest destiny is a real attribute of the yanks and we ignore this to our peril – if Obama forces Harper to move even closer and faster to china, India and other asian countries he weakens his own nation and strenghtens ours – just how it is – in fact if he refuses to sign harper can then leverage this as an all out national priority and sign the paper to build pipleines himsef without any consultation with anyone – he could ignore the first nations and provinces who would then get nothing and ultimately have no say as he has the power to do so it is a clear federal responsibility and doesn’t require anything except him signing off – he can always start building the pipe and the not run for re-election and go down as one of the greatets ever for making us wealthier and freer – this would drive left wing nut s crazy :)

    • I don’t know where you learned your history, but you should demand your money back.

        • Utter rubbish.

          Cons ‘read in’ anything they want to for a good conspiracy.

          • obvioulsy you didn’t even read the paper – so I will provide a synposis = http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/03/the_whitewashed_war – when you read pillage british resources that means canadian ones – - if you have the capacity to get beyond your daily dose of kool aid you might learn soemthing

          • Not from you I won’t

      • maybe you need a history lesson

        • Noop

          • What exactly is that word and how do you pronounce it?

  2. I’d be quite willing to give you very good odds that if you took a poll of everyone lined up to protest over the Keystone XL pipleline that you could count the number of people who either had solar panels on their roof, invested in windturbines or other green technology, or drove a pure electric or hybrid vehicle, on one hand. They’re all show and no go. They all like to make a lot of noise that in the end won’t make one bit of difference after it’s all over and done with. Hypocrites.

    • This lame straw-man argument is all show and no go. You have absolutely no idea what these protesters have done to reduce their carbon footprints. You are making huge ridiculous assumptions.

      Environmentalists who are fighting Mordor are also fighting coal. This article’s premise the two are mutually exclusive is a fallacy.

      • So Ron,
        Please tell us if you have solar panels on your roof, what model of electric or hybrid car you drive, or what clean energy organization you subscribe to. Please don’t lie about it either. You’re all just a bunch of whining phonies who don’t practice what you preach. I was on the board of executives of the Northern Alberta Solar Energy Society for two years, wrote a few articles for them, manned their booth at Earth Day festivals, and attended and spoke at many symposiums on the subject over the years, it takes more than just a few misplaced token gestures, like people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, to make any real difference.

      • Last year Canadians bought 235 electric cars out of 1.67 million gasoline cars. To me the lack of interest is a real indicator of the environmental movement’s dedication.

        • Just to follow up on your point. My associate and I are trying to launch a solar car project here in Edmonton. When I posted an ad in the Activities/Community section on Kijiji, looking for people who’d like to be part of the team, I got 0 responses. When I also posted another ad in the same section under the title ‘The Green Team,’ looking for people who’d be interested in developing some green technology alternatives here in the city, I got 0 responses.

          • Does this suggest to you that either a) people find such projects not cost-effective, or b) they’re fed up with the “environmentalist” actions? Myself, I fall under category b.

        • Electric cars are great, but where does the electricity come from…? Oh right, coal-fired power plants… You have to focus on the entire chain of energy consumption, not just the end use.

      • Environmentalists are fighting coal…perhaps but are Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and the countless celebrities that have come out in a very vocal way against this pipeline? I don’t recall hearing about Robert Redford buying whole page ads in major newspapers warning about the evils of coal. Let’s face it, Canada and the oilsands are low hanging fruit. Why alienate your own people when you can pick on a few Albertans that nobody, not even the ROC cares about?

  3. Great article. It’s too bad the US has been playing politics with this pipeline for so long, as there could have been real progress made. I’m really getting tired of these so-called “environmentalists” (who, strangely, are shills for Big Coal) holding up real progress for years, all in an effort to win some type of symbolic concessions that do nothing for the country or the economy. It’s really just a massive waste of time.

    • Environmentalists are most certainly not shills for “Big Coal.” Get a grip…

      • If they’re against KXL, they’re for Big Coal. The energy’s gotta come from somewhere. I’ll grant you they may not realize it because most of them are just attempting to be fashionable, but the results are the same.

