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Pulling the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline

A UTM professor offers his insights

Protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline demonstrate at the White House in August. (Photo by Josh Lopez, Wikimedia Commons)

The 2,700-kilometre, $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline – which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and along Gulf of Mexico – has become the hottest environmental issue since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. 

The problem – its route through parts of Nebraska would cross environmentally sensitive areas and possibly contaminate water for over 1 million people.  Opposition became so fierce that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration decided to delay the project so further assessment could be undertaken.  While the developer, TransCanada Corporation, has offered an alternative route it says would avoid traversing the Sand Hills area, the project is still on hold, possibly until after the U.S. federal election in November, 2012.

Professor Stephen Scharper, associate professor of anthropology at U of T Mississauga and at U of T’s Centre for Environment, discusses the forces that led the Obama administration to delay the project.   A prolific columnist and author, Scharper’s book, The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment, co-edited with U of T philosopher Ingrid Stefanovic, will be published in January by U of T Press.

Q. This project has been in the works for years.  But it’s really taken on a high profile with environmentalists and politicians, even Hollywood celebrities like Robert Redford, over the past few months.  So, when President Obama put a hold on it, exactly what happened? 

A. It’s partly the result of a really strong, concerted effort of Obama’s base to say “we do not want to buy into dirty oil.”

There was this concern under the Bush administration about increased intensity in extraction from mountaintop removal for coal in Appalachia to Deepwater Horizon-type rigs in various offshore sites.  The hope was that when Obama became president, this would shift and Obama had indicated at one point that the United States would scrutinize its oil sourcing to make sure that it held to certain environmental standards.

So when this pipeline came on the table, it was very clear that the Obama administration could nix it.  In other words, it didn’t have to go through Congressional approval in order to end the project.  The heat turned up under Obama’s feet and this was the environmental movement saying, “Look, we supported you, you indicated that you were empathetic to a lot of these causes, you gave a sign that ‘dirty oil’ would not be welcome here on U.S. soil; this is one of the dirtiest oil projects we see in North America, please don’t buy into it. And by the way, you have the power to stop it.”

This led to people like Bill McKibben (author and environmental advocate) and (Columbia University climatologist) James Hansen to basically say, “This is the line in the sand” and more than 10,000 people protesting in Washington against this project on November 6.

And I think that Obama is realizing that he is in danger of losing his base in the next election.   So he decided to have this project assessed more carefully and put it on hold.  Some people think that by putting it on hold, it might scare off the investors and the project could fall through.  I don’t know if that’s possible or not.  But it does give time for people to think about it and it seems now that it will be deferred until after the election.  So I think the Keystone pipeline got enmeshed in a political moment, as well as in the concerns of the environmental movement.

Q. You and I talked about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010.  There seems to be a buzz out there now that people, especially Americans, are more sensitized to the dangers of oil drilling and transporting oil and the environment.  Do you think that might be playing a part in this fierce opposition to the Keystone project?

A. Oh, I definitely do.  I think that this is why there was such widespread opposition to this.  Because the bromides released by certain corporate voices about how safe all these technologies are no longer gullibly believed by the public. When people saw what happened with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and they looked back and saw statements by various government and corporate officials saying, “We can handle any kind of leak,” they began to connect the dots.

There have been very many pipeline oil spills that don’t get the attention as something as flagrant as the Deepwater Horizon rig but nonetheless are quite deleterious to the environment.  So the sense that this Keystone pipeline was also going through a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska, this became a flashpoint for environmentalists.

There is a larger skepticism about some of the promises of the oil industry, about the safety of their technologies and that perhaps can be attributed to the Deepwater Horizon debacle.  Obama is sensitive to that.  He cannot just say this is a bunch of radical lefties eating their granola and walking in Birkenstocks.  This is a very widespread concern that “mainstream” people have.

And he’s been critiqued on the way he handled the Deepwater Horizon spill, so he’s still smarting there.  This Keystone pipeline really became a litmus test of his administration.  He is going to alienate the right wing, but to give him credit, I think he might be coming into an awareness of how serious these environmental issues are and that we need a full assessment of the implications here before going ahead with such a massive project.  So the result was a combination of political concerns, environmental awareness, and a general uneasiness around the trustworthiness of the oil suppliers.

Q. What does this mean for Alberta, where the pipeline originates?

The pipeline is raising world view questions in Alberta.  Alberta has almost made a faith out of oil and oil production.  Oil is the focus of their cultural and economic life.  And to go against that is to speak against a shared value.  So it is very challenging to come out and speak against this project.  It’s not just an economic or political argument, it’s a cultural one and you could almost argue a spiritual argument and that’s one reason why it’s been so difficult for people to speak against this.

Even a Toronto Star editorial piece critiqued Obama for pulling the plug on the pipeline, basically saying, “Get with it, this is going to create jobs, it’s a slap in the face of Canada.”  This is a very deep addiction we have to an oil-based economy.  And it has long tentacles throughout our society.