WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2011, James Hansen, then the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, raised the alarm about an obscure oil pipeline project that appeared to be on track for approval, just as hundreds of others like it had been approved in prior years.
The 1,179-mile proposed pipeline would transport crude oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands — a particularly intensive process that produces 17 percent more emissions than conventional extraction — to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
“The U.S. Department of State seems likely to approve a huge pipeline to carry tar sands oil (about 830,000 barrels per day) to Texas refineries unless sufficient objections are raised,” Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, wrote in an essay titled “Silence Is Deadly.” “An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.” He argued constructing the pipeline and the subsequent development of the oil sands in Canada that it would enable would essentially be game over for the world’s climate.
Now, nearly four years later, Keystone XL has prompted thousands of protests in cities across the country, provoked a fierce political debate in Washington, sparked heated legal battles and galvanized a broad coalition of environmental activists in a way that few other issues have in the last generation. Both critics and supporters of the efforts to halt the pipeline say that Keystone’s significance lies beyond the 1,200 miles of steel that would cut into the heart of the country if approved.
Anti-pipeline activists seem on the cusp of notching their first significant victory in Washington. Although the Congress is expected to grant final passage to a bill approving construction of the Keystone pipeline this week — a top agenda item for the new Republican majority — President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the legislation.
“It’ll mark the first time a world leader said we’re not going to do this fossil fuel project,” said Bill McKibben, founder of the green group 350.org.
Climate change activists hope it’s the first broadside in finally turning the country away from its unrelenting consumption of fossil fuels that is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to the rise in global temperatures.
Though pipeline proponents say Keystone has functioned as an overblown political symbol whose real environmental impact is being far overstated, that cuts little ice with a environmental movement that sees itself as rejuvenated by the issue. “It’s biggest effect has been help to galvanize opposition to all kinds of infrastructure projects — against coal ports on the West Coast, against coal mines in Australia, against fracking in Poland. The whole fossil fuel resistance movement has gotten a big shot in the arm from the fight around Keystone,” said McKibben.
In 2011, Hansen’s work on Keystone XL caught McKibben’s eye at a time when the environmental movement was in retreat. Obama, having campaigned on turning back the tide on climate change in 2008, spent his political capital during his first two years in office passing the Affordable Care Act. Energy legislation seemed hopelessly dead in Congress. Even the effort to install solar panels on the roof of the White House encountered delays and resistance.
But in Keystone, McKibben recognized a political opportunity to test the administration on an issue that was squarely in its hands. Because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, TransCanada, an Alberta-based energy company, would ultimately have to gain permission from the executive branch to build its pipeline.
“If it had been Congress had been in charge of it, I don’t know that we would have invested the hope and passion, because what’s the odds of getting our Congress of doing anything,” McKibben said. “It was a decision that the president was going to make, which gave the glimmer of a chance of winning.”
In August of that year, McKibben invited activists around the country to a series of sit-ins outside the White House. Droves of demonstrators answered the call, with 1,000 eventually arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue over the course of two weeks. The scene has repeated itself again and again as Keystone has been repeatedly delayed.
A pipeline approval and permitting process that typically takes 18 months to two years has now languished for six years, with the president citing the need to fully assess the project’s climate impact.
The Wall Street Journal estimated that six oil and natural gas pipeline projects in North America, costing an estimated $15 billion and stretching 3,400 miles have been delayed, with four more encountering opposition in the wake of Keystone XL setting the precedent.
Still, there are those who argue that Keystone, while successful in energizing climate activism, is not nearly as meaningful in having an impact on climate change.
An oft-cited environmental impact assessment by the State Department, completed in January 2014, found that because the Canadian oil sands would likely be developed with or without the pipeline and find its way to market by freight or rail anyway, Keystone would not have a significant impact on carbon emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency last week challenged those conclusions, asking the State Department to account for the plummeting price of oil.
Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, still maintains that Keystone is a laughably minor problem for the environment when looking at the global landscape.
“In the big scheme of the amount of energy consumed on this planet, the pipeline is an incredible trivial matter,” he said. “I would love to see in the five years we’ve been backing and forthing on this pipeline, how many coal-fired power plants the Chinese have built — some number that dwarfs what greenhouse gas effects the pipeline could have had. If you are an environmentalist, you are treating a very minor symptom of what you think is a very big disease.”
Keystone has served as a cudgel for Republicans who have used it illustrate what they say is the Obama administration's disregard for American jobs. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month showed 41 percent of Americans polled favored the pipeline, while 20 percent were opposed and 37 percent didn’t know enough to weigh in.
The State Department review found that Keystone XL would support 42,100 jobs during construction and generate $2 billion in earnings but create only 35 permanent positions once completed.
“For the Republicans, it’s really good shorthand for how deranged … how uncoupled the environmentalists have become from reality,” McKenna said. “It’s the most ridiculous damn thing we’ve ever seen.”
Shawn Crawford, a representative for TransCanada, also said the anti-Keystone coalition is more interested in scoring shallow political points than working on realistic solutions for cutting emissions and transitioning to cleaner forms of energy. He noted that TransCanada has invested $5 billion into emissionless energy, like wind, solar and hydropower, but the technology is not there yet to immediately halt the use of fossil fuels, as environmentalists demand.
“When something becomes about symbolism and fundraising and not about solutions and not about looking at what we can do about being better, that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s not an honest discussion to say it’s either about renewable energy or fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are part of the backbone of the country.”
Environmentalists recognize that stopping infrastructure projects is not the whole solution.
“The climate crisis is clearly upon us. It’s happening more quickly and in a more severe way now than ever before,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach that is going to protect the planet. We are very focused on keeping the dirtiest fuels in the ground, we’re also very focused on promoting clean energy and energy efficiency.”
Marc Weiss, the lead for the Sierra Club’s anti-Keystone campaign, admits that the energy around Keystone XL was initially a head scratcher for him too.
“To be honest with you, my first reaction was, ‘Why is so much energy being put into this fight over this pipeline?’” he said. “Even if it’s stopped, it’s only a slice of the problem. It holds off one thing but it doesn’t move us closer to a solution.”
But he and others say they slowly came to see Keystone’s potency as an organizing tool for climate activism; the project has mobilized people around the country who have long been concerned about the climate but could not fathom a way to tackle a daunting and seemingly intractable problem.
Weiss argues that the legacy of anti-Keystone activism may be to finally have successfully challenged the dominance of deep-pocketed fossil fuel companies in Washington.
“The challenge of the climate movement is enormous. We’re up against these huge corporations who have been getting their way for a century or more,” he said. “To turn this around, you need to have something that is discrete and winnable to propel us on to the next project.”