And we did—at least for now.
The Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to be constructed by TransCanada, would bring 900,000 barrels per day of toxic tar sands oil 1,702 miles across six states and through the Ogallala Aquifer—which supports $20 billion in food and fiber production in the U.S. annually—from Alberta, Canada to Texas refineries.
On Thursday, the State Department announced that it would be delaying its decision on whether to grant a key permit that would allow the Keystone XL pipeline project to proceed, stating that alternative routes that would avoid the Sand Hills in Nebraska must be studied in order to move forward with a National Interest Determination for the Presidential Permit. The State Department also announced that it will be examining “environmental concerns (including climate change), energy security, economic impacts, and foreign policy.” Nested in that parenthetical is a big victory for all of us who have been urging the federal government to review the project’s potential to contribute substantially to global warming pollution.
President Obama issued a statement supporting the decision noting that the permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment. Today’s decision will push back completion of the additional environmental review process until at least early 2013. Following the announcement, TarSandsAction.org. spokesperson, Bill McKibben, declared, “It’s important to understand how unlikely this victory is. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone. One month ago, a secret poll of “energy insiders” by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end…A done deal has come spectacularly undone.” Spectacularly undone, indeed.
The movement that has built up around Keystone holds lessons for climate and environmental advocates. This is not the environmentalism of the 70s. Last Sunday, I traveled with a group of friends to Washington DC where I joined thousands of other Americans to form a human circle around the White House and ask President Obama to deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit. The event was organized by TarSandsAction.org, and at the pre- and post-circle rallies, we heard from Roger Toussaint, international vice president of the Transport Workers Union, who reminded us that this is not a labor versus environment issue. Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, asked us to take heart in the fact that all races and men and women alike were joining together to fight this battle. Naomi Klein (see her recent article Capitalism vs. the Climate) passionately relayed how hard people are working in Canada to stop the pipeline and its destruction of indigenous lands, and promised that if we work together and stop it here, our Canadian compatriots would stop it there; her thoughts were echoed by her countrywoman, Maude Barlow. NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, who has for decades urged action to control greenhouse gas emissions, again called for action to reduce dangerously high levels of global warming pollution before it is too late.
Physicians for Social Responsibility warned that the human health impacts we already are experiencing from climate change are significant and growing—the World Health Organization estimates that there are 160,000 additional deaths annually around the world attributable to climate change. John Bolenbaugh, a union worker who has blown the whistle on the failed Enbridge Energy oil spill “cleanup” in Michigan, cautioned that we should not believe TransCanada’s assurances of safety, pointing out the nation’s dismal record on pipeline spills. (Enbridge, by the way, is proposing to construct the Trailbreaker pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Alberta to Portland, Maine via Montreal.)
Farmers in the region where Keystone is proposed to be constructed called on us to help them protect their land and the Ogallala Aquifer through which the pipeline will run, placing this precious water source at great risk of irreversible contamination. Cherri Foytlin of the Gulf Coast spoke movingly about just how wrongly things can go—she reported that dead wildlife, including fish, dolphins, and birds, continue to wash ashore there on a daily basis, coated with oil from the BP spill, and that fresh, wet oil is washed in on the waves, while people continue to get sick from exposure to the oil and chemicals used to control it. “Our divers who dove into the spill, “she said, “are on their deathbeds.” Representatives of the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and NRDC founder John Adams, each spoke about Keystone’s impact on the environment, and the potential for climate change to bring about the next, and sixth greatest, extinction event in the planet’s history.
The scale of the climate emergency is paralyzing for many. Now, we can actually see what climate change looks like, in the form of record-breaking Spring floods in 2010 throughout New England, a tornado that killed four people this spring in Western Massachusetts, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene (especially in Connecticut, Vermont, and Western Massachusetts), and just days ago, a record breaking late October snowstorm that left millions without power (again) as heavy wet snow snapped tree trunks and limbs, many still bearing green leaves. These weather patterns, as msnbc recently reported, are consistent with the predicted trends for our region as the climate warms, and extreme weather is already costing us billions in response costs. Everywhere people are talking about these unprecedented weather events, yet many still do not understand or acknowledge that climate change is the cause. For those who do, the realization is accompanied by a bewildering sense of both the urgency and enormity of the problem, for every aspect of our modern, energy-dependent lifestyles contributes to planet-warming pollution.
But like most very difficult problems, we will solve this one step at a time, and killing Keystone is a very good step, since it will make it that much harder for TransCanada to tap and sell one of the largest remaining oil reserves in the world. Keystone XL is the poster child for what we should not be doing. Transportation sector emissions, for example, constitute about a third of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and in New England, that sector is the fastest growing source of GHG. We need to be moving away from high carbon fuels, like tar sands, to low carbon fuels. Because it is such a dirty fuel source, according to NRDC, replacing three million barrels per day of conventional oil with tar sands oil would be equivalent to adding more than 22 million passenger cars to our roads. The environmental impact statement for Keystone (which did not adequately account for lifecycle GHG pollution) estimated that the project would emit in the range of 12-23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually—on par with the emissions from two to four coal fired power plants, according to TarSandsAction.org. Quite simply, that is obscene.
The Keystone movement is a model of what we will need to do if we are to succeed in the fight to take back our environment and restore the climate. We will need to work together, across political lines, across the borders real or imagined that often separate us, finding and holding that common thread that weaves us together: our knowledge that we are in the fight of our lives and our commitment to win it, whatever it takes. Climate change is not in the national interest.