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United States / Keystone Pipeline

Keystone XL: Our Politics Must Catch up to the Science

The Problem

On May 4, 2012, TransCanada Corporation sent an application to the State Department for a proposed pipeline that would run from the Canadian border to Nebraska. Keystone XL, if approved, would be the fourth phase of the Keystone Pipeline System (three phases are already in operation). When completed, the pipelines would carry up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Texas.

The crude oil that the pipelines would transport is tar sands oil, a dirty form of oil containing bitumen—a thick form of petroleum—which must be extracted and refined. Producing one barrel of the crude oil takes up to four barrels of water, and, as The Economist explains, “20 percent of Canada’s natural gas (a clean fuel) is used to produce oil (a dirty one).” Mining the sands also results in deforestation and “vast ponds of toxic byproducts.” Moreover, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), producing Canadian tar sands oil produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than does the average barrel refined in the United States.

The State Department’s responsibility, as explained on its website, is “to determine if granting a permit for the proposed pipeline would serve the national interest,” which involves “consideration of many factors including: energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; foreign policy; and compliance with relevant federal regulations and issues.”

But as President Barack Obama explained in a speech on climate change on June 25, 2013, these factors of national interest can only come into consideration once the environmental ones are satisfied: “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest, and our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The Debate

Since the submission of the proposal, there has been much protest against Keystone XL regarding the effects the pipeline would have on climate change. During a 30-day public comment period, which ended on March 7, 2014, the State Department received over two million comments against the proposal, and prior to the close of the comment period, seven Bowdoin students were arrested in a student-led protest opposing Keystone XL. Thirteen Bowdoin students attended the 1,200-person protest along with students from 79 other colleges, 391 of which were arrested.

There are, however, many American proponents of Keystone XL, who argue that the pipelines would allow the United States to increase its energy security and reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

“With Keystone XL, our crude imports from Canada could reach 4 million barrels a day by 2030, twice what we currently import from the Persian Gulf,” wrote Cindy Schild, a senior manager for oil sands and refinery policy programs at the American Petroleum Institute, in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Building the pipeline is an important step toward the ability to supply 100 percent of our liquid fuel needs from stable North American sources, a milestone that could be reality within 10 years.” For Schild, Keystone XL was never really a climate issue, but instead, political. But in prioritizing American energy security, Schild overlooks the potentially disastrous results mining tar sands would bring for both Alberta’s environment and the global climate.

Burton Richter, the Paul Pigott Professor in the Physical Sciences, Emeritus at Stanford University, and Director Emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, argues similarly, also in an op-ed for The New York Times. He writes, “The anti-Keystone movement is fundamentally about politics and building support for the ‘anti-something’ organizations.”

Bill McKibben, who is the founder of one such “anti-something” organization,, which works to build a global climate change movement, and is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, explains that proponents of Keystone XL miss the point: the anti-Keystone movement is about making sure that preserving a viable biosphere for ourselves and for future generations takes priority over national energy security.

“If we burned all the economically recoverable oil in Alberta overnight, then the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would rise from 400 [parts per million (ppm)] (already too high) to 540 ppm,” McKibben wrote in an email to The Bowdoin Globalist. “There are a dozen or so deposits of carbon this size around the world, and they all have to stay in the soil (just as the Amazon rainforest has to stay standing). Otherwise, you can’t begin to make the math work. And given that climate change is already well underway, there’s no margin any more.”

The Ethics

To put the effects of a rise in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 540 ppm in perspective, it is important to note that the pre-industrial value of the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm, according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations panel that periodically summarizes the current state of climate science for world governments. In the second part of the most recent edition of the report released on March 31, 2014 (Working Group II), the panel found that with current levels already at 400 ppm, the world’s food and water supplies are at risk, many animals and fish are migrating or going extinct, sea levels are rising, and storms are intensifying.

Moreover, the Working Group II report provides evidence that environmentalists like McKibben clearly understand what the political effects of exacerbating climate change would be. To be sure, then, Schild and Richter are correct in claiming that Keystone XL is a political issue; however, what they miss is that it is a political issue primarily because the disastrous effects of climate change will require political action. According to the report, “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”

The final State Department environmental impact analysis statement on Keystone XL released in January 2014, however, argues that if we do not tap into Canada’s tar sands, someone else will; thus, we might as well be the one to do so. The statement reads: “approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.” President Obama echoed this argument in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone: “it’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do.”

However, John Broome, the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a lead author on Working Group III of the IPCC, helps us understand why this kind of argument is flawed. Consider a version of Broome’s response: a man—let’s call him Barry—is traveling through the desert and comes across a soldier who is about to execute a peasant. When the soldier sees Barry, however, he offers Barry to pay him, Barry, a fee to kill the peasant. True, the peasant will die whether or not Barry takes the fee and executes the peasant. Still, Broome argues, Barry should not kill the peasant, because then Barry, rather than the soldier, will have committed the injustice. Even though Barry cannot prevent the injustice from occurring, he can withhold from committing the actual injustice. Similarly, even though TransCanada could build a pipeline to the Canadian coast instead of through the United States, exploiting its tar sands whether we want them to or not, we ought not commit the injustice of actively exacerbating climate change.

The Decision

The State Department’s review to determine if building Keystone XL is in the national interest is expected to wrap up in early May, allowing President Obama to make a decision on the pipeline. In his acceptance speech in 2008, President Obama spoke of a “planet in peril”; we know today, in 2014, the peril has come much sooner than we expected back then. President Obama, knowing what he does, cannot issue a Presidential Permit for the building of Keystone XL. Moreover, after rejecting TransCanada’s application in a few weeks, he ought to step up as a global leader and call for Canada to not tap into its tar sands regardless of what we do. As Dr. James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, put it in an op-ed for The New York Times: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

Returning to Broome’s analogy, we can even extend the story further. If we don’t accept the soldier’s fee, we do not commit an injustice by executing the peasant; however, if we do not do anything to stop the soldier from executing the peasant, eventually we will play a role in our own execution.

Game over for the climate means game over for us. Our politics must catch up to the science.