Climate Change Showdown: Keystone XL Pipeline

Environmentalists passionately opposed to a giant pipeline that would transport crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf coast are going head-to-head with proponents of the project. Students explore the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline and the strategic questions it raises for environmentalists.

To the Teacher: 

Over the past two years, environmental activists have made the proposed expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline a critical symbolic fight in the larger struggle over how to respond to climate change.  
The 1,700-mile pipeline is designed to transport crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists charge that it would have a hugely negative impact on the environment. They are pressuring President Obama, who has the power to make a final decision about whether or not to approve the pipeline expansion, to reject the project.
This exercise is divided into two readings designed to encourage students to think critically about the debates around the Keystone XL pipeline. The first reading examines the environmental controversy surrounding the pipeline. The second reading considers a question of tactics: Is the Keystone XL pipeline the right target for environmentalists? Questions for student discussion follow each reading.



Student Reading 1:
Climate Change and the Keystone Decision

Over the past two years, environmental activists have made the proposed expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline a critical symbolic fight in the larger struggle over how to respond to climate change.  
The 1,700-mile pipeline is designed to transport crude oil that has been extracted from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, where the oil would be refined. Environmentalists charge that the pipeline would have a hugely negative impact on the environment.  They point to the risk of oil spills along the pipeline.
And they argue that building the pipeline would aid in the exploitation of a very dirty source of fossil fuels—one that produces significant carbon emissions.  Writing for The Guardian, engineering professor John Abraham notes:

Tar-sand oil is very hard to remove from the ground; it requires enormous amounts of water and energy just to get it to the surface. As a result, it releases more greenhouse gases than conventional fossil fuels. It really is the dirtiest of the dirty. Approval of the Keystone pipeline will lock us in to decades of dependency on this dirty energy at a time when we need to develop clean sources of energy.
But do the tar sands really matter that much? The answer is clearly yes. Alberta has 1.8tn barrels of oil contained within the tar sands. Extracting and burning all of that tar will cause a global temperature increase of about 0.4 Degrees C (0.7 Degrees F). That is about half of the warming that humans have already caused. For perspective, according to a recent study, the amount of oil-in-place in the Alberta tar sands is approximately seven times that of Saudi Arabia's proven reserves.
But wait, it gets worse. One of the byproducts of tar-sand extraction is a substance that is like coal ... only dirtier. That byproduct, petroleum coke (affectionately called Petcoke), emits more carbon dioxide than even coal.

President Obama has the power to make a final decision about whether or not to approve the pipeline expansion. Over the past two years, environmentalists have been pressuring him to reject the project. They were able to claim a victory in the run up to the 2012 presidential election, when the Obama administration decided to delay construction of the pipeline. As journalist Mark Hertsgaard wrote in the December 5, 2011 issue of The Nation:

Victories against climate change have been rare, so it's vital to recognize them when they happen. The Obama administration's decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline is one such victory—arguably the most important achievement in the climate fight in North America in years.
True, the administration's November 10 statements did not outright kill the 1,700-mile pipeline, which the TransCanada company wants to build to transport highly polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas coast. Yes, President Obama or his successor could try to greenlight the project in 2013, when the State Department's new review of the project is due. But that's unlikely, as TransCanada's CEO, Russ Girling, has acknowledged. The project's contracts require the pipeline to be completed by 2013, or refineries will be free to look elsewhere for supply, which Girling expects they will. 

But in 2013, two years after Hertsgaard made that prediction, the Obama administration has signaled that it will likely approve the construction of the pipeline after all. On March 1, 2013, the State Department released an "impact statement" about the project that downplayed the environmental impact of the pipeline.
According to a report in the New York Times,  the  document states that:

  • Extracting, shipping, refining and burning oil from the tar sands produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, but less than environmentalists claim
  • Canada and its oil industry partners will probably continue to develop the oil sands even if the Keystone pipeline is not built.
  • Transporting the oil in another way (rail, truck or barge) would  also have significant environmental and economic impacts

Critics, however, charge that the report was at least partially written by a company with financial ties to the Keystone XL expansion. As journalist Brad Johnson reported for on March 6, 2013:

The State Department's "don't worry" environmental impact statement for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline... was written not by government officials but by a private company in the pay of the pipeline's owner. The "sustainability consultancy" Environmental Resources Management (ERM) was paid an undisclosed amount under contract to TransCanada to write the statement, which is now an official government document.  The statement estimates, and then dismisses, the pipeline's massive carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, because, it asserts, the mining and burning of the tar sands is unstoppable.

