Two people named Redford have sharply differing opinions about Barack Obama’s decision to block the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would have run from Alberta down to Texas. The obscure Redford (Alison, the Premier of Alberta) is “bitterly disappointed,” while the famous Redford (Robert, the Hollywood celebrity) is ecstatic. He calls it “a victory of historic proportions” against “one of the most nightmarish fossil fuel projects of our time.” Whose side you’re on may say a lot about where you live and who you voted for.
For environmentalists, the decision is a long-overdue down payment on Mr. Obama’s campaign promise to wean the U.S. from its dependency on oil. But it’s much more than that. It’s a stand against the rape and pillage of the planet by greedy corporate interests that have politicians in their pockets. These environmentalists don’t really care about safety matters such as oil leaks or possible pollution of the aquifers. It’s the oil sands they hate – the water-gulping, forest-devastating, carbon-spewing monster that’s despoiling Mother Earth.
The hero and spiritual leader of the crusade to stop Keystone is a mild-mannered writer named Bill McKibben – like Mr. Obama, a graduate of Harvard who’s spent his life in the cultural world of upper-middle-class progressivism. He got his start writing short pieces for The New Yorker. His best-known book is the immensely influential The End of Nature, an eloquent polemic arguing that human influence has irrevocably altered the planet for the worse. Like David Suzuki, his comrade-in-arms, Mr. McKibben believes we have a moral imperative to tread more lightly and burn less fossil fuel. He lives in rural Vermont and, according to a sympathetic profile in this Sunday’s Boston Globe magazine, has a wood-fired hot tub.
A few years ago, Mr. McKibben decided he had to start organizing. So he founded a group called 350.org, whose name is based on the claim by climate scientist James Hansen that any atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that exceeds 350 parts per million is unsafe. (It’s currently about 385 ppm.) They’ve called the proposed pipeline a “1,500-mile fuse to the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.” If it gets built, they warn, “it’s game over for the planet.”
Or maybe not. In the larger scheme of things, Keystone isn’t that big a deal. Energy expert Vaclav Smil says the entire Keystone system would move just over 6 per cent of current U.S. crude oil consumption. The new pipeline would add just 1 per cent to the quarter of a million kilometres of existing oil pipelines that criss-cross North America. “Why, if pipeline safety is a key concern, have we not seen waves of civil disobedience?” he asked in a recent commentary. As for the biggest objection to Alberta’s “dirty oil” – the fact that it produces more carbon dioxide than other oil sources – he says that, in 2010 alone, China’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 780 million tons. That’s more than 40 times the annual emissions of all the oil that would flow through Keystone.
The other side is not exactly a hyperbole-free zone, either. “The President is selling out American jobs for politics,” thundered House Speaker John Boehner, who also warned that, by cancelling the pipeline, Mr. Obama is effectively exporting energy security to China. But the pipeline’s job-creation potential has been considerably exaggerated. As for selling Canadian oil to China, we’ll be into the next decade before it happens (if ever).
In fact, the value of the Keystone pipeline as a symbol is much higher than the value of the pipeline as a pipeline. The only reason it’s an issue is that it crosses the U.S. border, meaning that it must be approved by the State Department. For this reason, it has locked Mr. Obama and the Republicans into a high-stakes political game. Mr. Obama first tried to boot the decision past the election. Then the Republicans used legislative sleight of hand to force a decision on him; many hoped he’d turn it down, thus giving them a big election stick to beat him with.
Mr. Obama says that he made a technical decision, based on the fact there wasn’t enough time to review the environmental impact, and that TransCanada Pipelines can try again. He figured he was both shoring up his environmental creds and giving Republicans the finger. But the Republicans’ calculation is correct: Politically, he handed them a win. In states where people have built their livelihoods on manufacturing and resource extraction, folks don’t much care for environmentalists who went to Harvard. And they care far more about jobs than they do about global warming.
These same cultural dynamics will also shape pipeline politics in Canada, pitting the urban elites of Toronto and Vancouver against the kind of people who vote for Stephen Harper. But aboriginal groups (and land claims) probably will be the biggest obstacle to pipeline development in Canada.
Meantime, a new energy boom has broken out in the United States. As companies tap into vast new reserves of shale oil, thousands of new jobs – far more than the pipeline promised – are being created in Texas, North Dakota and Ohio. On Tuesday, the day before the Keystone decision, the President’s Council on Jobs called for aggressive “all-in” expansion of gas, oil and coal production.
As for Keystone, much of it probably will get built anyway – just not, for now, the bit that goes over the border. Harvard may have won the battle. But the heartland is winning the war.