        • Talk about fashionable, last year the greenies tried to label Albertans ‘bitumen traffickers’. They were using it frequently for awhile but it never stuck, so now you don’t hear it anymore. Greenies are just such hipsters.

  4. Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: if the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no’.

    • Yea, that little detail is rather revealing yes?

  5. Any party but Harper’s would’ve had no problem with the pipeline. They’ve dumped Kyoto and demonstrated such an anti-science anti-enviornment anti-nature agenda nobody trusts them nor would if their lips came notarized. Dion, ironically, proposed a carbon tax in ’08 that would’ve made this project remarkably green and saved Alberta billions in revenue. As the Irish are learning (and the Icelanders) who you vote for has consequences.

    • Carbon taxes have always been designed to strip revenue from Alberta.

    • I trust them.

      And there is no way Dion would have won with his carbon tax, people do not vote for tax increases. They vote for other reasons, so you have to spring a new tax on them after you’ve won the election. Dion was living on another planet.

  6. This article doesn’t even consider the notion that upgraded tar could be refined closer to home, rather than adding the risk of long range transportation accidents to the cost of production, refining, and distribution. I’m not convinced in the least that pipeline companies or shipping companies are capable of either technically handling or costing those risks, when it comes to transporting dilbit.

    • Refining is done close to the markets, not close to the source. Kitimat is a viable location for a refinery since it has a blue-water year-round port.

      • They aren’t putting a refinery in Kitimat. They’re putting the dilbit onto freighters.

        • A refinery has been suggested for Kitimat, but in any case it makes no sense whatsoever to refine vastly more product than we can consume, unless we can export it. And that means refining it at export points on blue-water year-round harbours.

          • You are right about a refinery in Ktimat. That subject was in the news, not all that long ago.

            What was said sometime back is. China refuses to have the oil refined in Canada. China is established at the oil sands. They can extract the oil very cheaply, with their own skilled labor. Chinese resource workers earn, $800 per month. Petro-China said they could build the pipeline to Ktimat, very quickly and very cheaply, again bringing their own workers. They can carry the Bitumen in their own massive tankers. They can refine the oil again, with their lower wages. They also said. It was very expensive to refine oil in Canada. The oil has to be heated, and in this cold climate, that was far too costly.

            Along with that story. Putin of Russia signed a deal with China. They will give China all the oil they need. China could sell the very cheap oil sands oil, for a very nice profit. China would lead in oil sales, and sell the oil by the Chinese yaun, instead of by the dollar. China said. They expected to be the worlds currency, within a decade.

            The other rumor is. The U.S. has found a huge source of oil in their own country. They don’t really need our oil. If they did take our oil, it would be for resale. However, the Bitumen is very dirty and toxic. Obama has had more than a few pipe bursts, the disaster in the Gulf he had to contend with. Now a C.P. train derailed, carrying oil in the U.S. Climate change is still being blamed on fossil fuel. Obama will be damned whichever road he takes. He will likely choose the path of the least resistance.

    • I think I would rather have a crude oil pipeline go past my house instead a pipeline full of jet fuel.

      • I don’t know what this false duality has to do with the inherent difficulty of cleaning up spilled bitumin.

        • Gasoline and jet fuel in particular are highly flammable. He’d rather not have his house burned to cinders.

          • Still a false duality. You need new material.

  7. Tar sands mines tear up carbon-rich soil, releasing carbon pollution equivalent to millions of new cars on the road. http://clmtr.lt/cb/qA20XD

    • The more cars the better, I say.

  8. Those who speak out for the environment simply want things done sanely and in a way that protects our resources. Everything is always presented as black or white. Mine or don’t mine, drill or don’t drill. That’s not the case. There is no reason we can’t develop our resources and protect the environment at the same time. It’s just lazy, short sighted thinking that says you either rape everything or else we all starve. We can have it all, we’re just too myopic to go for it, and instead we do what we’re told, usually by organizations that are designed to keep us dependent on their offerings and otherwise placid.

  9. Interesting Telling that there’s been absolutely no coverage of the Pegasus pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in Macleans blogs. It happened five days ago, BTW.

  10. As I look out my window this morning and see the ground covered in snow, I wouldn’t mind a little global warming.

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