In January 2013, fifty-three U.S. Senators signed a letter supporting expansion of the pipeline, emphasizing the jobs that the project will create. As Matthew Daly of the Associated Press reported:

A letter signed by 53 senators said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's approval of a revised route through his state puts the long-delayed project squarely in the president's hands.
"We urge you to choose jobs, economic development and American energy security," the letter said, adding that the pipeline "has gone through the most exhaustive environmental scrutiny of any pipeline" in U.S. history...
"There is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project," said the letter, which was initiated by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., and signed by 44 Republicans and nine Democrats.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben countered in a February 6, 2013 article for The Hill: [Y]ou need to know just one thing about those 53 senators—on average, they've taken $551,000 from the dirty (carbon-emitting) energy industry, 340 percent more than Keystone's opponents. It's money against science, money against the public interest, money against the future. 
The decision about the pipeline is not just up to President Obama - or oil industry lobbyists. Environmentalists have organized large protests and nonviolent actions to mobilize the public on this issue. On February 17, 2013, tens of thousands of people attended a rally in Washington, D.C. organized by Sierra, and Hip Hop Caucus, in what McKibben described as "the biggest climate rally by far, by far, by far, in U.S. history."

For Discussion: 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What are some of the reasons that environmentalists oppose the Keystone XL pipeline expansion?
  3. What were some of the arguments the 53 senators made in their letter supporting the pipeline expansion?
  4. Environmentalist Bill McKibben suggests that the senators supporting the project might be influenced by campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. What do you think of this argument? Is it reasonable to assume that campaign contributions might bias a politician's view on a given issue?
  5. What have environmental activists done to counter the influence of that industry? Do you think these actions could be effective? What other actions might activists take to build opposition to the pipeline?
  6. Based on what you have read here and elsewhere, do you think that addressing climate change is an issue that should be prioritized over, say, creating jobs? Are these options mutually exclusive?



Student Reading 2:
Is Keystone the Right Target?

As the Obama administration ponders its decision, some detractors have questioned the strategic decision by environmentalists to make the Keystone XL pipeline the focus of their efforts to combat climate change.
Simply halting the delivery of oil from Canada, critics argue, would do nothing to stop climate change, since other sources of supply would be found to meet the public's energy wants. Instead, they believe, those concerned about climate change should work to curb the demand for fossil fuel energy, so that tapping into Canadian tar sands will not be necessary in the future.
One of the most highly visible proponents of this viewpoint has been New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. On February 18, 2013 Nocera wrote:

Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world's dominant energy source for the foreseeable future, and we are far better off getting our oil from Canada than, say, Venezuela. And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small...
The assumption of the activists is that by choking off the supply of new oil sources like the tar sands, the U.S. — and maybe the world — will be forced to transition more quickly to green energy.
Can you see how backward this logic is? As Adam Brandt, an energy expert at Stanford University, pointed out to me recently, so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. "With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away," he said. "Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?" The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world's oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate. 

Arguing against Nocera's perspective, environmentalists contend that the fight against climate change need not be single-pronged. While working in the long term to decrease public demand for fossil fuels, a short-term strategy of limiting supply can be helpful in delaying the exploitation of particularly dirty energy sources.
More importantly, they note, activism requires symbolic targets. Building a political movement that can ultimately win on climate change requires using visible campaigns to build broad public support and attract participants. As writer David Roberts contended in a February 22, 2013 post at

[T]he world is not a spreadsheet. The rise of supply to meet demand is not frictionless or inevitable. If supply of the dirtiest fuels can be hindered, delayed, or blocked enough by activists, the price for those fuels will rise at the margins. That will serve as a kind of carbon price—a crude, kludged, economically suboptimal carbon price, but a carbon price nonetheless.
Now, that's no substitute for demand-side legislation. But it doesn't need to be a permanent substitute. It just needs to delay the fossil fuel juggernaut, to create some time and space for clean energy to develop and continue falling in cost.... Think of it as a guerilla war, the classic strategy of a force that's outsized and outgunned. It's picking, nettling, a horse fly biting a bull...trying to distract it and slow it down. The horse fly cannot kill the bull. But that's no reason to stop biting it!....
The goal of activism is to create a vibrant, impassioned constituency that can throw enough weight around to shift the balance of power in politics. To create such a movement you need symbolism. You need dramatic confrontations that help define a moral contrast. It's not like integrating Montgomery's bus system was going to eliminate structural racism, but the Montgomery bus boycott was a defining moment in demonstrating what was at stake and the possibility of change.

While halting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would be a major coup for environmentalists, the true success of the campaign will be measured in shifting public opinion around climate change more generally, as well as in the numbers of people willing to take action to prevent global warming in the future.

For Discussion: 

  1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2.  Why do critics such as Joe Nocera argue that the Keystone XL pipeline expansion is a bad target for environmentalists?
  3.  Why do writers such as David Roberts believe that "supply side" activism can nevertheless be effective?
  4.  What do you think? Is the Keystone XL pipeline a legitimate target for those who want to fight climate change? Explain your reasoning.
  5.  What would inspire you to take action on an issue like global warming? Have you seen instances of environmental degradation that have motivated you to join in efforts to protect the natural world?